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Great Finds: Walking into a Hidden Time Capsule

by Christopher Kent (05/27/09).

For many years I hosted the popular radio show, “Antique Talk,” that was syndicated throughout the U.S. and sponsored by the UAW out of Detroit. The three-hour live show originated as “Trash or Treasure” and was then hosted by its creator, genius and author of the informative book “Trash or Treasure,” Dr Tony Hyman.

I was brought in as guest host when Tony decided on some other career ventures and I eventually took over as host with a run for almost eight years. I used Tony’s book, which was a guide to buyers coast to coast, with more than 2,200 categories and 1,000 expert buyers, to help callers first identify what it was they had, appraise the piece based on current buying market trends, and then shoot them to the right buyer, forearmed and forewarned. I instructed people how to look at their items, taught them, through specific instruction how to identify specific marks, styles, points of construction, and, basically give them the tools that would make them experts at least in this one particular area.

 

A caller had nothing for me to appraise but told me about the antebellum house, like this one, that he was moving from a small town near Birmingham onto a plot of land that his family has owned since before the Civil War.

I met a man who had nothing for me to appraise but told me about the antebellum house, like this one, that he was moving from a small town near Birmingham onto a plot of land that his family has owned since before the Civil War.

 

I was invited by an affiliate network to do an on-site broadcast and appraisal day in Alabama. While appraising at a large multi-dealer antique mall there, I met Ron, who had nothing for me to appraise but told me about the antebellum house that he was moving from a small town near Birmingham onto a plot of land that his family has owned since before the Civil War. He told me all about the house; large, framed and formerly owned by a pair of spinster sisters. The sisters—there originally had been three but one had died many years ago of tuberculosis—had been prominent Deb’s. Ron also mentioned something about some secret rooms and the sister dying in the house. They had inherited the house from their widowed father and had been left, apparently, comfortably well off, judging by the condition of the house when Ron bought it. The last surviving sister, dying in her 90s, had willed the house to some obscure cousin—we’ll call him Junior—who feigned indifference to the white elephant and put it immediately on the market it after auctioning off the contents for a small fortune, I heard later through the grapevine, down in New Orleans.

Ron told us how he had had the pillars removed, the structure secured, and then all the excitement about it being lifted onto the huge flatbed that took it the 10 miles to the new site. He explained about the difficulties, bureaucratically, to get all the paperwork accomplished in order to complete the task, describing how it had taken months to clear the route and have the power lines taken down, the timing the move across a railroad track, what had to be done to the former site, etc, etc. Not knowing what was involved in the process, I was both impressed by his purpose and determination to complete both the task and the vision that he had. Having wrapped up my weekend in Alabama, I then returned to Virginia.

Weeks later I received a call from Ron on the show. It was one of those “remember me” calls. Well of course I remembered him. I filled in the listening audience with Ron’s story and he began to tell the update. The house had been delivered, secured onto its new foundation, columns put in place and the plumbing and wiring had started to be installed. Apparently, when the electrical contractor was putting in the new wiring they ran into a snag: They had too much new line and nowhere to put it, Ron explained. When running the line on the second floor, they ran into a wall. Based on the square footage, this wall, which terminated at the end of a hallway, should have not existed. I immediately suggested he should start rapping on the walls, not to exorcize demons but to listen to see if there was a portion of the hallway that had been closed off, or better yet, to go outside and just look at the structural design of the house.

I was wrapping up the show when Ron called back. “I was knockin’ all over the back hallway wall and you’re right; I went out side and took a long look at the house, came back in, figured where, and hit a hollow sounding spot. I did the most logical thing, I got out the sledgehammer and starting to knock into the wall and you won’t guess what I found.”

I needed no prodding to ask, “What?”

“A doorway. A closed-off, locked doorway. And you’ll never guess, the key was in the lock.”

“Yes.” I say. Now, I know I’m a Southerner by adoption with old, old Yankee roots, and I’m used to the more relaxed pace of the South, but this was getting ridiculous.

“Should I open the door?” Ron asks. Should I open the door! I’m thinking, “No, Ron, don’t open the door leave us all in suspense. Of course open the door!”

“Open the door Ron,” I shout down the line. This is live radio, and dead air is dead in the water. My producer is screaming in my ear through the headphones that she has 70 callers all saying, open the damned door. We all hear more wall being knocked away, the phone being dropped, the sledgehammer bashing through plaster and lathe, then, collectively, we exhale as we hear Ron trying to turn the key in the lock, we hear a snap and hear Ron push open the door.

“Holy expletive! You are not going to believe this.”

What? What? What? We (me and the radio audience) are collectively chanting, like the Greek chorus. Dead silence.

“Ron, you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“So, talk to us Ron,” I say, trying to remain calm.

“I’m standing in a tiny apartment; this must be the secret rooms I heard about. There’s a little kitchenette and there’s a little bedroom and bathroom right off it, and you’re not going to believe this…”

I am willing to believe anything at this point. “What, Ron?”

A Tiffany Studios acorn pattern fractured glass lamp.

A Tiffany Studios acorn pattern fractured glass lamp.

“The rooms are intact. Now, I had this house moved 10 miles and raised onto a new foundation, but everything is in its place. I mean, the table is set. I mean set with linen and dishes and silverware and there’s a newspaper folded on the table like someone was going to sit down to breakfast. And the bed is made and the linens folded down. There’s a lot of stuff in here, good stuff, I mean, silver and crystal and a Persian rug on the floor and the furniture is all good and real old and, damn, if that isn’t what looks like a Tiffany lamp on the bedside table, and there’s a Tiffany, I’m sure it is, writing set on this little table that looks French and the walls are covered with prints and paintings, and there’s an unbelievable small chandelier hanging here in the bedroom. The bathroom’s crammed with silver; there’s a silver vanity set and a big silver mirror is hanging above the sink. Well, I think it’s silver; it’s kind of tarnished like all the other silver.”

An antique Bakshaish Persian Runner Rug.

An antique Bakshaish Persian Runner Rug.

Ron comes up for air. “I just can’t believe this.”

You guess it; we have to go into commercial and then wrap up the show, and we’re out of time.

“Shelly,” I say (Shelly was my producer), “get Ron’s telephone number. I’ll talk to him after we wrap up.” Two minutes to close the show, and I promise the audience that absolutely we will continue this conversation with Ron next week. And then we’re off the air.

I get Ron on the phone. “Ron, you okay,” I ask.

“Yeah, I just can’t believe this.”

“Ron, go to the newspaper and tell me the date.”

“What?”

“The newspaper, tell me the date.”

“It’s a copy of the Atlanta Constitution, and it’s dated 1938. You think these rooms have been closed up since 1938?”

The practical side of me kicks in. “Ron I want you to photograph the rooms. I want you to take detailed shots of the items in the room, I want you to take an inventory of the rooms and then I‘m going to call this appraiser I know in Atlanta to come and give you a full appraisal. Ron, you still with me?”

“Yeah,” he says, other worldly.

“And, Ron,” I continue, “keep mum about this. I know that you will want to tell everybody but my gut is telling me you should keep a lid on this. Promise me you will?”

“Sure,” he says.

I congratulate Ron on this tremendous find again, he promises that he will call next week and before I ring off to call the appraiser, out of nowhere, I say, “Ron, do me a favor. Turn to the obituary section of the paper and tell me if you see any familiar names there. Be careful with the paper.”

“Right,” he says.

There’s a moments silence and then Ron says, “I’ll be damned. I think this is the obit of the sister that died. Yeah, it is. ‘Miss Alicia F., aged 18,’ ” he reads, “ ‘succumbed on Tuesday, after a protracted illness of tuberculosis.’ There’s a whole bunch more about her daddy and his daddy. Yeah, and ‘she is survived by her father, Dr. Theodore F. and sisters Frederica and Zenobia.’ There’s an address, right, those were the people that used to own the house.”

Amazing. I ring off. I connect with my Atlanta appraiser, “Fred, you’re not going to believe this.” I tell all, give him Ron’s contact information and ring off with his promise to call Ron, get there pronto, and to give me a full report and tell him to keep this under his hat.

Late 19th century Meissen china plates with Blue Onion pattern.

Late 19th century Meissen china plates with Blue Onion pattern.

Within 48 hours, Fred calls me. “Your guy has a fortune in here. The crystal is 18th century French, so is the furniture. The silver is Tiffany, all Tiffany, and there’s hundreds of pieces of silver. The rug in the bedroom is 19th century Persian and in mint condition and the kitchen gadgets are all vintage. I mean, I’m just walking around here stepping over my jaw. Oh yeah, and the china is 19th century Meissen and the kitchen table is the prettiest little French wine tasting table, the prints are all English and I swear this painting hanging over the bed is a little Romney.”

Sketch of Emma Hamilton,” by George Romney (1734-1802), believed painted between 1782 and 1784.

Sketch of Emma Hamilton,” by George Romney (1734-1802), believed painted between 1782 and 1784.

“Give me a bottom line, Fred,” I say.

“Just off the top of my head, I’d say that we’re looking at, at auction, easy, geez, a lot of money.”

Fred later reported that a closet within the small apartment was discovered and held shelves of silver by the “Paul’s,” Lamerie and Storr, the brilliant English 18th century silversmiths, and the finds continued when small boxes, in the same cupboard, revealed early Victorian jewelry, unset gemstones, and a strand of enormous South Sea pearls the color of pastel pink.

An antique Victorian, silver tea & coffee set by Paul Lamerie.

An antique Victorian, silver tea & coffee set by Paul Lamerie.

A seven-piece silver tea service in the Teniers pattern by Paul Storr.

A seven-piece silver tea service in the Teniers pattern by Paul Storr.

The conservative estimate of the entire contents was appraised at $250,000. And, no, Ron did not take my advice about keeping a lid on the find. He leaked the discovery, confidentially, he thought, at the local watering hole that leaked it to the local rag, that leaked it to a major paper and I think there were some interviews on local and national TV.

An early Victorian Honeymoon pin 10k yellow-gold with a tiny genuine ruby prong set in middle of flower.

An early Victorian Honeymoon pin in 10k yellow-gold with a tiny genuine ruby prong set in middle of flower.

A month later I’m back on the air and Shelly says, “It’s Ron from Alabama on the line.”

“Ron, how are you?”

“Well, Christopher, you’ll never guess.

“Guess what, Ron?”

“I’m being sued. You got it, by that little weasel, Cousin Junior. Says, he’s read all about it and he wants the contents of the hidden rooms back, he’s trumped up all kinds of allegations and he’s squealing all over the place.

“I never realized that when I turned the key and opened the door that I was pulling the lid off Pandora’s box and a bunch of toads were going to jump out.”

Instead of a good appraiser, I found him a good lawyer and all ended well… eventually.

Christopher Kent is a member of the WorthPoint board of advisers and director of evaluations for WorthPoint. He is also an antiques and collectibles generalist, fine-arts broker and president of CTK Design. 

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14 Responses to “Great Finds: Walking into a Hidden Time Capsule”

  1. Anita Choudhary says:

    That was just too good. I really like your style of narration and the real stories. Looking forward to reading your next blog post :)

  2. XAN SPANOPOULOS says:

    I am in awe by your story & Ron’s fabulous find. I too have some treasures, not like Ron ,but to find a good appraiser near me is a hard thing. I have to learn how to put the pictures on the computer so I can show you. I will keep trying. Love WorthPoint.

  3. deborah says:

    was certainly a dream come true for many of us would be antiquity owners….

  4. Dave Hammond says:

    I read your narration with great enjoyment and wild dreams of discovering the same some time in my lifetime, which better be soon as I’m on my way to 67. (Heh, heh) Anyway, I’m curious what the year was this discovery happened? It sounds like the appraisal was low compared to today’s figures and feel like today’s numbers would be much higher.

    Also, I have a few antiques I’ve collected over the years and wonder if you know of a reputable appraiser here in the Providence, RI/Boston, MA area that I could talk to? Is there generally a charge to appraise items? Lastly, is placing them on the web really a safe and good way to show them? Thanks for the dreams, Dave.

    • christopher kent says:

      Dave, thank you for your comments. There are many good appraisers in the Boston/RI area and no there is usually no charge for a consultation but there will be one charged for the formal appraisal. Fees my be calculated by the hour or by the item depending on how extensive the collection is. You could go the route of contacting the American Society of Appraisers in Boston, be specific as to the type of appraiser/appraisal you would like done, for example, insurance, resale. Or, you could photograph your items and post them on the Worthpoint site and request an appraisal from one of the hundreds of Worthologists on the site. Yes, it is safe. Hope this helps and thanks again. Christopher Kent

  5. Barbara Brooks says:

    I love stories like the one I just read! I could sit for hours, reading or, listening to stories about the past and finding treasures from the past, etc. I go to garage and estate sales faithfully and I wouldn’t be surprised if I had something laying around the house of value. For instance, I have this old salt and pepper shaker and on the bottom, there’s no signature but, something like a cross, half moon or something of that nature. Anyway, I’m glad to have lucked up on this website.
    Thanks
    Barb

    • Suzy Tadlock says:

      I loved reading this story. I couldn’t wait to hear what Ron found even though I knew it was going to be unbelievably wonderful by the way the story was unfolding. Lucky you Ron! I dream of something like this happening to me.
      I love antiques. I get such a feeling of awe just looking at the intricate detail. You can feel the love that was put into the making of the items whether that be wood, jewelery, mirrors, ect. I wouldn’t have been able to sell any of it.

  6. Linda A. says:

    Wonderful story, artfully told. How thrilling to be a witness to that family’s touching tribute to Miss Julia!
    I agree with Suzy; the devotion evidenced in the careful preservation of those rooms is more valuable than any sum. It would be an honor (insurance rates permitting) to “keep it just the way it was”, as Jackie Kennedy said of certain things during her presentation of a Tour of the White House.

  7. carol hunt says:

    On a recent trip to n.y. for a family celebration, I went antique shopping and picked up a chandelier at a thrift store.I brought it back to my sister’s hoouse to pack up and ship back home to fl. with me. My brother-in-law upon seeing the chandelier said that quite a few years ago at a job he was on at 3rdave.and maybe madison ave. he was asked by the “maid” of the house to “just get rid of everyhting” they were preparing to remodel. My brother-in-law said incerulously “even that old light fixture”? She repied “everything”! Well my nephew and I climbed up in the attic of the garage to see this find and after an hour of dangerous clibing and moving of junk we pulled down this amazing old fixture,huge with stained glass originally a gas light and then converted, it has hanging brass bella donna (bruganmansia flowers) that is where the lightbulb would screw in, it is qiute dirty and I am not sure if it’s Tiffany, now my brother-in-law is not up on antiques and it is now sitting in his basement, can you please help us to find out what to do? I fear it may be lost again and possibly damaged if we do not do something soon.

    • christopher kent says:

      Carol, it sounds likle you too may have found a Great Find, but, no one will be able to tell until you unearth it from the cellar, photograph it, with dimensions and a basic condition report, and shoot the images off to Worthpoint so that one of the hundreds of Worthologists can determine what it is you have. It could be a Tiffany. Examine it for Tiffany Studio marks or any serial numbers. Usually these can be found in inconspicuous spots on the metal portion of the construction. Good Luck, and thank you. Christopher Kent

  8. Norma says:

    What a marvelous story, I just couldn’t stop reading it! As a 45 year antique collector and lover of antebellum homes, this was the best article I have ever read, how wonderful of you to encourage Ron, and what great results from his lawsuit! Thank the good Lord for people like Ron who have the burning desire to save the old homes!
    Thank you!
    Norma

  9. Christopher,
    Your articles read like short stories. You may have missed your calling, but please don’t stop! I really enjoy your articles.

  10. Carol Robertson White says:

    This is an amazing story. I am a Civil War Buff, Family Historian, and was taught at a young age the love of old houses. My mother was a collector of Old Houses and Meissen
    Blue Onion. This story gave me goose bumps and I am glad it all turned out for Ron in the end! How wonderful! Did he really sell these beautiful items or did he keep the room intact?
    Carol

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