Fabulous Finds: Walking into a Hidden Time Capsule

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.

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 (today, I would have used WorthPoint and the Worthopedia). 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.

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 debutantes. Ron also mentioned something about some secret rooms and the sister dying in the house. The sisters 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 radio 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 exorcise 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… just 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.

“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.”

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.

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.

“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 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 an antiques and collectibles generalist and fine-arts broker.

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