The Financial Hazards of Modern Day Pawnbrokers: What New Jewelry Collectors Need to Know

I’d like to share a few stories about my experiences with retail stores and pawnbrokers over the decades. I want to especially warn young people who may have recently acquired or inherited valuables from a deceased relative, friend or spouse. Your lack of real knowledge about what you have just inherited may cost you dearly if you take the collection to a local pawnbroker. PLEASE be forewarned, before you throw away rare or very special Native American made jewelry or artifacts by taking them down to the local  wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing to assess.

I can already hear the groans of many reading this article who realize they may have been ‘taken’ by a pawnbroker at some point. Don’t feel too foolish, as it has happened to many many of us through the years, myself included.

It’s 2017. I’d estimate about 7-8 out of every 100 pawn brokers in the United States either know, or care to know the basic facts about Native American old pawn jewelry and gem grade real turquoise. These men and women are a different breed of people. They are NOT like the popular TV celebrities over at “Pawn Stars” in Las Vegas – who have exceptional 40+ years experience and in-depth knowledge of gold, silver, old pawn, and other precious Native-made objects of art.


I routinely go in and out of all kinds of retail establishments. I usually visit more retail stores in a week than many people do in a year. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve pretty much seen and suffered through it all as a shopper, including several times a year that I catch shoplifters while I am also browsing items. This mostly happens just because I am AWAKE whereas the clerks are mostly either: sleeping with head on counter, gaming on a smart phone, secretly stealing themselves on the sly, out back taking a 30 minute smoke break, spending 45 minutes talking with a friend in the back of the store, or just standing there in the classic pose of stupefied boredom which comes with the territory of being a store clerk, and not having a boss around to tell you what to do next when you work a shift alone. I’d estimate that on the Oregon Coast alone millions are lost every year due to sheer retail idiocy, that moment when a good solid customer with CASH in their pocket to spend just throws up their hands and walks out the door, having exhausted all efforts to rouse a stupefied clerk into being interested in helping them.


When I detect a shoplifter I usually watch to make sure I clearly SEE them putting items in their coat, pants pockets or large tote, then I make my way to see the clerk about it. The clerks are always grateful, but if they are timid, they may just let the offending thief walk right out the door, as they fear to confront them. I’ve had this happen too.

But the typical pawnbroker is a different entity. As soon as you walk through the door you are being ‘cased’ from afar. It all happens in a millisecond: your clothes, shoes, rapid glances out to the parking lot to see if they can see the car you drove up in. An instant calculation is made as to whether it’s worth their time to even speak or get up and walk your way. 90% of the time they don’t. If you are a female, 90% of the time you are immediately ignored, as they assume you have nothing valuable to pawn, and cannot afford to buy what they sell. I can chuckle with certainty as I recall the 100s of times I have walked into, and out of – a pawn shop – without spending a cent of the several thousand dollars in cash I had in my pockets because I was ‘assessed’ in just such a way and dismissed instantly as unimportant. These brokers would weep if they knew how much money they had lost by smugly assuming I was just an unimportant lady wandering their store, waiting for someone to speak, move, show signs of intelligent life, or greet me. They will never know.

One day recently I walked into a pawn shop in the south coast region and was instantly confronted with the typical male reaction to a woman entering the store: the quick glance, the mental dismissal, the return to the day-long jawing session the owner was having with two Oregon coast old timers who were sitting on wooden chairs, propped up in front of his jewelry cases like permanent fixtures, gathering dust. It was going to be impossible for me to even get near those jewelry cases without making somewhat of a little scene, that scene being a woman literally stepping over the stretched out legs of the two grandpas. Looking to the owner for some sense of “Can you help me out here?” I noticed he had gone right back to the conversation. I had already been dismissed as irrelevant. I actually walked out of the store, did some other shopping nearby, then returned 20 minutes later to the same scene. No one had moved. I was being mentally dismissed again. I actually wondered to myself why this guy bothered to own this place.

“HI THERE,” I called out loud enough that one of the old men knocked forward to the floor in his chair and looked around to see who had entered. I got the feeling that ‘customers’ were quite the rarity and I already knew EXACTLY why. Instantly 3 sets of eyes now trained on me with the quizzical look of “What could she possibly want? Can’t she see we’re talking here?”

“I’d like to have a look at some of that Native American jewelry you have there in your cases, but I can’t get to it without crawling over two sets of outstretched legs.”

I had stated this fact with enough authority that a mad scramble to un-entangle legs, stand up, remove chairs and remove themselves to the back of the room now was taking place while I made my way through and studied the case which had the nicest items in it. I had already done my own assessing from 20 feet away. I stepped to the case and glanced at what was on the top shelf for about 10-15 seconds then looked over at the disheveled clerk.

“Are you the owner?” I queried.

“Yes, yes, what can I do for you?” He seemed genuinely ALARMED that I might actually be a customer who wanted to buy something in that case.

“None of these items is priced,” I replied. How can I buy anything if I don’t know what the price is?” I stood there looking at him, just waiting to see what he had to say next.

“Well to tell you the truth I don’t really know that much about any of it” he stammered, then well knowing how foolish he sounded, he added, “It all just came in a few days ago and I haven’t looked any of it up yet…”

“Looked it up yet?” “Where? On the internet?” I asked.

By now he was slowly making his way toward me with a key to the case. He didn’t look too happy about it. As our conversation unfolded I learned he knew NOTHING about Native American jewelry, whether new or vintage, cared less, but had offered the young woman [ he described her as a young 20 something cowgirl ] who brought in the stellar collection of 30-40 pieces a mere $750.00 cash  – for all of it. Total.

To her own tragic loss, she had not only trusted this ignorant fellow to tell her what the collection was worth, but when he offered her a paltry sum for a museum-quality rare antique jewelry collection, most likely accumulated over many decades, she had innocently accepted his cash offer, as she herself knew nothing about the collection. Why should she? She had trusted that a pawnbroker would KNOW what the stuff was really worth and tell her the real value of what she had.

And she was thus the blind trusting the ‘even more blind’, a broker who was routinely dishonest, had not even cared enough to research the pieces, and pay the seller a reasonable wholesale price. If she had no background in this kind of thing, she would have been depending on the pawnbroker to tell her what it was worth. She had trusted him. And therein lies the fatal error.

I stood there glancing at the collection, doing mental math, while he explained everything. I was frankly incredulous. I had already sized up the LOT as being worth at least $8,500.00 on the low end, and $16,500 at least – on the high end, more than 20 times what this man had paid her.

In a proper brick and mortar auction or retail setting, it could have garnered much more. I hadn’t yet handled any of the pieces to look at them with a jeweler’s loupe. The young lady who brought it all in had literally been robbed by this man, and he was standing there openly crowing about it to me, all but beating his chest, while glancing over my shoulder now and then to grin at the two grandpas who were hovering in the back of the store, shocked into silence. For once.

Learning all of this, my desire to buy ANYTHING from this man evaporated right then and there. To add insult to injury from our first and last meeting, he had all of the collection out in his cases, and not a single piece was priced. I asked him several times why he had no prices on the items. All he could do was make inane excuses. It was going to be both ethically and practically impossible to do business with this man. As I left his store, he was actually laughing at me, out loud, for being so concerned at how badly he had robbed the young woman who brought the collection in. Suffice it to say, the back of my head as I walked out the door, was the last thing he would ever see from me. He never knew I had several thousand dollars in cash in my pocket, which I now intended NEVER to spend with him.

This sort of thing happens all the time with antique and old pawn jewelry. If you really want to get the best price for what you own, spend some time researching its value. NEVER trust a pawnbroker – ANY pawnbroker – to pay you even a fair wholesale price for rare Old Pawn.

You might be saying, “Wait … this doesn’t even make sense!” Why the name “old pawn” – if one cannot trust a modern day pawnbroker to evaluate it?

That’s an excellent point. The pawnbroker of the old 19th and 20th century southwest were an entirely different breed of persons than today’s greasy cheats who routinely pay customers about 1/20th of what their valuables are worth on the retail market: not ½ or even 1/4th they mostly pay people 1/20th.  I know this of certainty. I’ve had it happen to me in the early days in my trade.

If a ring is worth $100.00 retail, expect to be paid $8 to $20 for it. If a cuff is worth $200.00 – expect a typical pawnbroker to struggle and argue to pay you even $30 for it. You would do just as well to just donate the jewelry to a worthy cause, or put it away in a bank safety deposit box for 10 years and wait.

The old southwest, by contrast, was dotted with REAL functioning trading posts which were both practical and necessary economic units, helping Native Americans and ranching families make ends meet when times were difficult or harvests were meager. There are still a few old timers who run their modern retail trades in much the same manner, and they will be quick to tell you that they ARE NOT pawnbrokers. They are merchants trading in real valuables and collectibles. They buy, sell, appraise and trade these items. They do not FLEECE innocent customers who come in looking to get a fair wholesale price or a quick verbal appraisal.

Where should you go online to try to get an assessment of what your item[s] are worth?

There are hundreds of retail websites that sell new Native American made jewelry. Those sites might not be too helpful if your items are Old Pawn or antique. and are both pretty good sources for some pricing. Ebay is a very old, now very troubled early-internet-era auction site which has been plagued for decades by crime, fraud, extortion attempts, stolen jewelry fronting, and other problems, all well documented. But on a day to day basis, you can at least scroll through some of the completed “Buy It Now” listings to see what other sellers had asked for their items which are similar to yours.

Skip the auctions entirely when looking for retail price estimates, as up to 70% of Ebay auctions do not reflect what a piece of antique jewelry is actually worth, only what someone bid at that moment when the auction closed. Ebay auctions are also renown for being ‘questionable’ as to how and which winning bid ultimately gets the item. Aggressive buyers & bidders will even get friends or peers to ‘bid up’ mediocre pieces to inflate the final winning bid. Again, when it comes to Ebay: beware. That entire situation is just murky.

Beginning in November 2017, simple written appraisals of most pieces will cost $20 per item, prepaid via Paypal. Click here for details. Email me 2-3 good high resolution IN FOCUS photos and I am glad to have a look. Critical appraisal factors will always include:

Condition, Condition, Condition! {It might be rare but if it looks like it’s been run over by an 18 wheeler, it’s worthless. ‘Condition is at least 60% of pricing when appraising.}

Type of precious metals used and gram weight

Type of gems and their overall quality, condition, rarity and whether specially treated or not

Rarity of that item’s type – it’s historic provenance, i.e. how many are to be found, how few, etc

Hallmarks and stamping

What tribe or specific designer made the piece and that person’s reputation

Complexity of design, execution, originality, difficulty of the final rendering and finishing

Any old pawn piece will usually fall into a certain standard price range: Old pawn rings, for example, can run from $20-35 up to hundreds or even thousands in value, depending on a broad variety of factors. See above. Never accept just one person’s opinion – and that includes me. Always try to compare and contrast price estimates from at least 3 sources in looking to price what you have to sell.

I now offer formal written appraisals with all the documented research for $35 an hour, with a two-hour minimum. If I cannot ultimately ascertain the proper retail value of a very rare item, I will decline the appraisal and no charge will be rendered. Allow 7-10 days for any written appraisal work. Documents will be delivered via email as attachments. I can postal mail paper documents upon request.

A Plethora of Modern Day Fools Abound Behind Every Pawn Broker’s Counter

About 4 years ago another Oregon Coast pawnbroker in Coos Bay whose store is just down the block from ‘Mr. Cheats’ told me that “…we don’t carry old Native American squash blossom necklaces because no one wants or collects them.”

I just stared at him, quietly marveling. And so it goes.

Forget about Rick Harrison [ Pawn Stars on History Channel ] and the modern day myth of the well informed, honest, decent pawn broker. He is the only one left, as far as I have discovered. And he still employs Chumlee, so what does that tell you?

I don’t ever want to see happen to ANYONE what happened to the young cowgirl who trusted the pawnbroker whom I later had the misfortune to meet myself. Of course, there will always be exceptions. Sure, there are some very good honest reputable pawn shops out there, but they still mostly have little or no knowledge of Native American Old Pawn.

If you are looking to find the retail value of your old pawn collector jewelry, PLEASE just drive right past the local pawnbroker, and choose another research option instead. I hope this article has helped!


Author’s Update: Several days after my jaw-dropping visit to meet ‘Mr. Cheats’, as I now like to call him, I relayed the story to a trusted peer who handles hundreds of thousands of dollars in old pawn jewelry monthly. As soon as I told him what store it was and named the owner as “Tom” he immediately nodded his head and shared a little bit of further insight on the matter. It turns out that “Tom” is a lifelong opiate addict himself, and is well known among other retailers as a cheat who will take in stolen goods from other drug addicts with no questions asked.  All in all this guy’s bad karma has spewed everywhere in town. I think if more people knew that the man behind the counter is often a junkie himself, they would think twice about doing business with that store. If you choose to sell your collectibles to a pawn broker expect to practically give the stuff away. Decide to go a different route and you may get a much better outcome.

October/November 2017 Founder’s Update: East Coast USA Buying Trips

My Current Mission:  Save the REAL Fine Estate and Native Made Jewelry!

Cluelessness and all-out stupidity regarding collector jewelry now rules the day on the American east coast. I have met with dozens of east coast pawn brokers, some who have been in business for decades, who LITERALLY don’t even know what a “hallmark” means. Others with the same or even worse ignorance of value and worth are going into business overnight to cash in on the public’s ignorance of the real value of these precious, hard to find, REAL Native made items. Pawn brokers on the east coast are selling inferior, busted up, damaged Native Made jewelry, very common pieces, for $60 per ounce silver bullion prices, more than 5 times what the current price of silver bullion is. [As of 10.15.17 silver is trading in the range of $17.50 per ounce.] 

Again, I have to caution: buyer beware. Buying inferior, low grade Native made jewelry from some of these pawn brokers is a waste of your money. I’ve discovered jaw-dropping ignorance on the part of most east coast pawn brokers, along with having my gut flip over as they proudly recite their tales of the huge tubs of vintage Native made jewelry that they are shipping back to precious metals refineries monthly to be MELTED DOWN AS SCRAP. Horror of horrors: this is actually happening. And it is happening EVERYWHERE.

One gold and silver buyer finally felt so guilty about what he was doing to make a cheap buck on metals, he actually stopped the sordid practice, and confessed to me later that before he stopped accepting fine estate jewelry for “scrap metal prices” he had shipped hundreds of large 2 by 3 foot sealed tubs of the jewelry back to metals refineries, melting down more than a half million dollars in rare estate jewelry into a mere $50,000 in re-smelted gold and silver. I could have sobbed my eyes out. The idiocy of people is often beyond me.

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