A mixed atmosphere of anticipation and curiosity lingered in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s Morgan Learning Center throughout the day last Saturday. Some people patiently waited for their appointments when no one else was at the sitting area, listening to the appraisers’ analysis of whoever was before them in the queue. When several people were waiting to have their items appraised, a small and short-term community formed around sharing what each person brought, and the stories that went along with the items.
Saturday was the museum’s Appraisal Day, and appraisers from Skinner Auction House came in to assess items for visitors who signed up and paid for their appointments in advance. Karen Keane, CEO of Skinner, and Kerry Shrives, director of Skinner, came in as the day’s appraisers. According to Savannah Berryman-Moore, the museum’s programming and events coordinator, this was an event that has occurred annually for many years. Last year was the exception because of COVID-19. With COVID restrictions loosened, Keane and Shrives returned to the Island to evaluate people’s possessions. The museum received a portion of the proceeds from any items people decided to consign with Skinner during Appraisal Day.
Keane and Shrives both entered appraising because of their appreciation of the stories that can be told through everyday items.
Keane always had an interest in material culture and antiques, leading to an appraiser career with a broad knowledge of furniture and fine and decorative arts, and a specialization in American furniture and decorative arts, Americana, and folk art.
“It’s the things we use in our everyday lives, and it sort of tells a story of who we are as a people. The artwork that we create resonates with who we are, so it’s almost a window into history,” Keane said. “When you hold an object in your hand and you look at it … it’s really interesting to see.”
Keane mentioned coming across a collection of 17th century Americana gathered by the Atten family in the Midwest, and a carved Bible box, which a 17th century colonial family would have used to protect the holy book because of how important it was to them.
Shrives had a slightly different but thematically similar entry into her appraisal career. “I started with a background in European history, and just found that I really enjoyed decorative arts and the stories they were able to tell,” Shrives said. “Auctions are fantastic because there’s so much material available to study and learn. Every day is an opportunity.”
Eyes for detail and knowledge of material and history from the appraisers gave context for the visitors who brought in items for evaluation, all with their own reasons and stories behind them. Each assessment was a conversation between history and personal lives.
“That’s all about what we do here. It’s not about big prices, it’s about good stories,” Keane said.
Every item has to be looked at individually for its age, origins, and other factors, but Keane said there was still a “menu of common denominators” when assessors estimate value: rarity, condition, demand in the current market, and beauty in the eyes of the beholder
Linda Forrester brought in a painting of an upper-class lady in a flowery garden during what seems to be teatime. Forrester said while she and her husband were living in Paris because of a project of his, they encountered the painting in 1997. It was painted by artist Katia Pissarro in 1994, and the couple decided to purchase it from her. Forrester and her husband are currently figuring out estate issues, and she brought in the painting to find out its value.
“We’re not expecting a big windfall, but we’re just curious,” Forrester said.
Keane made an auction estimate, which are usually conservative amounts, at $1,500 for the painting. She said there is a possibility for the painting’s value to be at $4,500 at a gallery or art house, where prices and estimates can be three times what an auction estimate is.
Other items had a more local connection to the Island. Manny Jardin brought in a painting by Pete Ortiz that read “Merry Christmas Duttons” on it, with three men wearing sombreros. Jardin said he found the painting in a dump in the ’70s, preserved between two sheets of Plexiglas. Jardin did not have much information about the painting, but he said Ortiz was a Tisbury resident who did some work painting the sets for the classic movie that swam into Martha’s Vineyard: “Jaws.”
“I’ve had fun, and it’s interesting,” Jardin said.
Although the painting’s estimated value is $200, Keane encouraged Jardin to donate it to the museum if he grew tired of it, because of the local connection.
When evaluating items, Keane and Shrives used various tools to analyze them. Shrives said some of the tools they brought for Appraisal Day were jeweler’s loupes to magnify small objects, tape measures, small flashlights, and more specific equipment used to test valuable minerals. The appraisers also used various online art databases, such as Artnet, as reference sources.
Some items that were brought in could not be fully appraised with the equipment or expertise on hand. David Alton brought in a thousand-dollar bill he received 30 years ago that featured President Grover Cleveland. Keane told Alton that he may need to take the bill to an appraiser with a specialty in coins and paper money, or to a grading company, to find out its true value.
“We never know what we’ll find. It varies day by day,” Shrives said.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is located on 151 Lagoon Pond Road in Vineyard Haven. It hosts a number of programs, exhibitions, and events. The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 am to 4 pm, until May 27. Visit mvmuseum.org. Skinner is an auction house with multiple locations in the U.S., with two in Massachusetts. Learn more about their services at skinnerinc.com.