An Appraiser’s Diary: Family Photos Save the Day!

In this particular case, broken figurines lead to the appraisal of the missing family silver.

Being found out at social events that one is an appraiser often puts me in the same boat as a doctor or pyschiatrist, everyone wants your professional opinion…for free. Somewhere between the first course and second glass of Beaujolais at a dinner party, somebody will find out what you do for a living, and you end up doing a mini antiques roadshow using the host’s Noritake dinnerware or Gorham silver tea service as props. Sometimes if you are lucky, you get a referral out of it, but most often not, at least not always right away. It comes with the territory and you just run with it, because you never know who might remember your performance at a future date and require your services.  

Sometimes news of your impromtu dinner trick echoes from a friend of a friend, coming to the attention of people you’ve never heard of. When my phone rang it was such a case, a call from an insurance adjuster I’d never met who was pulling what was left of his hair out over a claim that was dragging on forever. He’d had made calls to all of his regular contacts and none of them wanted to touch the mess. My name had come up over lunch with a lady I had met at a “Speak Easy” 1920’s costume party. She had been wearing Art Deco earrings and I asked if she had them insured. She thought I was joking, because they had been in a box of costume jewelry she’d picked up, and she didn’t believe they were the real deal until I showed her the barely visible hallmark on the back of one of them. She had been impressed and mentioned that maybe I should examine the rest of the jewelry that came in the same box as the earrings. I’d given her my card but never did get a call back, luckily though she’d kept my card and passed it on to the adjuster. I listened to him as he laid out what the claim was about:

“I’m not sure if you want to take this on, but here’s what it’s about. The insured’s vacation home had been burglarized, much of his unusual collection of porcelain figurines of rabbits was smashed by the thief, probably pissed about not finding what they expected to in a million dollar cottage or maybe knocked the shelves containing them over in the dark. To make matters worse the insured has claimed their antique sterling silver service for 12 was stolen. As the silverware had not been listed by maker, model or vintage, the insurance company is digging in its heels about what they are willing to pay out for it. The insured isn’t pleased at all with what they considered a low ball valuation for what they believe was a high end set and it looks like things are going to get ugly.”

I wasn’t sure what I could do regarding the sterling, other than provide a third party opinion on a low to high value range, but the figurines would be fairly straight forward job.  “How many figurines are there?” I asked.  “We don’t know,” said the adjuster, “but over fifty, some are in multiple pieces, so it’s hard to tell. If you want the job, let me know in the next couple of days, and I’ll set up an appointment. We want to wrap this up quickly if we can.” 

I thought about it for a couple of seconds–that many pieces meant an onsite appraisal, a chance to get out of the house for a couple of days, maybe a week’s work to identify everything and write up the valuation. “Sounds interesting, here’s what I need,” I said. “Set it up with the insured to have all the figurines laid out on a large table and we’ll get this done.”

A week later I was pulling up the unpaved road on the edge of Lake Ontario, prime property never in danger of development, smack up against the borders of a provincial park. Some of the cottages on it were built long before the park went in. On the outside they were still the simple cabins they were after World War Two, but the interiors had been modernized with indoor plumbing and electricity. In between were sections where two or more had been bulldozed and replaced by architectural marvels that appeared to be more windows than walls. The one I pulled up to was one of these new places with the lakeside fully glazed, overlooking a raised deck. 

The adjuster met me in the driveway, took me inside and made all the introductions.   All the figurines had been put out on some folding tables and the dining table. To me it looked like well over the fifty the adjuster had mentioned, with a third of them in multiple pieces, some chipped or otherwise damaged, and a clear plastic bag containing bits they were not sure went where. 

“I’ll be a couple of days here, I’ll inventory them first, and from what I can see it’s going to be replacement value for the majority, the cost of repair exceeding the value of most of them. There’s some that will probably be more of sentimental value than anything else.” The owner surprisingly smiled at that. “I know that,” he said. “It all started as a bit of a gag; I got one as a gift from the kids when they were little, and I made such a fuss over it I was given more. It kind of caught on and everyone who came to the cottage started picking them up for ‘my collection.’ Some I know are collector’s pieces, because I had them looked at about five years ago, but not formally appraised.  I’m more concerned about the silverware, that I’m sure is more valuable, as it was my wife’s grandmother’s sterling. We should have had it appraised, but it was just one of those things we just never got around to; we had no intention of ever selling it or thought there was any danger of it ever being stolen. It only ever saw the light of day at Christmas and Thanksgiving, kind of a tradition for us, the rest of the time it was tucked out of sight in the buffet. Now we won’t get full value for it.”

Something twigged in my mind when he mentioned that using the set was a family tradition for Christmas and Thanksgiving.  One of my family’s traditions was always taking pictures of everyone at their table and often candid shots during the meal. “Just a thought on that,” I said, “do you have any photo albums that might have pictures of everyone round the dinner table?”

Turns out they did, and a call went out to all the relatives for Christmas and Thanksgiving pictures. Thanks to the wonders of digital photography and email, I was able to blow up a couple of the images enough to actually read the maker’s marks from a cake server lying upside down on a piece of pumpkin pie. I could also read the pattern from another image of a soup ladle. It was a set by Georg Jensen in Bernadotte pattern, designed by Sigvard Bernadotte in 1939. Even at auction the set would have a minimum reserve north of $12,000.00. Just a spoon alone could retail for over $200.00.

This Georg Jensen Bernadotte silver 6 piece service for 12 sold for $9,999 in 2008.

 

Of the rabbit figurines, there were 106 of those. Only about 20 had values over $75.00. The funny thing is though, it would have been harder to replace many of the unmarked rabbits worth $5.00 with identical ones.  Unlike the sterling, the dime store rabbits’ makers were unknown and undocumented; the memories that came with them of course beyond value…


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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