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Collectibles Everywhere: Even at the Dentist

by Sandra Lee Stuart (09/05/08).

You never know where valuable collectibles will turn up.

Take the other day when I was driving into Leesburg, Va., to keep an appointment with my dentist. I was scheduled for a root canal—ahh, the joys of being over 50—got there with plenty of time, announced myself and sat down in the waiting room opposite a lady who was reading a copy of the Piedmont Virginian, a magazine to which I contribute a column on antiques. We made brief eye contact, and she resumed her reading.

Apropos of nothing, without looking up from the article that she was reading, she said, “So let me tell you about this piece of silver that I inherited from my great-aunt.”

Now I know that everyone in the known professions gets this kind of frontal attack, appraisers are no exception. It’s similar to the lady at the cocktail party who is introduced to the neurosurgeon and proceeds to tell him about her lower-back pain. Wrong specialty, but hey, he’s a doctor, and it’s a conversation starter. Or the recognized chef who is inundated by people at the produce section desperate to know just how you cook with chipotle peppers.

With a certain amount of branded identity as a result my antique show on television, I confess to getting this frequently. I looked at my watch calculating just how much time I had before going in to get drilled and decided to take the bait. “Tell me about this piece of silver that you inherited from your great-aunt.”

“Well,” she said, “I think that it is a creamer. It’s about 6-, 6-1/2-inches high and sort of looks like an upside-down helmet like the Greeks used to wear.”

All right, I had mental picture of this cream jug so I hazarded forward and asked if it had a square base. “Yes.” Did it have a slightly elongated handle? Another “yes.” Wow, I must be psychic or I’m good at this. Were there any decorations on the sides of the creamer or initials in a little shield or anything like that? “Not that I can remember.”

OK, I was gearing up for the next question, but she beat me to the punch. “Oh, yeah,” she said, “there are marks that sort of look like initials on the bottom edge of the piece.” Right. I’m hooked.

“Where did your great-aunt get this piece, if you can remember?” “No idea.” Possible country? “Well, she lived in Ohio.” Had Ohio seceded from the Union and become a country? “No, I meant did she perhaps travel and purchase this piece other than in the United States.” Well, her great-aunt had lived in London for about 10 years.

Collectibles sleuthing

Now we were getting somewhere. Remember, we were in the dentist’s office, and I felt like I was appropriately looking for hen’s teeth. “Did she collect silver?” I asked. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, she did, but this is the only piece I inherited. I think I got it because I used to borrow it for doll tea parties when I was a kid.” Too much information, let’s keep her on track. “About those markings on the side?” “Yeah?”

Did I happen to mention that she had yet to make eye contact beyond the initial glance and was riveted to the magazine? “I know,” I said, “it’s probably a stretch, but can you remember how many markings there are?” “As a matter of fact, I can.” This would be phenomenal information. I’d just moved to the edge of my seat when the dental assistant came in to collect me. “Give me five minutes,” I ask. “I’m in the middle of something.”

“There were some initials,” the woman answered. “Then something that I think looked like a lion lying on its side, then something that looks like a joker’s head, you know like on playing cards, and this guy’s face in profile.” She came to an abrupt halt. I asked, “Nothing else, like a letter in a circle?” “Nope,” she said.

Well, what did I have to lose? “You’ve got an excellent memory,” I said. “Most people don’t have a mind for this kind of detail. Can you remember what the initials were, by any chance?” I think I was willing her to say what I was thinking—or hoping—she would say. “Yeah,” she said, “the initials were HB.”

I am at this point clicking—granted not literally—my heels in glee. Who would have thought I would come to the dentist for a simple—oh, I hoped it was simple—root canal and I would stumble upon a little gem?

My suspicions about serendipity were confirmed. I paused for a moment and made my pronouncement. “It sounds to me that you have a late 18th-, very early 19th-century Georgian cream jug and that the marks on it stand for Hester Bateman, sterling, London, and the face in profile is King George III.”

Creamer lady gets interested

“Really?” she said putting down the magazine. “What’s something like that worth, do you think?”

“Well, I can give you a guess if it is what I think it is, but it would be best to see the piece before I said anything.”

“Okay,” she said, and with that, she opened her pocketbook and pulled out what I could only assume was the cream jug wrapped in what looked to be a washcloth. She unwrapped it, tossing the cloth to the side, and held it out to me. Well, I’ve been in the business a long time, and I have found things in the most unprepossessing surroundings, but this was at the top of the list.

My eye was fixed on this little gem as I crossed the room, and I didn’t notice the small crowd comprised of the receptionist, dental hygienist, dental assistant, dentist and some other person, the person for whom, it turned out, the creamer lady was waiting.

There I was holding an early piece of silver made by one of the foremost, highly sought after, highly collectible silversmiths, a woman no less, from an illustrious family of silver and goldsmiths, in a dentist’s office. I was at a momentary loss for words as I turned the small cream jug over in my hands. I looked to the base of the creamer to examine the marks. Yes, they were just as the lady described them, and yes, it was made by Hester Bateman.

Unlike some of her other designs that were original in design but commissioned works for the most part, this particular piece was remarkably simple, some might say plain. To me this “inverted helmet with an elongated handle on a square base,” I’m paraphrasing here, speaks of the great reserve and respect that Bateman had for the materials she used, the purity of the line that speaks so eloquently of 18th-century-Georgian design.

And the verdict is . . .

There was a palpable quiet in the room, I think even the dental Muzak was muted, while the gathered assembly awaited the verdict.

“It’s real,” I said. “Feeling the weight and thumbing the patina, which has not been scarred with overpolishing, I would say that it has a value to a collector of between $1,500 and $2,000 or more.”

The assemblage gasped, and there was light applause. The lady, on the other hand, was sanguine. Usually the camera, at this point, zooms in on a tight shot of the face of the person who has just received such joyous news. This lady didn’t bat an eye. She took the piece, wrapped it up and put it into her handbag. Snapped it shut thus ending the interview.

But, I was curious. “May I ask how it is that you are carrying this piece around with you? Is this something you do on a regular basis?”

“Well, actually I took it to the jeweler in town to have those marks removed. They sort of get in the way.”

“Please,” I implored, “promise me that you will not have those marks removed, or if you cannot control yourself, please call me so that I can talk you out of it. Those marks are a piece of history and the identity of the person who created it.” I produced my card and circled my telephone number. She got up and addressed someone in the crowd. “Well, Mom, pay your bill. It’s time to go.”

Everyone scattered back to their places, and I heard as the mother and daughter duo left the office, this said by the mother. “Maybe that nice young man has an opinion on that collection of pewter your great-aunt left us . . .”

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