What’s More Valuable–the Box of Crayons or the Story Behind Them?

While vintage crayons themselves may not be worth much money, the story behind them can be priceless. This turn of the century box of crayons sold for $29 in December 2012.

In the antique business, one hears all kinds of stories related to items being offered for sale or requiring an appraisal. Most stories follow along the lines of the “Telephone Game,” where the original story gets enhanced or changed with each telling. The end result is that by the time I hear the tale, all sorts of former ownerships to famous people or a historical event have been added, but of course there is no actual documentation to back up the claims.

As an example, during my time in this business, I’ve seen more swords reported to have been used by some Great Great Grandad at Custer’s Last Stand, that actually would have been more likely used by Scotsmen in the Battle of Culloden over 100 years earlier in 1746 and 4500 miles away. Other stories have claimed that the sword in question is the property of one of Wellington’s lieutenants fighting against Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, or used in the “Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1854.  In reality, they have only been ceremonial swords used by a wide assortment of Grand Poohbahs of some 1500 different men’s lodges that dotted the country during much of the early 20th Century. Some of these stories would make great movie plots, but sadly only historical fiction.

This 18th century Scottish sword sold for $1450 in November 2017.

Then on the other side, are the very heart felt tales that are completely true and if you had not seen the documented evidence, they as well would seem like incredible fiction. These are the stories that stick with one, and from time to time resurface because they resonate with our own experiences. One of my favorite appraisals was one I could not put a price on, a story of hope, love and loss from over 100 years ago. I came across this story circa 1999 -2002, when I was providing appraisal services under contract for one of the first major online appraisal services. As a generalist with a reputation for dealing with obscure items, they sent this appraisal request my way:  a box of Crayola crayons. 

It wasn’t just any old box of crayons.  It was a virtually unused box dating from the very first year the company was in business, 1903, with only the red crayon having been used. At that point, the company’s centennial was coming up and because the firm was an American institution, I thought it would make a great story for that reason alone. But there was far more to the story, once I got into it. 

A box of early 1900’s Crayola crayons sold for $35.99 in November 2013.

This box of crayons came with a story unlike most. Granted, there was nobody famous, rich or of historical importance included in the tale, it was just part of a large selection of children’s art supplies found in an old humpback trunk in the attic of a drive shed of an old family farm. The last owner of this farm had died, leaving distant relatives to deal with the estate and upcoming auction. The trunk had been found along with some letters, after they had combed through over 130 years of family belongings, sorting out what would be donated or sold. According to some of the letters, the trunk contained the property of a little boy, the son of the farm’s original owners. He had been struck by one of the many childhood diseases that killed many children during the 19th century. He hadn’t died but was left virtually bed ridden, practically confined to his room. His parents hoped for a full recovery and in an attempt to keep him occupied, had hired a tutor and purchased a variety of art supplies, including this box of Crayolas. It was not known how long this little boy survived, but judging from how little used these art supplies were used, it did not appear he survived for very long before his health finally failed him. His grief stricken parents appeared to have packed his belongings away very carefully in the trunk, then put it away in the attic of the drive shed, where it sat for the next 98 years.

I did my due diligence on trying to determine the value, without much luck. It turned out that not even the world famous Smithsonian Museum had a box of Crayola’s from the first year, though they did have one from the third year of the company’s operation. I did not expect any great value for these crayons, but as far as I was able to determine at that time, no comparable box of Crayolas had been sold at auction or offered for sale as far back as any reference records went. My recommendation to the owners was that the value of these crayons was largely sentimental, but because  the company’s Centennial was coming up in 2003, their best bet would be to contact them with this story. My thought was that it would certainly be a great commercial opportunity for them and they would probably be eager to make an offer above what the crayons would sell for at country auction. Worthpoint’s Worthopedia does list a great many early Crayola products.

I never did hear back regarding the outcome of the story. The company I had contracted out my services to didn’t follow up on the story and shut down operations less than a year later. In the years since, whenever anyone asks me what was the most interesting or unusual item I’ve encountered, it’s this box of crayons more than any other that I recall. It is this image that comes to mind, of a little boy propped up in his bed with a pad of paper and the box of crayons on his lap, his world limited to the confines of his room and what he could see out his bedroom window.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. He can be reached through his website Antique-Appraise.com.

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