Did you ever want an expert's eyes on your antiques? I do just that at my 150+ appraisal events nationwide every year. And, one of the questions that I hear all too often at my public events is “How can you tell?” I try to avoid reminding people that the way that I can tell what something is or more commonly what something isn’t is based on my education and extensive experience. I use my decades of appraising, art history research and teaching, and museum experience to evaluate all types of objects. I draw upon this knowledge in order to glean important information about your antique pieces—works of art, antiques, or collectibles.
My live stage shows are totally unscripted and I do not know what kind of antique is going to be presented to me at my events. People bring me all different types of stuff and I don’t know what’s coming next. So I appraise on the fly and I spare no feelings—you have a gem or you have junk!
Yes, if you are wondering, I have been stumped—Once—by a little kid. That’s right. A
5 year-old boy brought me a home-made wooden corn seeder that his grandfather had fashioned in the 1940s to aid in sowing fields near Lancaster, PA and its value was unknown to me. That kid’s name was Justin and I won’t ever forget him. I remember him with fondness, well sort of. He was cute, but he would have been even cuter if he had brought me his grandmother’s bone china teacup which I could have easily appraised instead of stumping me with that oddball corn seeder! Nevermind, I have to give Justin his due and I continue to mention him when the “have you ever been stumped, Dr. Lori?” question arises. Justin knew something that I didn’t know. Kudos to him—little brat!
All kidding aside, when someone today asks me how I can tell the age of something or if an object is repaired or restored, I tell them to look beyond the beauty. Look at the workmanship. Look at the construction. Look at the foundation of the piece. That is where the lies hide. We can all shine something up or decorate a piece to make it look great, but the truth is in the basics.
For instance, the late 19th Century letter box that Cindy Shook, Gallery 63 Office Manager from Discovery’s Auction Kings, picked during our season 4 premiere Pick-Off episode is a good example of looking beyond the beauty. First off, the interior of the box was not authentic rosewood but rather wood painted to look like the grain of rosewood. I further broke the news to Cindy that she purchased a locking letter box that was only partly from the 1800s. She asked me “how can you tell?” I told her to look at the contrasting, different types of wooden pieces used in the marquetry work on the top of the box—satinwood, walnut, rosewood, etc. Those parts are correct, authentic. However, that same marquetry design had a story to tell. It once belonged to another object.
The decorative motif of the marquetry inlay piece featured a recorder, trumpet, and flowers and this piece was probably cut out of an early 1900s music box—hence the musical instruments—and later used as a replacement on top of the letter box. If you look at the positioning of the decorative marquetry forms, the flowers on the left and right sides are very close to the edge and they are nearly cut off indicating that perhaps the damage to the original music box was so significant that the restorer had to cut the wooden replacement piece so close to the decorative flowers that there was no space left on either side of the floral motif. Typically, there would be an area of blank space between the flowers at both left and right side and the framing of the marquetry piece. But, that is not the case on this box.This is a tell-tale sign that the box has been reworked and a replacement piece inserted into the top of the letterbox.
Cindy has been in the auction business a long time and has experience restoring objects too. She knows her stuff, no doubt about that. Her aim in the Pick-Off was to purchase an object that would attract auction buyers and she was on a time deadline too. She succeeded with attracting buyers to the letter box as this piece still did well at the Atlanta auction despite the replacement.
The other issue I see with this letter box is the highly feminine motif on a very masculine letter box. There is no delicate key-hole hardware and no organic or floral elements anywhere else on this letter box. The hardware is straightforward and functional and the framing around the box itself is straightforward with clean lines which are indicators of a man’s functional object from circa 1875-1895 period. When it comes to evaluating antiques, look at the object closely and let it reveal its history to you. Remember, antiques don’t lie, people do.
Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents appraisal events to audiences worldwide. Dr. Lori is the expert appraiser on the hit TV show, Auction Kings on Discovery channel. Visit DrLoriV.com, Facebook.com/DoctorLori or call (888) 431-1010.