An Appraiser’s Diary: A “Davis Piece”

The parlor was loaded with good Rococo and Renaissance Revival furniture, and early 19th-Century English hunting prints hung on the walls.

They often say “If there is a will there is a way,” but in my business often there is no “will,” at least in the legal sense of the word.  It seems most of us think we will live forever, or at least have enough time to put off writing a will to someday in the future.

This story is about one of those cases. I got a phone call from a lawyer named Preston Bachelor regarding a deceased client of his, Davis Thompson. I knew of Davis in passing and reputation. He was a local man in his late 70’s,  a world traveler and a local legend in terms of health and vitality. In his defense most of us thought he would live forever, too; he was a fixture of his community, always involved in some new project or fundraiser.  The newspaper said he had died “suddenly,” which is not often heard regarding someone pushing 80. Usually, the obits of someone that age say that a person died “after a long illness,” or “peacefully, surrounded by family.” It was rumored not to be the case with Davis. I finally got the straight scoop from his long-suffering lawyer who had been trying to get Davis to finish his will for the last ten years. Davis outlived two previous lawyers before him.  With no will having been completed, the lawyer now needed a complete inventory for probate and called me to set up an appointment. We agreed to meet at Davis’s home and do a walkthrough so I could determine how long it was going to take for the inventory and then set up a date for the estate auction. 

I’d never been in Davis’ home but had unknowingly driven by it many times.  It was hard to see from the road because it sat so far back and a mature cedar hedge blocked the view of it.  Only the mailbox indicated there was a house at the end of the road. The driveway wasn’t straight but curved about lined by maple and oak trees. The house was built about 1860, a Victorian Queen Anne Revival with a carriage house round back. It was prime real estate now, the property going another acre or so to the bay with a large boathouse and dock at the water’s edge. Whoever inherited just the house would be a millionaire; the property would have a long list of potential city buyers competing for it in the current market. I’d have to wait and see what was inside to add to that total. 

I was a little early and sat in the car with the heater on waiting for the lawyer to appear. It was late March, overcast with no sun to burn off the morning chill. A cold breeze was coming in off the bay, the heater in my 1967 MGB was anemic at the best of times, but it was warmer inside it than outside. I didn’t have to wait long, the lawyer’s Lexus pulled in about ten minutes after me. I’d never met the lawyer before, but over the phone, he sounded like he looked, a fit 50 and all business. He handed me a file and gave me a rundown regarding the estate.

“Mr. Thompson had started his will, but never completed it,” said the lawyer. He only has two remaining relatives, a great niece and nephew who don’t talk to one another except through their lawyers. Both of them have no interest in the place and want the estate settled as quickly as possible.”

I could understand that having seen the same scenario played out before. A man spends a lifetime building something up, only to have it put on the block before the ghost has even headed for the light at the end of the tunnel. Still, I was curious how Davis Thompson died, so I asked, “I heard Mr. Thompson died suddenly while out of the country, all kinds of rumors are floating around.”   Preston smiled at that and replied, “I know, I’ve heard them too. The reality is actually more far fetched than some of the rumors. Just between you and me, the truth is he died in Venice. He had a day out with some university students he was on tour with and had a bit too much vino. They all loaded in three Gondolas and Davis decided they should bribe the gondoliers to race. Two of the gondolas collided going under a bridge, Davis hit his head on the side of it and went into the canal. They got him out pretty quick, but he’d broken his neck. We had a hell of a time getting him home and that’s just the start of it. I’ll show you what I mean, come on into the coach house.”

The coach house was a woodworker’s dream shop.

The coach house was a woodworker’s dream shop, with every conceivable power tool lined up and racks of lumber, even mahogany, and teak. Two small wooden sailboats, a 16 and 22 footer with mahogany decks, brass and bronze fittings sat partially finished, a completely restored two man racing sculler hung from the rafters. Everything was immaculate and the workmanship superb. “Fantastic shop,” I said. “Shouldn’t be hard to clear this out; there are top-grade tools here.”

“The tools are not the problem.  I’ve been getting calls from all over since Davis died about boats,” said Preston. “For the last 35 years he’s been buying up old wooden boats from rowboats to 30 footers and apparently storing them in barns, drive sheds and garages he rented all over the county. I’ve found 12 of them so far. It seems he restored a couple and sold them, but nobody has any idea how many he’s got stashed away.”

It sounded like Davis Thompson had planned to live until at least 95 in order to finish the boats that had turned up so far. “I can’t help you with the boat appraisals,” I said, “but I can put you onto a couple of people who specialize in vintage wooden boats. Let’s go through the house, and I can get an idea of how long this is going to take.” 

The house was a lot like the shop– spotless, with everything in order. The decor was a mix of pre-1850 Canadiana furniture, some great painted cabinets, grained blanket boxes, the large country kitchen with a large harvest table and hoopbacked Windsor chairs. Large maple mixing bowls and ladles hung from the walls, a Quebec dough box did duty by the Findlay cookstove holding kindling.

The main dining room was all mid-Victorian, with an oversized buffet, server, and a walnut table that could seat 12 easily, all looking very like pieces made by the noted firm of Jacques & Hay. The walls were decorated with a collection of early English Ironstone platters and historical plates. The parlor was loaded with good Rococo and Renaissance Revival furniture, and early 19th-Century English hunting prints hung on the walls. 

The upstairs was a bit of a surprise, simple country furniture, throughout. The master bedroom with a four poster cannonball bed, blanket box, a pine dresser, and a Quebec diamond point wardrobe. The hallways were hung with a collection of Bartlett and Currier & Ives prints. 

“It’s probably going to take me about a week if I work on site,” I said. “There’s some great stuff here, I’ll know more when I get into examining things closer.” Preston nodded, “That’s great, a least I can get part of this wrapped up quickly.” He tossed me a set of keys and said, “Let me know when you want to start and I’ll inform the security company you are supposed to be here.”

My work slate being a bit thin, I got at it early the next week. The weather had improved, the April 1st sun was bright and strong enough to allow me to put the top down on the MGB. As long as the tonneau cover was in place and the heater going full blast, I could pretend it was May. Even in the bright sunlight, the place looked a little foreboding as I pulled up the curving driveway. 

I often feel like an interloper doing an estate appraisal. To me, there always seems to be a lingering of the former owner’s energy about. I feel like a cat burglar about to be caught rooting through the valuables. I get around this by turning on a radio for company as soon as I get in the door to banish the gloom. Davis’ place wasn’t as bad as some of them as I caught the vibe of his possessions giving me the once over before going back to sleep. Davis, having lived such a full life, must have left very little energy floating around.

I generally start with the larger items first because that goes a lot quicker than the bric-a-brac, porcelain, and glassware.  I started with the dining room table. It was unusual to find one of this age with so many leaves still with it. Over the years these tables were often sold or handed down to people who didn’t need a huge table, the extra leaves discarded or lost with maybe only one or two remaining. I pulled out the leaves to test the action of the table slides, and noticed something right away, while the finish on all the leaves matched on top, the back of them didn’t have the patina of 150-year-old walnut showing on the underside of the rest of the table, more like 20-30 years old. The slides worked perfectly as well, which was also unusual in a table this old. There was a good reason for that too, from the looks of things Davis had used his considerable woodworking skills to build a new set of table slides from scratch as well as six leaves. That was not all, two of the five legs were replacements as well. He’d done a really good job of it, such that probably 90% of dealers would miss these replacements and would judge it to be in “good original condition” then price it accordingly. 

I wondered if this was going to be a trend, so I went about examining all the dining room furniture. Davis had been very busy it seems. The buffet had a new door, backsplash, base molding, and two turned feet. The server had extensive work on the drawers; the top was new, and all four feet had been spliced where they must have been damaged by wear or wood rot. The kitchen and bedroom furniture were all much the same, with varying degrees of repairs on everything. The harvest table was the worst example, almost a complete fabrication; three legs were original, but the top, side rails, and one leg were all newer lumber with machine tool marks if you looked close enough.  On the dough box, the bottom board and half the base had been replaced.   

After examining everything in the house, other than the Rococo and Renaissance Revival parlor pieces, there wasn’t a piece of furniture in the place without at least 30% being a repair or fabrication. A lot of the new lumber was invisible on the outside due to Davis’s obvious skills with a paintbrush, stain and graining tools. I had to admire his work because obviously, it was not done to fool anyone, just a man taking pride in his work and confident in his skills. He probably picked  these broken pieces up for peanuts over the years and puttered around working on them just for the joy of it.

I completed the rest of the job without many new surprises. There were a few repairs on the collection of the ironstone platters, but they were pretty obvious by the staples on the back, and clearly not the work of a craftsman like Davis Thompson. I was of course required by due diligence to list all the repairs and the effect on the value of each piece. How it was listed later by the auctioneer was not my problem, as they were free to agree or disagree with my opinion of value and the amount of “restoration.”    

The auction was held two months later on a sunny day in June at the Thompson property.  I got a copy of the auction listings for the sale and saw that the lawyer had apparently tracked down four more boats and two canoes to add to the contents of the sale. The furniture, as I thought it would be, was listed with a generic disclaimer as being “in good condition with some restorations.” I didn’t attend the sale, but according to those that did, prices were high for all the furniture with the exception of the only pieces Davis hadn’t touched a tool to– the Rococo and Renaissance Revival parlor pieces. I was later to coin a phrase out of that experience:  anytime I ran into Victorian furniture with extensive and almost perfect repairs,  I’d tell the client it was a probably a “Davis Piece.”

* Note, this story is based on actual events, but names used are fictional creations of the author and not to be confused with any person living or deceased.

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

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