Tragedy in Paris: The Fire at Notre Dame and Why Things are “Valuable”

The cynics out there say “everything has a price.”  Well to those folks, I say sorry you’re wrong.  There is much in the world to be cynical about if that’s where you want to spend your time. Good luck to you.

The recent fire at Notre Dame was a vivid display of how the loss of something of “value” opens many complex strands of thought. Things and places that have deep meaning, make monetary value secondary. Photo: Wikipedia

To me, the fire at Notre Dame in Paris recently was a reminder of this. Yes, there were evidently items and pieces of art inside the cathedral (the spire in particular) that were rare and valuable. It sounds like many items were heroically saved, which would be wonderful. Also, there was no loss of life, which is an additional blessing. But the building itself, the parts of it that were lost to the fire, wasn’t built 80 years ago, or 180 years ago, which would make it “old” if it was built in America. That beautiful structure was 800 years old!  And the giant wooden beams were evidently made from trees that were so large, well, there aren’t any trees of that size in the world anymore. So whatever they do to repair and replace them, it will never be quite the same.

The loss goes beyond that, obviously. During the fire, as people gathered and watched and prayed, I just looked at their faces, wondering what was going through their minds and hearts. Even with the general decline in church membership worldwide, this colossal building in the middle of Paris epitomizes the Catholic Church and yet obviously has a deep, deep meaning to all of France, and the whole world.

If you make your living buying and selling antiques and collectibles, or if you are a collector of any category of antique or historical items, you spend almost all of your time figuring out what is valuable and why.

Most categories of collecting involve a sort of structured formula that is used to figure a value, something you can do if you obsessively study price guides and auction price results. You also must research everything you can about the category.  If you collect antique bottles like I do, or die-cast toy cars, or pin backs, or brass padlocks, or fishing gear…whatever category it may be, you’ll eventually be able to assess the value of every item, based on rarity, condition, and “interest.”

Religious collectibles, for lack of a better term, are completely different.  Like the items that may have been lost in the Notre Dame fire, the things that determine the “value” of these items, are on a completely different scale. And unlike an antique whale oil lamp, there is no higher price ceiling. The sky is literally the limit.

Dealing in religious collectibles sounds about as tacky and irreverent as anything could be! But as a “dealer” in antiques, a dealer is usually assigned the job of liquidating someone’s personal estate. And that means everything. So a dealer may find himself having to sell someone’s personal Bible, dated 1835, to get the price he’s supposed to get for it. And the reality is, it is priceless and irreplaceable.

An historical personal leather-bound Bible is certainly a most difficult item to hang a price tag on. This particular family Bible sold for $250 in January 2019.

One place where the sale of religious items is very, very active, is in the category of ephemera (paper and documents). The field of ephemera is fascinating and leaves you realizing how much more there is to know out there about religion, history, and the meaning of life as understood by different peoples around the world.

Last year, I was cleaning out an estate that included just four of five boxes of ephemera, and those few boxes kept me busy for quite a while. There were road maps and brochures from the family’s travels, postcards (which are always popular), old menus, some sheet music, and some older historical documents.

The collecting and cataloging of spiritual and religious documents and paper records (ephemera) is an extremely interesting and important avocation. Finding a monetary value for these items though is a very challenging task!  These 1878  Missionary Helper pamphlets sold for $21.53 in February 2012.

I was trying to group things together for sale, which was a challenge, but fun. One tiny item caught my eye, and I decided to put it on eBay. It was this 4” by 6” little pamphlet dating back to about 1890 or so, from the Maine Wesleyan Seminary near Augusta. The pamphlet was 4 very short pages long and was an outline of the “dormitory regulations” for the students there at the time. It was really cool because it had things like “make sure your lamps are blown out by 9 pm,” etc. I remember I put a starting bid of $9.99, and right away I got a bid.  I was happy, figuring at least someone would find it an interesting thing to have. A week later, as the auction was about to end on eBay, the price was still at $9.99, with two people watching.  Then at the last second, as the auction ended, the price shot up to $212.00!  I looked the pamphlet over again to see if I had missed something that would make this little piece of paper so valuable.

All I could think of, and basically what I learned from this, was that this particular religious institution was a special place, with a deep history, and there was someone out there who felt it was incredibly important to save and preserve this little historical pamphlet.

 

This lot of historical Bibles sold on eBay recently for $47,900. It shows how the printed word can hold incredible value when it is tied to the beliefs of a culture and the history of how those beliefs evolved.  Photo: eBay

Recently on eBay, there was a box lot of books with the description “150 rare and scarce American New Testaments – Bibles.” The main photo on the listing showed some very old books, lying loosely scattered in a wooden box. When you clicked on and opened the listing, it had a photo of each of these antique Bibles dating mostly to the first half of the 1800s.

The lot sold for… $47,900.

In looking at the photos, you could read the title pages of each of these religious books and Bibles. There were very specific titles and headings on each, usually referring to the “translation,” who’s version, what edition,  and how exactly it was printed, using words like “Stereotyped” etc.

In this article, I’ve only touched on the Christian and Catholic field of collecting. I am a Christian who lives in the U.S., so these are the things I come across most often. But obviously, the world is full of different religions and beliefs, and there is a world full of “things’’ that people collect, value, and revere, that I know nothing about.

One thing I have come across frequently in estates, and at auctions here in New England, is Oriental rugs and also Muslim prayer rugs. I am not knowledgeable about either, but I’ve seen them sell at auction. I’ve seen a large, beautiful looking carpet sell for only $200.00, expecting that it would bring much more. Then conversely, I have seen a much smaller, dusty, and worn carpet sell for $5,000.00, and have been completely shocked. 

This antique Turkish prayer rug is currently listed for sale by “Rugs & More” online for $4,849.00.  If you peruse the internet looking to purchase an “Oriental Rug” or a Middle Eastern woven carpet or prayer rug or mat, and you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll be entering a complex world that can take a lifetime to fully understand. And you’ll find carpets that appear to the layman’s eye to be equally beautiful, and yet have values ranging from $200.00 to a Christie’s Auction carpet which may sell for $2,000,000.00 or more!

In talking with people who are knowledgeable about antique carpets over the years, they tell me it has to do with the design and the weave of the rug. A certain type of weave may signify a certain region of the Middle East or even a certain family!  I know that a Muslim prayer rug usually has a very specific pattern in its center, generally representing the form of a religious building of worship or mosque. As I say, there is so much to know, and on this subject, I simply do not know.

But what I do know, is that some carpets are much more than just a beautiful woven piece of wool. They contain great meaning and are valued for what they represent, as well as for their historical significance. And in this day and age, the more we learn and understand each other’s “values,” the better it will be for all.


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at Bramiam@aol.com.

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