Hear what Robert the Expert has to say

Robert den Expert - cash for gold interview

Doing business by making people happy, that is the main characteristic of the fascinating job of Rob van Beurden, best known in Antwerp under his advertising name "Robert the Expert". You can contact Robert the Expert if you want to know the value of those jewels that have been in your closet for years. Van Beurden provides a free appraisal and also buys the pieces if you wish. In a sector that does not excel in transparency, Robert the Expert shines in reliability. He believes in surviving as a trader by doing honest business. It often produces emotional moments when customers hear what those old necklaces, rings and brooches are still worth. Their happiness is incalculable. Robert: The fact that I want to perform free appraisals actually started with an experience an 80y old friend of my mother's had when trying to sell her jewellery. She felt quite cheated. I then went to look around, put it to the test myself and it turned out that the purchase of old jewellery is actually largely in the hands of a group of buyers that you already feel uncomfortable with when entering their shops. I also found out that elderly people in particular have no idea what a gram is, nor what it's worth. Then I started with free appraisals and launched ‘Robert the Expert through radio and television, magazines and billboards. Now people come to see me from all over Europe. Usually, the appraisal of a jewel, if anyone can estimate it at all, costs between half and one and a half percent at a jeweler. We do that for free. Why? Because the end of the day three out of four people sell to me. But I'm just as happy to help those who just prefer to divide ‘mom’s jewellery amongst the family members. Or those who need to know a value for insurance purposes.

You quote what many already suspect: there is a shady side to the sector. How do you distinguish yourself from that? How do we know if you are reliable?

Robert: First of all, I am a consultant, and often an intermediary when families have issues with legacies. And because I'm a consultant, that already creates a certain bond. At the same time, I also benefit when people sell to me. But I will say with equal ease, “don't sell this to me” when items are still contemporary. Transform that into something else, or pass it on. If you have a daughter or a granddaughter, hold on to it. You will do someone a great favor with it later. I won't buy everything at scrap value either. I will tell where necessary, that something still has a second-hand value. This means that apart from the weight of the stones and the gold, a piece can still fetch something at an auction. I also want to help people with that sale.

You present yourself as a go-between, a kind of notary in the diamond and precious stones sector. Formal and correct. This means that you will sometimes have to disappoint people, when the real value of a piece does not correspond to the emotional value or expectations that people have.

Robert: It happens that people have bought something expensive, which is not worth that much in the end. For example something bought for 100 which I appraise at 25 - 30. I've had clients say angrily "I thought we were at an expert’s office" and packed everything up and left. They couldn't make the click that they overpaid for an item. The biggest dramas take place in July - August, when people go on holiday to some Mediterranean countries and make impulse purchases there. Tourists are often led - by the hotel, or by a travel agent - to a marble palace where jewelers are housed. Those jewelers sell at prices up to ten times the actual value. Most people who come here afterwards say, "We thought so”. The crazy formula in one of those countries in particular, is that many of those vendors accept 10 percent as a down payment and expect people to deposit the balance when they get home. So often the harm has not yet been done, fortunately.

Where do you get your expertise from, are there training courses for this?

Robert: No. I have my 40 years of experience. The older a diamond dealer is, the larger the database in his head and the greater his knowledge and expertise. This is a very inaccessible, opaque sector. Even many jewelers have little insight into what something is worth exactly. Only the 1,500 diamond dealers worldwide can recognize a stone, qualify it and put a price on it. That's only 1,500 people worldwide. So that is a unique knowledge. But due to the lack of transparency, people are often at the mercy of jewelers and end up preferring to go to a Tiffany’s knowing full well that they are paying 2 to 3 times the price. But it does buy them some form of peace of mind. What I'm doing with my expertise is basically opening the door to the kitchen of this industry, saying, "Well, that's how it works. This is it, this is the real value. I understand you once paid for the manufacturing costs as well, the profit of the jeweler and the VAT. So you can already forget about that." When it comes to timepieces, all A brands may have added value: Rolex, Cartier (although not all), Vacheron-Constantin, Jaeger Le Coultre, Patek Philippe, ... But the B brands: the Omegas and you name them, almost all have scrap value, although those watches once cost a lot of money. And that's how I explain it to almost every customer. And that is very clear and understandable for most people. But sometimes there is also an emotional value to a piece and then they just want to know. Or they come here, for example, if they have 2 daughters and they already want to give "with a warm hand", as they say, instead of later "with a cold hand". Then people already want a valuation of each piece, so that it can later be distributed fair & square to the daughters, to avoid disputes. Or it is already being cashed in because, for example, the mother or grandmother know that the children will not wear it anyway. And that's why they prefer to cash it in and give cash to the kids.

Is there no risk in determining a value now for later? The market is evolving anyway, maybe the situation will be different in 10 years.

Robert: Comparatively, that will evolve about the same. If I make two heaps, then those two heaps will most likely still be worth the same in 10 years. Evolved perhaps, but relatively the same.

I can imagine that you also get a lot of stories that way.

Robert: Absolutely. Remember, when people go to a jewelry store, they do it because they trust that jewelry store. There was a poll in America a while ago on the reliability of professions. And at the very bottom of that list were jewelry stores. Just above lawyers 😊 They were considered the least reliable. So if a bond of trust arises, for whatever reason, then the books open completely. Then customers tell everything: what they have, how they ever got it... You can compare it to a doctor. If you trust your doctor and the doctor says, "It's your kidney," then yes, you assume that it is.

Is there some kind of control body to separate the wheat from the chaff? An umbrella organization or a control mechanism in the sector?

Robert: The most tangible thing about it is that I am a member of the exchange. Then you are one of those 1,500 experts. You are part of a federation. Because I didn't step into this industry from father to son, it took me 13 years of deliberation before I was allowed to set foot on the trader’s floor of this industry. And the members of these so-called Diamond Bourses, they walk on eggshells.

 If ‘Jeweller Jones’ shows malpractice, it will be tough on him. But if I do something wrong as a member of the Diamond Bourse, I will be out of business from Dubai to New York, and from Johannesburg to Antwerp, and that within 24 hours. Membership in one of the world's diamond exchanges is a very important privilege. But even then, it ultimately comes down to the feeling that a customer has with you. That's like with my doctor: that man looks professional to me, so I know I can trust him.

Should I see this Bourse as a kind of trade union?

Robert: That membership is an acknowledgment that you are a diamond trader and that you have everything that is required to work there. Not only technically, but also financially. You must be creditworthy. And you must never have done things wrong. You must have a spotless background, professionally, but also beyond. Especially with what happened, for example, with regards to the issue of "conflict diamonds", or "blood diamonds". We are scrutinized by the government and even by the United Nations with whom we have a Charter. So we, those 1,500 traders, really have to work in accordance with all the agreements that the UN has made.

Then you have given a lot to persevere as a correct trader in a sector with a bad reputation. Where's the satisfaction?

Robert: My greatest passion is passing on knowledge. In high school they said, "That boy should be a teacher”. I've never really had much satisfaction selling diamonds. You know, I support a school in India for mentally handicapped children. A $1,000 stone, I see a child who can be provided with medicine, education and care for 4 years. So the only function that diamond has is an emotional function, which people pay thousands of euros for. I still find that amazing, but it pays the bills. I get the passion from the transfer of knowledge. In fact, I combine my passion with doing business. Because in the end, most people sell. And then I can resell with a margin. Everyone wins.

You support that school in India. So from every piece traded here...

Robert: Some will go to India. From every piece bought or sold here, a part goes there.

If we are talking about the pieces you purchase. Who all comes to you?

Robert: Do you know who comes to sell to me? Those are simple people. People who have collected jewelry over the years, from their mother, their grandmother, from themselves, you name it. Those people are not insensitive to what they read in the paper about gold prices. The kids don't want it and then they want to monetize it. To give it away, but also very often to pay the bills. Recently I had an older couple here. I played a game with them. What they had with them was a handful. I write down an amount behind my hand and asked them: "What do you think” knowing very well they had no clue. They said: "250, 275 euros?" I said: "It's 4,650 euros." The lady started crying. Those people looked very dignified, but guess what? The washing machine had been broken for four months. And they had no means to buy a new washing machine. So they immediately went to buy a new washing machine. On another example, there was a family who flew in from Madrid, because grandmother had left a 7 or 8 carat stone to her 6 children. And in the perception of those children, that stone had to be worth a million euros. But nobody trusted each other. So they had all come here by plane. I didn't even need my loupe. So I said: That's not real. And everyone looked at each other: who last had that stone, and possibly changed it for a fake? And then I did look again using my loupe and I saw that the stone had never been out of its setting. It would have shown to me. That stone was never real. With that they could go back to Madrid. So that also happens. But it can also be the other way around. Sometimes clients think that a watch or a stone is worth nothing and then it turns out to be good for 1,000 euros. I don't think a week goes by without two or three people leaving the building with tears of happiness. And then you also feel their need. Because that is not about amounts of 10,000 euros, but about 1,000 or 2,000 euros. Then you feel that many of those people are needy. For them it feels like they have won the Lotto. And that creates a huge satisfaction in my work. On the other hand it strikes me that especially people over 70 have no idea what something is worth. You can already find out a lot via the internet today, but most people over 70 don't have the finesse to do much research on the net to find out what a stone is worth. And that is cause for quite some abuse. Someone in the industry quickly knows whether he has 1,000 or 3,000 euros in his hands. One of the tricks of these buyers is to first ask people: "What do you think? Or to say: "I think there is 500 euros in this. Based on the customer's response, only 700 or 800 euros will eventually be paid out, while what he has with him may be worth €5,000. It happens. It happens every day. And that is crooked.

The average profile of a customer is someone who comes in with a medallion, or a Saint Christopher and another coin in a frame, or an old watch of which the dial is too small to tell the time and that  weighs 50 grams. But there the numbers add up. Look (pulls out a bag with some rings, chains, a medallion with a sign of the zodiac) that's from this week's purchase. You can see for yourself: it's all old. 90 percent is to melt. But it is gold, I tested it. Together it is about 350 grams. So in the end there is 12-13.000 euros of "junk". It often happens that people come up with something like this and are shocked by what they get for it. Just last week: a lady who came with her daughter. The daughter had to hold one hand and I had to hold the other. We thought she was having a heart attack. Gold teeth are also coming in. And those are worth something too. A man came here and he had kept the molars of his entire family, from his ancestors, and he still got 300 or 400 euros.

I explain to people the evolution of gold.Why now is or is not a good time to sell.Of course I don't have a crystal ball either.But I can tell something based on past results. I also visit people's homes.That is called "Robert’s Day Out".I once visited a lady... she was 150-160 kilos.She couldn't move anymore.And she says: "Buddy, in that cupboard, in that sugar bowl, just take out what's in there. That was a pile with an enormous amount of different gold coins: South American gold, fake gold, real gold,... I sayto her, "I can't seem to value it on the spot, not with the material I've got on me now." And she says, "Buddy take it." Me: "Are you sure?" She: "Yes, take it." That same day I wired her 4,600 euros.She thought it would be €300 or 400.

I've also been to a tiny house just outside Antwerp once. There was a lady alone, scared. She didn't dare go out in the street with her jewellery. And on the table there were three rings. And frankly, I wasn't happy at the time. I had been stuck in traffic for a long time, it was Friday afternoon and I saw that I had come to earn 15 euros. But go ahead. I teased her by saying: "You are quite courageous to invite me here, because after all you’ve never met with me. But she trusted me, because I was from "Radio Minerva". She had heard my commercial. And in the end something came out of every drawer and I bought for 7,000 euros But she wanted to test who came in first.  I feel privileged of pleasantly surprising people. That feeling is indescribable.

You buy and sell yourself. Then where is it going?

Robert: Most of it goes to a smelter. The gold I buy at a certain daily price in euros. When I have a kilo, I sell it to a large smelter. It contains about one euro per gram of earnings. That sounds little. But on a kilo, that is 1,000 euros. That adds up. And the pieces I take in are usually bought - if not too much labor involved - at half that value. So most people who come here benefit. If they have a piece such as a brooch, which initially involved a lot of work, well, that’s gone; what stays is the very material. Unless that piece is so exceptionally beautiful or dates from the Art Deco period, for example, that it has added value at an auction.

If you buy from clients, where does it go? Do you have fixed channels to sell?

Robert: 90 percent has only scrap value. The only thing that still has added value is jewellery from between 1910 and 1930, the Art Deco period. Or pieces signed by eg Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels. And Rolex? A Rolex bought by me today will be sold again on that very same day.