Appraisal Day at the Musuem

Martha's Vineyard Museum executive director David Nathans looks at an old picture frame of Jib Ellis' during the appraisal. — Photo by Michael Cummo

I’ve been living in awe of breaking this green-glass shaded, so-called student lamp, for most of my life. I was 10 in 1954 when I shattered one of the shades with an errant BB from an enthusiastic air pistol. It cost $75 to replace, in a slightly darker green, and I was doomed to pay it back. I was told the lamp, which dated from around 1890 and had once burned oil before being wired for electricity, was still worth “several hundred” bucks, despite the injury. Several hundred bucks bought a car in those days. This was some lamp, or so I was told.

Last Friday, I learned the truth. The esteemed Skinner Auction house of Boston and Marlborough — actually Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers of Objects of Value — alighted at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown to size up some Island art and antiquities. The goal was for Islanders to bring even tattered offerings to the museum for the gods of good taste to assess. Once the stuff (“items”) were evaluated, either thrilled, disappointed or non-plussed toters of these affects could either take them home or sell them via Skinner, with a small percentage heading for the museum.

I arrived at the museum promptly at 9 am with my cardboard box full of handsome treasures. There, Museum director David Nathans, who has the affable presence of a dean at a small but good New England college, greeted a handful of us, flanked by a covey of sprightly interns. They Scylla and Charybdis-ed us through the entry to the desks and tables where the Skinner folk examined our presentations.

I had the student lamp, a photograph of my father in a Victorian wrought iron frame, and a photograph of great-great-uncle Walter in a patriotic, tin campaign frame. The appraisers were ready — they had brought their first string.

Jane D. Prentiss and Karen Keane — Skinner’s chief executive, who joined the company in 1978 fresh out of college, soon to become its first female auctioneer — initially addressed my things. With a winning smile and keen eye, she immediately paused at the lamp, noting, I assumed, the discrepancy between the original and the replaced lamp shades. I said I knew, and forced the photo of my father upon her.

He was about five years old, standing in front of a wooden rocking horse, holding a little whip and posing with the posture of a pint-sized soldier. It is a nice photograph and I imagined that it required the exploding powder tray to take, but wasn’t sure. I brought it to the pros for the frame. They agreed that it was nice, but worth just about $150. Its white enamel finish detracted from the value. My late father’s stern little face did nothing to enhance the product.

Great-great-uncle Walter, however, did dress up his frame. Walter was both a mortician and a dentist, but his mustache is the prize. In the picture, he is probably 30 but must have started the ‘stache the first day he could. It is visible from behind, or at least that’s how it looks. These arbiters of historic excellence and artistic perfection were quite taken with Walter’s mustache but not duped. They said his frame was still worth less than my father’s.

My student lamp was up next, but all our eyes drifted to a curious item at the next table. It was declared a “gourd fiddle” by the owner; it was essentially a balalaika-looking thing with the neck jutting out from a squash and ending in a finely whittled head. The carving looked Eastern European but was professed to be Irish by the owner, who was of that particular bloodline. The pros could not establish a worth without further research, so the gazes finally fell upon my lamp.

As I said, it had been valued at the original several hundred, then around a thousand, then at $3,000 when I had such things appraised for insurance back in 1980. Skinner was around then — the business was set in its 16-acre arena gallery in Bolton by 1970, but actually began seven years earlier when Robert W. Skinner, 30, a  Wellesley native and statistical engineer at Raytheon, held his first auctions at the Harvard Town Hall.

As it turns out, Bob Skinner was just hitting his business stride in 1980, based on his idea that a first-rate city deserves its own first-flight auction and appraisal facility. Sadly it all ended for him in 1984, with a final heart attack, but his concept continued with Nancy Skinner, who had worked closely with her husband. I was living in Boston then, but I had gone with another house.

And I had learned a bit about antiques along the way. Apparently a lot of beautiful clocks were ruined in the 1920s, when forward-thinking, if not well-meaning souls had electric motors installed. I worried briefly, because my student lamp had similarly been electrified, making the canister of midnight oil merely ornamental.

I also knew that in the past decades of financial distress, a lot of folks had cashed in their nice older pieces. The market might be flooded. But if this item would bring in excess of $3,000, I might be tempted to move it. If it might fetch more…definitely. I’d have some nice cash and the museum would profit mildly from the transaction. Win-win!

At last, the women focused on the nearly matching green glass shades and declared my treasure a lesser one, not solid brass and not in original condition. Alas, they were no longer terribly rare and it could be worth around $600. So, it had accrued value of its regional worth, plus my $75 shade.

I packed up the lamp, my father and great-great uncle Walter and went home … intellectually richer for the experience.