I like to tell people it was an idea whose time had come.
Lucky me, I’m the one who had it.
After nearly forty years as a writer and editor, I came home one day in 2011 without a job. My position as senior editor in the books division at Krause Publications in Iola, Wisconsin, had been eliminated in a cost-cutting move. I had written more than twenty-five books on myriad antique and collectible categories, and edited many more titles, but the market for antiques guides had been steadily shrinking. Like many others in print media in the twenty-first century, I was a casualty of a changing market.
A big part of my job at Krause Publications was answering questions from folks who would call in asking what their vase was worth, or what artist painted their picture, or what era their table was from. These people didn’t need an elaborate certified appraisal. They just wanted to know the truth about history and value. They wanted an objective voice, beyond family lore and legend.
I had been asked to do a lunch-and-learn presentation at the local library, and at an antiques shop near my home when I lived in Minnesota. These were well received, but hardly the kind of thing one could rely on for a steady income, right?
Still, it seemed to me there was an untapped market for an informal antiques appraisal service, but one that was hands-on, not conducted by phone or Internet or email. Libraries and historical societies seemed like the best resources, since they are always looking for new programming ideas.
My program would be a mix of entertainment and education. This was appraisal as theater, so I wanted to make sure folks could expect humor, anecdotes, tales from the road and just a lot of fun.
I established and refined some ground rules: I made clear the categories I felt I could appraise, as well as those I could not. I figured a program with three one-hour sessions would be a workable format. I came up with a fee for the event, one that I thought the hosts could afford and would allow me to make a decent living. I created a cost-sharing component that hosts could use as a fundraiser.
I started emailing libraries and historical societies in Wisconsin. The initial response was tepid, a collective, “meh.” But I kept at it in that long, stay-at-home summer of 2011.
What I needed was a steady job. What I got was an endless adventure.
My first event booking came from the Waushara County Historical & Genealogical Society in Wautoma, Wisconsin. It would be held at their offices — a former sheriff’s residence and jail — on August 13, 2011.
From that humble beginning, word began to spread, especially among libraries, and more bookings started to fill the calendar. Requests for programs came from northern Illinois, northeast Iowa, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Minnesota wasn’t far behind, and eventually Indiana got on board.
In the next nine years, my travels would take me as far afield at Omaha, the doorstep of southern Manitoba, suburban Memphis and Pittsburgh, but I tried to stick with events in the upper Midwest to help control my travel costs.
To be honest, it became a thrilling challenge to walk into a room with dozens of objects I’ve never seen before and try to enlighten the owners about their histories.
At its peak, I was booking 140 events a year and putting 30,000 miles on my car annually. I had come up with a winning formula:
With a forty-item appraisal event, spending four minutes on each item works out to 160 minutes, or two hours and forty minutes, plus two ten-minute breaks for me. Total: three hours.
I asked each person what they knew about the object, and how they acquired it. Then I explained its history or intended use, details about the maker or country/region of origin, the era when it was made and any design influences. Then I noted any condition issues, how this affects value and suggested how they can have an object repaired or restored, if desired. Finally I gave my opinion of value, and tried to answer questions about how they might sell it, if that was their goal.
I started out using an iPad as my research tool, and eventually moved to a MacBook Pro with a 32-inch flat-screen monitor attached. This allowed those in attendance to see the websites I used to find comparable examples of their treasures, and to learn the language of the antiques trade.
As much as I’d like to sometimes, I never offered to buy or arrange a sale on a commission. And I think that’s what made the events so popular. Folks knew there was no ulterior motive and my programs were not a shopping trip. I wasn’t there to pick up a bargain and turn around and sell it.
I discovered that everyone has something they wonder about. It might be a family heirloom, a gift from a friend, an impulse buy at a garage sale, or a treasure uncovered at the local flea market. Everyone has something. And I was the guy to set them straight.
A woman bought a house in 1945, and the previous owners had left an old table lamp. She took good care of it for almost 70 years, and brought it to one of my programs. Turns out it was a Tiffany Acorn lamp, circa 1910, worth about $8,000.
A couple brought a pair of Chinese cloisonné elephants into a program. Meant to hold incense sticks, they had been inherited from an uncle. They later sold at auction for just over $12,000.
On a house call after an appraisal event, a woman showed me a pair of bookends inherited from an aunt, who got them in the 1930s. They were bronze, marble and ivory images of storks. I was able to track down another pair of these bookends that sold at auction in 2008 that brought $15,000.
The demand for house calls was something I had not anticipated. Folks with big things or fragile things or just a lot of things began to ask me to come to their homes to give them my opinion of values. I created a fee structure for that as well, and these visits helped me pay some expenses.
As an aging population looked to downsize, house calls became a significant part of my travel schedule. I was happy to point folks in the right direction if they wanted to sell, or just make sure there would be an equitable distribution among family and friends.
Treasures found on house calls also went on to sell for thousands of dollars:
A collection in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula yielded a painting by Illinois artist Pauline Palmer (1867-1938), in a Newcomb Macklin frame. It sold at auction for $9,000.
Discovered on a home visit in Wisconsin, a 1903 Rex Motorcycle that was used to win the English “Land’s End to John O’Groats” race was sold at auction for just over $28,000.
To my surprise, I learned over the years that most folks don’t care what a treasure is worth. They just want to know the true history, use and origin.
I think that has been my most satisfying discovery as I wrap up ten years of travels, and 300,000 miles on the road. People are curious. I’m happy I could provide answers.
Like all great journeys, however, this one has to end. So 2020 will be my last year of appraisal events.
It’s time for a new adventure