With her client seated before her, Lexington appraiser Dawn Corley mulled over a collection of dresses, beaded bags, jewelry and shoes from the 1950s. Certainly, it was an attractive and well-kept grouping that this client-friend had brought for appraisal, but not worth more than $1,500 to $2,000 or so. Knock-offs of Bulgari and Tiffany and Cartier jewelry, a green evening gown, a beige Chanel-type suit and a sleeveless salmon-colored crepe dress with high neck and silver beads made part of the inventory. Dawn set to work writing the appraisal, based on the information her friend had given her about the pieces.
As she was leaving, appraisal in hand, the friend turned and said, “You remember who my best friend was?”
“No, I don’t,” Dawn answered. Her client said, “Grace Kelly, and these were Grace Kelly’s things.” That changed matters somewhat. Dawn smiles wryly, recalling the unforgettable explanation that followed.
“I had to start the appraisal over,” Dawn remembers. “My friend was the first female Time-Life reporter in Europe, and she was Grace Kelly’s liaison when they would go out into public settings because it wasn’t appropriate for Grace to be with a man other than Prince Rainier of Monaco, her husband. My friend would go and write stories about her. As Grace got tired of her bags and dresses and jewelry and shoes, she would pass them on to my friend, who saved them carefully.”
The lesson here, according to Dawn, is that so many things happen because of personal relationships, the interplay between people. When a client knows the person to whom a piece belonged and has documentation proving it, even if the person is not a celebrity like Grace Kelly, that piece is far more likely to appraise at a higher value.
How did Dawn’s client do after the reevaluation? All the Grace Kelly items together appraised for mid six figures.
Dawn’s client brought beautiful items for appraisal, but beauty is not always the keynote with many pieces the appraiser is asked to value. Before tossing those trashy garage gleanings, therefore, heed the pointer offered by Rodney Lee of R.H. Lee & Co. in this American Pickers-type story.
“Down the road from our Ridgeway farm house several years ago, we had a neighbor who was moving to Florida,” says Rodney. “He wanted me to appraise his household contents prior to auctioning off things he didn’t want to take with him. While I was doing the appraisal, I wanted to check the barn — you never know what you’re going to find — but he said it just had junk in it. Well, we opened the barn door, and I saw a dusty old pair of fireside chairs, probably from the 1930s or 40s. When I pointed them out, he said, ‘Naw, I’m just going to toss those.’ I told him, ‘Don’t do that! Those are the best things I’ve seen here!’ The back and seat fabric on the chairs was past salvaging, but the mahogany frames were in great shape. All we did was dust those chairs off, and they sold at auction for $350 apiece.”
One treasure can conceal another, as Andrew H. Lipps of Camden’s Wartime Collectables has learned from decades in business. Don’t overlook the possibility, he advises, that something more valuable than what appears on the surface may be waiting for discovery. He tenders as proof one of his experiences valuing items at the South Carolina State Museum’s twice yearly Museum Roadshow.
Andrew relates, “About three years ago at Museum Roadshow, a lady brought in a picture of a Civil War soldier in a United Confederate uniform for appraisal. It was a veteran’s photo from around 1900, but it was in a case from an earlier period. Pictures like this often come in a leather-bound folding case, almost like a wallet. I told her she had a wonderful, properly identified photo probably worth $75 to $100 and that I found the older case interesting. Would she mind if I took it apart? She agreed. So I popped the frame out of the center of the case, and the soldier’s wartime ambrotype photo — a one-time positive image made by placing a glass negative against a dark background — was behind his veteran’s photo.”
With the available identification, Andrew adds, the appraisal for the set was about $1,800. The soldier was the client’s great-great-great grandfather, and the family had kept the photo on the mantelpiece for years, but nobody had ever taken the case apart to discover the older photo.
A client’s desire to know of what a piece was made gave Columbian Kay Durham, a founder and first president of the S.C. Silver Society, the fun of imparting good news. Several years ago at the Museum Roadshow, Kay was handed a silver baby cup. It wasn’t sterling, but the client hoped Kay could tell her what metal it was. It turned out to be coin silver, made in Columbia circa 1850 by local silversmith John Veal, and Kay evaluated it at $800 to $1,200, replacement value. The client was overjoyed.
Like Rodney Lee, appraiser James Brannock of Columbia booked an appointment to value certain items for a client who was moving. As he tells the story, “I was finishing up the appraisal when the client said, ‘Look at this little glass lamp, also.’ She had been told it was hand blown but had no notion of its value. I researched the lamp and found it was actually pâte de verre, which is ground glass re-fired in a mold to form a piece of art glass. It’s a unique look. My client’s lamp had originally been a vase, and had it not been drilled to make it into a lamp, it would have been even more valuable than it was. Even converted into a lamp, it was worth about $10,000.”
Sometimes, virtue is more than its own reward, as James found when this client told him she got the lamp from some friends as a gift for kindnesses to their elderly mother. “After the mother’s death, the friends cleared out of the house what they wanted and asked my client to pick something she’d like as a keepsake from what was left. She chose the little lamp,” he says. “After she learned its worth, she decided to keep it, but she packed it for the move very differently than originally planned!”
Rarity can have a profound effect on the value of an object, says Dr. Rodger Stroup of Columbia, retired executive director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History. For example, a railroad lantern presented to him at Museum Roadshow three or four years back turned out to be a very early one from the old S.C. Railroad, which ran from Charleston to Hamburg.
“There are very few of these lanterns around because that railroad company has been gone a long time,” says Rodger.
“The lantern dated from the 1840s and was hard to value because we couldn’t find records for any others like it that had been recently sold. Ordinary lanterns of that age will sell for $750 to $1,000. In today’s market, I’d say the one this client brought in would sell at auction for $5,000 or $6,000 at least. In South Carolina, it might bring more than that because of all the people here who collect things related to our state.”
One caveat: If no one wants to buy a piece, it doesn’t matter how rare it is. From a monetary standpoint, it’s worthless. But while it’s true that hopeful owners often have unrealistic ideas of the worth of their items, it’s also true that many people hold valuable pieces unaware. To research the value of a variety of objects, check West Columbia’s Charlton Hall at www.charltonhallauctions.com. Click on “View Archives” to bring up prices for items sold at the company’s recent auctions.
“You may find something similar to your item at these sources,” says Kay Durham, “and one of them may be all you need to determine whether you have a piece deserving the attention of an appraiser.”
“She Kept Teaspoons in It!”
Dawn, known to many as the Charleston Silver Lady, specializes in antique silver and estate jewelry, although she also appraises other kinds of objects. This tale concerns an adventure in appraising Dawn experienced in the early days of her career.
“My husband and I joke about it all the time: Whenever I do a lecture or appraisal event, the very best item in the room will be brought to me inside a grocery-store plastic bag, probably wrapped in a towel. About 20 years ago, I was lecturing in Hilton Head, and a lady brought in an item in just this manner. She had her little plastic grocery bag with a kitchen towel in it, and I knew she had a silver object because I could see the bottom of the bag. She pulled out the most unbelievable Colonial-period Charleston-made goblet with two handles and on the front was the seal of S.C. with palmetto trees. It was a presentation to someone in her family around 1700. It had been passed all the way down in her family, and she used it on her kitchen counter to hold teaspoons.
“This lady had some idea her piece was good, but she had no idea just how very valuable it was. Because it was Charleston made, clearly Southern in a rare form, hand engraved, and because we had the family provenance back almost 300 years, that goblet even 20 years ago was worth about $20,000. Today, it’s worth $40,000 to $60,000. That kind of old silver escalates in value a lot if you have proper provenance because in South Carolina very little of it from that time was saved.”
Webster’s defines provenance as “the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature.” In Appraising Personal Property: Principles and Methodology, David J. Maloney, Jr. writes, “Provenance reflects the place of origin and history of the property including such as its past ownership, exhibitions showing the item, literature mentioning the particular property.”
Antiques Roadshow, Myrtle Beach-style
Although PBS’s popular Antiques Roadshow has never visited Columbia, it has come to the Capital City in the person of host Mark Walberg. Florence-born Mark, the son of Revente’s Dianne Wilkins, travels to Columbia to see his mom on occasion. On Sat., June 23, 2012, Mark was in Myrtle Beach to host the show during its second visit to the Palmetto State, with assistance from PBS affiliate SCETV. Its first visit took place in Charleston in 2001. Dianne also made the trip, along with other Midlands residents fortunate enough to win the ticket lottery for the Myrtle Beach show.
“I took for appraisal two small dolls inherited from my mother-in-law, who had a collection,” says Cathy Radice of Columbia. “Both dolls had notes detailing their provenance, one of which read, ‘This little doll’s name is Netty, and she dates from 1860. She’s a parian (untinted, but possibly painted, bisque) and china doll. The doll belonged to Delight Miller Garrett of Clarksville, Tenn., and was dressed by Delight when she was 10 years old. The doll’s petticoat is homespun pink.’ When the appraiser looked at this doll, she pulled out a book about china dolls, and said she could tell the head was made in Germany because of the chignon hairstyle.”
Mary Alice Barth of Columbia says, “My husband, Andy, and I watch Antiques Roadshow and were excited to win tickets. We took four items for appraisal, one of which was a barometer from the old Galloo Island Lighthouse in northern New York. My father was in the Coast Guard, and at one time he was stationed there. It’s been decommissioned since, and it’s up for sale now. My father gave the barometer to Andy and wrote a letter describing it, and Andy has that letter still, as well as a book about the lighthouse that Andy wrote. The barometer was our best appraisal at $450.”
Jimmy Livingston of Columbia took a dining room table to the show to find out more about it. “Our son, Chris, who owns Worth Repeating in West Columbia, purchased an accordion dining room table at auction in North Carolina. Becky, my wife, and I bought it from him for $1,400. We think the table, which can extend from 18 inches to 11 feet, was made by Gillows between 1796 and 1805. The appraiser, John Nye of Nye and Co. in Bloomfield, N.J., valued it at between $3,000 and $5,000 — which would be a decent return on our investment if we should sell.”
The Livingstons also took a Madonna and child painting purchased for $400. “The Roadshow appraiser told us it was 200 to 225 years old and a copy of a Raphael original. In Raphael’s time a lot of painters made copies of famous masterpieces for the tourist trade. The appraiser could not tell us the copy’s country of origin or the copyist, but she did say it was very well done. We had already taken the painting out of the frame to see if we could find a signature or any other marks, but we could not find anything. We learned that the painting is in its original frame but that we don’t have all of it; rather, our frame is a liner for a much larger and grander frame. The appraiser indicated that the outer frame would have been very brittle and would have deteriorated over the years. Eventually, it was probably just disposed of. But the liner of our painting is in good shape and is more than sufficient to serve as a frame. The painting was valued at $1,500.”