Some objects have such enduring beauty and energy that they evoke a visceral reaction. Rolls-Royce's "Spirit of Ecstasy" hood ornament — or mascot, as the British call them — is one such emblem. First sculpted by Charles Sykes in the early 20th century, it was designed to dazzle. The oversized modern reproduction brought to the 2014 Chicago ANTIQUES ROADSHOW event clearly did just that.

The owner of the piece had recently purchased it, along with another ornament originally designed by René Lalique, for $6,500 at a New York boutique while on a business trip. She said she was under the impression, based on what the dealer told her, that the large sculpture was a period prototype of "The Spirit of Ecstasy" that Sykes sculpted for Rolls-Royce. But decorative-arts appraiser Nick Dawes had to deliver the news that from details in the pieces' casting and bases, both appeared to him to be modern reproductions. He estimated the two objects' more realistic decorative value to be in the neighborhood of $2,000 retail — nothing to sneeze at, but much less than the guest had paid.

Expert Advice: Don't Be Rash, Know the Terms & Get a Bill of Sale

After the Chicago event, we followed up with Dawes and asked him to share some advice from his long career in the business, in hopes of helping antiques shoppers who might be considering making a big purchase. Here's what Dawes had to say:

Most dealers and auctioneers are honest and forthright, but some will make up stories in order to make a sale, so as the saying goes, if a story or a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

  1. Be careful of making a big impulse buy. Sometimes you do need to act quickly to secure something you're interested in, but be wary of acting rashly. ANTIQUES ROADSHOW experts always check with a colleague before giving values and other details on air, and you should do the same whenever possible. It pays to reach a friend with experience in the business that you trust — a seasoned dealer or auctioneer, for example, and most professionals you have a relationship with will offer their advice free of cost or obligation, providing there is no conflict of interest.

  2. Discuss the terms of sale, including the return policy, before making the purchase. It is perfectly acceptable for a seller to say,

  • "You're welcome to return the item for a full refund within a prescribed period of time."
  • "Return for credit only."
  • "Return for partial refund within a prescribed period of time."
  • "No returns under any circumstances." Or, for that matter, some other terms of sale. But the important thing is that all this should be known up front before deciding to close the deal.

Buyers should also be sure to discuss "What If" situations they may be concerned about before completing the transaction. Examples may include —

  • "I don't like it when I get it home."
  • "My spouse insists I return it."
  • "I need to sell it again in the next year."
  • "I discover it is not as it was represented."
  • "I later find another one for much less."
  1. Get — and keep — your receipt! Always ask the seller to supply a bill of sale, with detailed information on the condition and authenticity of each item, and terms of sale clearly written. Trying to return your purchase, especially a big one, will be a non-starter without it.

Your purchases are governed by certain consumer-protection laws, but these are often complex, they vary between states, and also may be expensive to actually use in a dispute. It is largely your responsibility to protect yourself as a consumer, and these simple tips will go a long way towards this.

So good luck, be careful, and happy hunting!

For more on the history of the Rolls-Royce "Spirit of Ecstasy" mascot, watch this field segment with decorative arts and sculpture expert Eric Silver from the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan, during ROADSHOW's 2008 visit to Grand Rapids.