We all have those curiosities, oddments, and (we hope) valuables lying around our homes, perhaps on display, or else growing mold in basements, or collecting dust in attics. We are all arguably fascinated by what sticker price these objects might hold, which explains the popularity of appraisal shows on television.
On Friday evening, Dec. 4, at Marilyn and Denys Wortman’s gracious home on Hine’s Point in Vineyard Haven, two wickedly knowledgeable dealers from Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers in Boston evaluated guests’ items, one by one. The range of objets d’art was vast, from a Halloween witch whirligig, bought for $2 at an antique shop some 40 years ago, now worth about $75, to a kelly-green-with-yellow-trim Tiffany lamp. One of the dealers said with a chuckle that all clients believe they own Tiffanys, in the same way that tissues are called “Kleenex,” but this one was genuine, and she appraised it at $20,000 to 30,000.
Delighted partiers had paid a fee to attend, all in the service of raising funds for the museum’s new and future campus at the old Marine Hospital back down the loop of Hine’s Point Road.
Gathered in a charming living room crammed with the Wortmans’ own collectibles and Christmas decorations, dozens of rapt guests harkened to the wise words of appraisers Kerry Shrives and Judith Dowling. The experts asked each participant to share whatever he or she knew about the object in question: “The provenance is key to establishing worth,” explained Ms. Shrives. The first to be flourished was Mrs. Wortman’s own brass fireplace fender, carried over, many decades ago, from her grandfather’s camp in Maine. Ms. Shrives, with a pageboy of brown hair, and clad in a crisp navy blue suit, believed the fender to date to the late 1800s, and thought it could probably fetch, at auction, $75 to $100. Mrs. Wortman, deflated, nonetheless rallied with humor: “Maybe if I polished it?”
The appraisers explained the fluctuation in price for any given item: At auction, on eBay, or sold to a retailer, the sum is set at its lower end. The same retailer will, of course, raise the price to make a profit. And then there’s something called “replacement value,” which is what insurance companies pay for stolen goods, generally a good bit higher than all other amounts that might have been levied for it legitimately, causing the felonious among us to wonder why people don’t more routinely steal their own stuff.
But when it comes to setting a ballpark figure, “It’s all about the stories,” said Ms. Dowling, with a bob of white hair, brown-rimmed glasses, and wearing a white silk blouse. For example, a worn mallard duck decoy from a woman’s grandmother’s house in Vineyard Haven was identified by another guest as the work of a long-departed Island carver. Ms. Shrives said the proper attribution could raise the price from $100 to $1,000: “It’s worth doing the research.”
An elderly gentleman offered a silver teapot dated on its bottom, 1846. Ms. Shrives noted, “It’s made from coin, which is a lower-grade silver, but it has fine machine-work etchings.” The guest explained his grandfather had ordered seven silver service sets for his seven children. Now he himself was in proud possession of his own legacy of a complete set.
Often cultural anthropology and even international law enter into the discussion. A couple who displayed a terra cotta vase dating back to 1,500 A.D., having snapped it up on a long-ago trip to South America, were told that “issues” could arise on the open market. Ms. Dowling explained that artifacts from a pre-Columbian era are considered the property of their country of origin: Better to hold on to this one, rather than risk having it confiscated.
Two elderly brown leather books from 1817, their frontispieces signed by a long-ago sea captain, Charles Parker Coffin, looked as if they might fragment in Ms. Dowling’s hands. She said their worth was negligible but that “the original owner is the compelling part.” Chief curator at the museum Bonnie Stacy concurred: “We’re always happy to collect anything that tells us more about Island history and life.”
To that end, the museum has just released a new and exciting book, “Island Stories,” written by Ms. Stacy and photographed by Wayne Smith, in which 150 pieces from the permanent collections are highlighted for their curiosity value and, again, the tales they tell. Executive director David Nathans observes in the forward: “The objects should speak to why they were made, who used them, and what they represent. This information forms a story, like a biography, of the individual object and its context, and then tells the observer that it is something surprising, something significant, indeed something meaningful.”
Items in “Island Stories” range from a sumptuous gold-framed painting of the Civil War–era paddle steamer Monnohansett, painted by Charlies Macreading Vincent (1843–’81), to a pair of taxidermied heath hens — the closest we’ll ever get to the bright-eyed gold-feathered flock whose last scion, “Booming Ben,” bellowed his final call in 1932, and was seen no more. There are quilts and antique manuscripts and a funny-looking piece of machinery called a typewriter from the poet Helene Johnson (1906–’95) of the Harlem Renaissance, cousin to Dorothy West, who also used the old Smith-Corona; the two of them summered in Oak Bluffs from childhood onward.
On hand to supervise the appraisal event, in addition to Ms. Stacy, were staffers Katy Fuller, Sierra Adams, Linsey Lee, and development director Dan Waters. After all the items had been evaluated, Mr. Waters and Mr. Wortman urged continuing support for the museum. The overarching goal is restoration of the old Marine Hospital which, in spite of its years of relative neglect, still looks as if Scarlett O’Hara might at any moment burst through the high front doors, hoopskirt aswirl, and charge down the long grassy knoll.
Currently on display at the museum’s headquarters on School Street in Edgartown until the end of March 2016 is “Made of Clay: Pottery for Use and Beauty.” The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 to 4.