Do you have treasures in the attic?
So, there you are brushing aside cobwebs to finally clean out the attic. Look, it's Brandon's sixth-grade baking soda volcano! Over there, it's your missing 7-iron! And isn't that Great Aunt Millie's old side chair, the one with the claw-foot legs? Say, wasn't a chair like that on one of those antique shows last week? How much did the experts say it was worth?
"Hey, honey . . . !"
Scenes like this probably are played out hundreds of times in attics, garages and basements throughout America as homeowners stumble across grandma's forgotten highboy or that scrimshawed whale's tooth from a distant seafaring relative.
But, of course, then comes the question: Is it treasure, or is it trash?
How can you tell if your find is actually valuable? And what do you do with it then?
First of all, a few caveats. Don't get your hopes up. People do stumble across vintage booty every once in a while, but those occasions are rare.
Another piece of disappointing news is that the market has been swelled over the past few years by people selling antiques to raise money in the poor economy, says Charles Hummel, retired senior deputy director of one of the country's most important collection of American decorative arts, the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
"Generally, the amount of material has been of a middling quality and has lowered the overall prices that antiques have been bringing," he says. "That's starting to change."
Still, there's a chance you could strike gold.
Take, for example, that old piece of ceramic from your grandmother that you used to make fun of. If it has the name of the manufacturer stamped on it, it actually might be an important piece of pottery. Another thing to look for is furniture that went out of fashion years ago and was stored out of sight. Of course, always be on the lookout for any brass, pewter or silver objects. Even weird Uncle Frank's moldering stamp collection might turn out to be a hidden gem.
"These are things you shouldn't think of as worthless," Hummel says. "Let someone who knows about it take a look at them."
Don't overlook anything. Hummel gave an example:
Several years ago, the silver curator at the Winterthur Museum was asked by a couple retiring to Florida to come up with a value for their silver flatware. She came back and reported that it wasn't worth much. Hummel asked if anything else in the house had caught her eye. Well, there was a tall glass goblet, perhaps German or early American, she said. But it had a slight crack in it and they were planning to give it to a thrift store.
Ultimately, a glass expert from the museum was sent to examine it. He determined the goblet, which was signed and dated, was made by John Frederick Amelung, a German immigrant who built America's premier domestic glassmaking facility in the late 1700s. The museum ended up buying it from the owners for $10,000.
"They had no clue," he says. "It was a very important piece of glass."
So, keep your eyes peeled. And here are some tips from Hummel on what to do if you spot something:
Find as much information as you can about what you've found. Hummel compares it to doing your homework before shopping for an automobile. "Otherwise, you're totally in the dark when walking into a dealership," he says. Check out the local library or bookstore for books that have both information and pictures of your item. Also, cruise the Internet.
CONTACT A MUSEUM
Ask if someone will look at your prize. Institutions will never put a value on an antique; otherwise, they would be inundated by requests, Hummel says. But as a courtesy, the museum might give you an idea of when it was made and by whom. Or, take a picture, fax it or email it to a museum or a dealer asking if someone can identify it. None of this normally will involve fees. Most important, experts can help with the next step, which is to find an appraiser.
GET AN APPRAISAL
After you've figured out you actually have something, choose a reputable appraiser (certification from the Appraisers Association of America is a good sign) and have him or her come up with a valuation. Do not have the fee tied to the value placed on the antique, for obvious reasons. A good strategy to determine a reasonable price is to ask that the item be valued for insurance purposes. This might be slightly higher than its actual value, but it's a good ballpark figure.
If you've found a valuable antique and want to peddle it, you'll probably make the most money by selling directly to a collector, Hummel says. It's less trouble and often quicker to sell to a dealer, of course. But he or she will offer a lower price in order to make a profit. Auction houses will market it for you, but keep in mind the price at which the item is sold will not be the amount you receive because of auction house fees.
DON'T BE FOOLED
Sometimes, a promising antique can turn out to be a fake, says Hummel, an expert on the subject. Forgers will do things like putting Chippendale legs on an ordinary table from the 1840s, a ruse that could raise its valuation from $50 to $1,200. Once again, consider sending a digital photo to a dealer, appraiser or museum for a quick opinion. Those interested in validating a truly valuable piece might contact a staff person associated with a museum that has an analytical lab who could examine the piece privately for a fee.
Discovering a valuable antique in your home may be unlikely, but there is good news for those on Long Island. The sorts of people who purchased household goods that have become today's prizes generally come from those who could afford to buy handcrafted items. And wealthier Colonial families tended to live in East Coast port cities that bustled with trade, says Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society.
"You're more likely to find something here than in other areas of the country," he says. "Long Island has been settled since the 1600s, so you're going to find families who have lived here for 300 years."
Hundreds of antiques were made for mostly Long Island residents by the Dominy family, for example -- a four-generation East Hampton clan that made everything from furniture to clocks to spinning wheels starting in the 1700s. And they are still being discovered today.
Barons' advice if you want to make an antique score is to stay sharp.
About six months ago, a couple brought a three-drawer, mahogany doll chest into the society to ask about its authenticity, Barons says. It turned out to be made by a local whaler around 1850, its intricate geometric patterns inlaid with ebony and whale bone. He estimated it was worth about $2,500. The couple had picked it up at an East Hampton garage sale.
"Judging from the grin on their faces, I'd say they probably paid about $75 for it," he said.
For stories about lucky finds, it's hard to beat the one by Morgan MacWhinnie, a one-time telephone repairman and now well-known Southampton antiques dealer.
It began on a snowy day in the 1970s, back when MacWhinnie was repairing a phone line outside a clapboard house in East Hampton. The elderly occupant asked him to come in and check his phones. Reluctantly, MacWhinnie climbed down, walked into the disheveled house and was stunned at what he saw.
Amid the debris inside the rental home, he spotted a tea table and a bonnet-top highboy on cabriole legs. And in another room, a drop-leaf dining table. All had the distinctive claw and ball feet that marked them as being rare Newport pieces. The problem was, the owner wanted to keep the home furnished for the tenant and didn't want to sell.
Years later, MacWhinnie told the story to a friend, Leigh Keno, one of the blond, identical twins who appear as appraisers on the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow." Keno wrote about the incident in the book co-authored with his brother, titled "Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture."
"Obviously," he wrote, "if Morgan was right, he had found a virtual treasure trove of furniture made in Newport during the peak of its artistic prominence . . . ."
The two once more approached the owner. By now, the renter had died and the home was cleaned up. After months of negotiating and several plot twists, Keno -- using money from the collector who purchased the pieces -- bought the trove from the astounded owner for $1 million. MacWhinnie and Keno split a hefty commission.
It was a good investment for the buyer. MacWhinnie estimates the collection probably would bring in the neighborhood of $4 to $4.5 million today.
"Those things happen very, very seldom," he says. "I've been lucky. Some dealers go a whole lifetime and never make a good hit."