Monday, December 27, 2004

How Good is Your Story and Can You Prove It

The success of Antiques Roadshow focused the attention of fans and experts alike on the stories that are now brought to your televisions sets from all corners of the United States and Canada. As our experts intently question the owners of these fascinating objects, it may appear that the Roadshow invented the importance of a piece’s collection history. This notion is, of course, not true. Many of us who have been in the arts and antiques business for several years have always focused on this part of the valuation process. Your story is important and quite often interesting. More to the point, however, is that if your story is true, it can have a significant impact on value.

A true disadvantage of a lack of experience in the art and antique world is the inability to put your detective hat on and make the right decisions on authenticity, restoration, and collection history. After listening to over twenty years of bad information, you get a sense when things aren’t quite right. This sixth sense couldn’t be more relevant in assessing collection history. In Tucson during season six of the Roadshow, Don Ellis found the highest priced item discovered to date on the Roadshow. This Navajo made Ute 1st Phase Chiefs blanket was made between 1840 and 1860 and was one of less than 30 weavings of this type known to exist. The object represented the very beginnings of the Navajo weaving tradition. It was in every way such a superb example that Don Ellis quite correctly called it a “national treasure”. But there was more. The owner provided very credible circumstantial evidence that this blanket once belonged to Kit Carson (1809-1868). Carson’s history with the Navajos and their ultimate surrender and incarceration at Fort Sumner provided collection history for the blanket that was unprecedented in the collecting of Southwest art. The story was the third leg of the trifecta, for we had a superb object, great value, and a wonderful history. Bruce Shackelford, Don Ellis, and I discussed this story both before and after the segment aired. We all believed it, but there was no hard documentation. Had we had a photograph with Kit Carson and the blanket, add another $150,000 to the estimate of $350,000 - $500,000 that was provided. Even an old family letter describing the blanket and mentioning the Kit Carson provenance would have helped.

In Salt Lake City, G. Max Bernheimer, Roadshow's expert and Christie’s
International Specialist for Antiquities was confronted with an interesting situation when a collector showed him a 5" bronze statue of Osiris. The owner explained that he already knew it was real because it was found six feet below a fence post on his ranch in Utah. Max's better judgment kept him from pursuing further interrogation. Had this piece been real it would have dated from 500 to 30 BC and been worth from $800 - $1200 dollars. The point here is that no story is too silly to be presented to an appraiser as justification for a TV appearance, higher value, or the blessing of authenticity. One still wonders how the owner worked out the rationale of being buried in Utah to justify an Egyptian antiquity.

In Charleston, appraiser Leila Dunbar was confronted with a pretty ordinary set of golf clubs that had a very interesting story. A man stated that the clubs were a gift from his son-in-law who happened to be a doctor that treated Jackie Gleason. The clubs were marked with the initials “JG”. The doctor, a personal friend of Gleason’s, also was a beneficiary in Gleason’s will. The will documented the gift of the clubs and proved the connection. What was this solid documentation worth? Ms. Dunbar appraised the set at $3,000 - $4,000. How sweet it is...

Stephen Massey is a veteran rare bookman with nearly 40 years in the rough and tumble of the auction and Antiques Roadshow trade. Massey speculates that an ideal presentation copy of Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon would be a first edition, preferably in fine condition with a dust jacket, inscribed admiringly by Hemingway to the celebrated bullfighter Manolete, who features so largely in the book. Considering a well-known bookstore is advertising a copy of Death in the Afternoon inscribed in Hemingway’s drunken hand in lipstick to “Good Old Bonzo From his pal Ernest” for $20,000, one can reasonably speculate that Manolete’s signature would have more impact than an inscription to Philip Bonsal, Ambassador to Cuba in 1959. Massey was a bit more direct when he estimated the worth to be “say, $80,000 by comparison to a copy presented to some drunken autograph-seeking sot he lounged around Key West with one night and had forgotten soon after. An example such as that would only be worth about $10,000."

Jerry Holley, appraiser and auctioneer for Dallas’ premiere auction gallery, was asked to drive out to East Texas to look at an English long case clock. Prior to the trip, Holley thought that the clock was probably in the $4,000 to $8,000 range based on the family’s description. Jerry had been confronted with many clocks over the years and, therefore, had no reason to think this trip would be any different. Jerry stated, upon viewing the clock: “One quick look at the clock told me that this was not an English long case clock. Although it had a painted dial very similar to the English clocks of the period, the case was cherry and it had carved flame finials typical of the Philadelphia area.” Then the real bombshell was dropped. In an almost casual manner the owner said that the family story was that the clock had belonged to a distant relative who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence! While there was no proof, with research, Jerry was able to attribute the clock to a maker that worked at that time period making this story plausible. Although the clock was refinished, this story, if documented, would be worth thousands of dollars in additional value for this clock. Still on just this speculation alone, Jerry valued the clock at $30,000 to $40,000.

Leslie Keno, American furniture expert at Sotheby’s, did a now famous segment on the “Brewster” chair from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The chair allegedly belonged once to William Brewster a leader of the Plymouth colony from 1620 to 1644 and was only one of three known to be in existence. The problem here is that the chair was made by Armand LaMontagne in the early 1970’s and specifically planted in an out of the way antique shop in Maine. His dealer, who pretended to not have a clue, sold this “Brewster” chair for just $500. After passing through many hands and acquiring a story along the way, the chair sold to the Ford Museum in 1975 for $9,000. When LaMontagne revealed his hoax in 1977, nobody would believe that an artist would create a fake just to tweak the nose of the establishment. But that was just what he did. Leslie reminded us that “you must give the Ford Museum a tremendous amount of credit for having the courage to admit their mistake and then keep the chair on view for everyone to learn from this experience.” This was a case where the system created the story to fit the experts’ conclusions of authenticity.
Documentation certainly does matter. Proving your documentation and knowing how to present the history of your personal property is as much an investment in your future as planning your financial portfolio. Unfortunately, most collectors don’t pay attention to what seems to be fairly obvious. The best investment you can make is to hire a competent general appraiser… not a specialist, a generalist. These are the folks that among other things appraise entire estates. The good ones know what they don’t know and when to call in a specialist. So hire a generalist for a two-hour walk through of your home. For these two hours take notes or record everything; and most importantly ask questions. You will learn about your best pieces, your fakes, your objects with condition problems, what’s hot in the marketplace and what’s not. Show the appraiser your documentation on your objects and ask how it can be presented better. Or if you have no collection history, ask how you might document your personal treasures. If grandma said that old cowboy hat belonged to Roy Rogers, you might ask her to write or dictate a letter documenting her story. That’s worth far more than a verbal history twenty years from now. Understand that you can take a proactive position in documenting what you have and what you plan to buy. Before you sign the check, require the dealer to provide the collection history in writing. And above all find and rely on competent professionals to help you… because ultimately it’s your money.
American Society of Appraisers (ASA( 800-272-8258, 203-478-228 website -
Appraisers Association of America (AAA) 212-889-5404; website
International Society of Appraisers (ISA) - (888)472-5034, (206)241-0359; website
A searchable database of all three can be found on

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