Nothing New Under the Sun

The Antiques Road Show has been a popular cultural phenomenon for some time now. Everyone who attends hopes their family treasure will be worth the big bucks. I learned from experience: from patrons to professionals, everybody at the Antiques Road Show is after the Big Story.

I heard that our state public television station was going to host the Road Show for a fundraiser. I had recently purchased an antique tureen and platter in addition to a 1767 English tall case clock. I had the information on the clock, but not about the ceramics. The bone china, transfer-printed with [cool] teal and raspberry Asian sketches, detailed with powder blue shading and fine gold etching, stood out in my house decked with [warm] moss and ubatuba greens. I decided I would find out about the ironware’s provenance in addition to their value.

I bought two tickets; each included the appraisal of two items. My parents had purchased a couple of matching gilded Plaster of Paris mirrors in Pocahontas, Arkansas when I was a teenager. They were not heirlooms, but since I had always liked and wanted to know more about them, I decided to take them. For the fourth item, I invited a friend, Ann, who chose a specimen from her late father-in-law’s paper knife collection (what are casually termed letter openers).

We drove from El Dorado to Hot Springs the Saturday morning of the event. When we arrived at the conference center, a queue of interesting people and objects already snaked out the door. Some people carted walnut sideboards and Rosewood étagères with appliance dollies. Others conveyed smaller, fragile items with wheeled luggage. I briefly wished I’d chanced hauling my beautiful old clock, eight-feet-tall and a showstopper, or at least used our overseas-travel-sized wheeled luggage to tote my entries. Ann and I took our place in line, which grew rapidly behind us.

Other peoples’ items were fascinating, if a little weird. Displays of real braided hair, sculptures of questionable anatomy, wooden carvings; there were articles transported from all over the world. A sour-faced woman with black hair stood in front of us. She carried an Asian-influence screen, decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay with images of courtesans in various stages of repose, promising delight and relaxation. To be cordial and make conversation, I addressed her.

“Oh, the Geisha. How interesting.”

“It’s not that,” she snapped and pulled it closer to her chest, as if to protect it from me. “It’s Japanese.”

Well, yeah, the Geisha are Japanese, I mused. She reacted as if being friendly to me might affect the value of her item. I just smiled, avoided eye contact, and said, “Yes, ma’am.” So much for passing the time pleasantly while waiting.

Soon the doors opened and the procession began to move forward. Attendees lurching along with their cumbersome heirlooms made me think about the animals embarking on Noah’s Ark. But people were polite. I thought about the possible aspirations of people standing around me. Were guests planning to dispose of an in-law’s piece they’d always detested? Were they trying to raise money to fund some long-held dream like seeing the Sistine Chapel, or covering a child’s college education? Or to pay off a monster debt? Were they simply curious, as I was, about the origins of their object? Was there anybody present who didn’t secretly hope that she or he held a lost Renoir, double minted Peace Dollar, or a Stickley? We stayed away from the woman we nick-named “Geisha-Lady.”

Inside, several categories were posted: Visual art, metals, coins, jewelry, and so on. Ann and I split up to pursue our own items. Since I was most interested in the tureen, I got in one of eight columns leading to tables for the China category.

A nice, blank-faced lady motioned for me to come forward and sit down. She was knowledgeable, immediately placing my tureen as a piece from Bates, Gildea and Walker, a company only in operation from1878-81. She identified the knot on the lid as Staffordshire ware, fired in a six-town region of England, more famous for their paired spaniel sets. My china was “typical of Japanese patterns of the day,” and a hairline crack on the tureen and its lack of a stand held its worth to $400-600. She pointed out that what I thought was the matching stand was too large, and estimated the value of the correctly designated meat tray at $300- 400. I could live with that; they still matched, and were worth much more than I paid. The lady asked me how I acquired them. When I honestly explained that they were by-products in the purchase of my English tall case clock, her shoulders slumped slightly and she motioned to the next person waiting. I understood I was dismissed.

I repaired to another area to learn about my mirror. This piece, a twin, was very rough-backed, with just a simple wire coiled around tiny nails on each side, no covering or markings. The mirror didn’t even fit well into the frame. I assumed this told of great age and primitive craftsmanship, and waited expectantly for the specialist to spin a tale of mystery and intrigue concerning my modest Plaster-of-Paris mirror.

The gentlefolk in front of me fell away in less time than I would have imagined. I proudly held out my beloved family piece. The authority, staring into space, rested his head on his hand, fisted at his jaw: bored, or forlorn? His demeanor checked my enthusiasm, and I lowered my hands slightly. He gestured for me to lay the mirror on the table, as if he had done this many times before. In fact, it almost seemed as if he felt he were being punished. What antique scandal had he committed that was so offensive that it led him to this banal imprisonment of estimating the value of peoples’ boring attic finds? He scanned the room while he muttered the verdict:

“Your mirror is obviously mass produced so it’s not that old. Last half of the nineteenth or early twentieth century. These usually came as a pair, they were molded, and the plaster was gilded. They are American made, though continental in form. Fair market $100-150. Where’d you get it?”

With this last question he finally looked at me. Such hope in his eyes! What was I supposed to say? I answered honestly: “My parents bought them about twenty years ago at an antiques store in northeast Arkansas.” Again, truth conveyed disappointment. He could not wait to be done with me.

As I hauled my pieces to where Ann sat across from an appraiser, I half regretted that I didn’t make up some fantastical story. My great-grandmother’s sister sold her illegitimate child for this mirror and a mule. This tureen was buried during the Civil War under the chicken coop along with the family’s coin silver by a cousin who was a Union spy. My great aunt’s lover ran with Dillinger and he passed this stolen platter along with many other treasures to her just hours before he died in an ambush. All my stories detailed other branches of the family tree; not that any of my direct descendants would be mixed up in anything dangerous or salient. I again thought how they’d be impressed with that tall case clock.

Ann was experiencing the same ennui from her expert. The lady, having spit out the barest of assessments, grew interested in a pair of emerald earrings being examined one seat over, and began to discuss their highlights with her co-worker, effectively ignoring us and the people in line behind us.

We finally got up and left. I told Ann of my scheme to construct an epic story about acquiring my pieces and we laughed at the possibility. We didn’t see Geisha-Lady again, but since the nightly news offered no report of a great Occupied Japan find, or any other grand cachet for that matter, I assume she was told her piece was as common as the majority of the items brought for evaluation.

Though I wasn’t surprised at the rather mild pedigree of my ironware and gilded mirror, I supposed I was just as guilty of being a sucker for a story as were the individuals on the other side of the table: we’re all waiting for the next big thing. Maybe next time, as I lug in my tall-case clock, I’ll also pack along a whopper: My great-great-grandmother stared down General Sherman himself to save this clock, and then rowed it across the Mississippi River herself with nothing but a plank for an oar, raising nine children alone, after having walked to school in snow four miles each way…

2 thoughts on “Nothing New Under the Sun

  1. Enjoyedthe read, Sarah! I just looked at the link on your Facebook page and discovered your writing. Great job. I also enjoyed your article on our BJH visit with Kwame Alexander. Could we possibly get five copies of the Insider?

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