An Appraiser’s Diary: Treasures in a Hidden Alcove

You never know what you might find in a house full of family items–don’t trust just anyone to appraise your heirlooms; and, if you see any ceramic figurines, do your research! This particular Royal Doulton “Double Jester” figure went for over $7500 in 2017.

It had been a slow week, both online and off for the appraisal business. It was not all that surprising, after all, it was the dog days of summer and short of estate appraisals that needed to be done according to legalities and impatient family members, everybody who could be was out enjoying the weather. I was planning on giving myself the day off to go to the local beach. Nothing was pressing on my timetable, and the thermometer outside my dining room/office window was creeping past 80. There was a good breeze blowing in from the southwest rattling my wind chimes, so I knew there would be waves big enough to bodysurf, which clinched it. To the beach I would go! 

I had already packed my beach gear and cooler in the car when the office phone rang. I was tempted to let it go to voicemail, but business is business and things had been slow. I doubted it would be any kind of emergency that had to be looked into immediately. My schedule was clear, and whatever it was could be scheduled for tomorrow or later in the week. 

The voice on the other end was familiar, but I couldn’t place it until she mentioned she had talked to me at a Breast Cancer Appraisal Day fundraiser I had done a couple of weeks before. She had brought in a pile of prints she was convinced were 19th Currier & Ives originals, but turned out to be 1960’s reprints issued by an insurance company. She claimed she had a house full of valuable antiques, but turned down my offer of an in house appraisal at my hourly rate as “too expensive.” She had said at the time, “Why would I pay you to have my things appraised when I can get local dealers who would do it for free? All I have to do is put an add in the newspaper or make a couple of phone calls and they’ll make offers.” I had heard this all before, more times than I could count actually and said, “That can work, provided you are contacted by ethical dealers, but there are some in the trade that made old time snake oil salesmen saints by comparison. They’ll pay you ten cents on the dollar and make it sound like they are doing you a favor.” She left in a bit of a huff, so that’s the last I expected to hear from her and was, until today.

What she said next surprised me, “Mr. Wilcox, I’ve decided to hire you.  I have a time sensitive offer on some items I have for sale, but something seems off about the whole thing. I think you might have been right in your advice, would it be possible for you to come out today?” 

I was going to make some excuse that I was booked until she mentioned her address.  It was on the way to the beach, up a side road not five miles from the shore. I could do a quick look over and only lose an hour or two.  Even if it took longer, it was extra money I had not planned on getting when I woke up this morning. It was also a nice drive out there with the side roads winding by century-old farmsteads, lined with huge maples, snake rail fences, lilac bushes and ancient apple trees. “As it happens,” I said, “I’m coming by your way in about half an hour.”

Her place was a large Victorian farmhouse with a wrap around veranda that had seen better days. It had probably been built by some prosperous farmer, circa 1875, for his expanding family empire. She was waiting on the porch when I pulled up, sitting on an old wicker armchair with an overstuffed cushion; she waved me up to the house. From what I saw inside the house, the drive shed and barn were about what I expected– a lot of family house items accumulated circa 1880-1950, such as ironstone china, framed religious prints of saints, old glass bottles, mail order catalog oak furniture, tarnished silverware, old magazines and a pump organ–all of it in poor shape, none of it rare, and a lot of it would be tough to sell even at auction. She had most of the “smalls” (teacups, silverware, saucers, oil lamps, salt and peppers, etc.) laid out in the large parlor on folding tables and on the battered “poor man’s oak” (fake grained maple to look like more expensive oak) dining table. As I picked through it all, she related the reaction she had received to the people who answered her “Antiques For Sale” ad.

“It’s been very odd Mr. Wilcox, most who answered the ad said the same thing, that I’ve got a few nice pieces of furniture, but Victorian stuff just doesn’t sell anymore.  The rest said they weren’t interested and suggested that I would have better luck with a garage sale. Then yesterday, two more came out–one in the morning, the other in the afternoon; they both seemed to agree with what everyone else said, but then they had a complete change of heart just when I was showing them out of the parlor. They suddenly wanted to buy it all. One of them offered me $4500.00 for everything in the parlor, the other offered $3500.00 and said he could have it all cleared out within an hour. Their sudden enthusiasm after politely calling it all junk five minutes before made me remember what you had said at the appraisal fair, so I told them I’d think about it and decided to call you.”

The offers seemed way over the top to me, so I gave the room another quick look around, to see if I’d missed anything of value and shook my head. “Based on what I can see here, you should grab the offer of $4500.00, I don’t see anything in this room worth over $150.00.  You would be lucky to get $1500.00 for the whole lot at auction. Was there anything they seemed to spend more time looking at ?”  “No,” she said, “they were only in here about ten minutes, barely looked at anything. Come onto the porch, I’ll get us some lemonade and write you a check for your time.” 

As she went to close the back door to the parlor, I spotted what had caused the dealers’ hearts to go pitter patter and what explained the sudden change of interest. The door, when open, hid a small alcove in the wall behind it, probably a small serving window that had been boarded up on the kitchen side years ago. On that boarded window ledge stood three figurines. “Hold the lemonade” I said, “I think I’ve found what brought the checkbooks in a hurry, come have a look.” 

She came back in and looked at where I was pointing. “With the door open, you couldn’t see these figurines because the alcove was hidden behind the door. When you closed the door to lock up, they spotted them for the first time, just like I did.”   She looked at the figurines and said, “I had forgotten they were there myself. ” She picked up one and scowled at the layer of dust on it. “Careful,” I said, “that one’s worth about $8,000.00.”

This particular example of “Sunshine Girl” sold for over $2800 in April 2014.

Three very rare and early Royal Doulton figures had sat in that dusty alcove, Lord knows how long. They were originally probably pre-WWII wedding gifts; a HN365 “Double Jester,” a HN1366 “Sunshine Girl,” and a HN1473 “Dreamland,” all issued between 1931-37, were now valued at $15,000-20,000 for the three. Needless to say, neither dealer got a call back from her. I referred her to an high end collector that specialized in 20th Century Decorative Arts.

I don’t know what the final tally was for the sale, but the last time I was by her place it had a new roof and windows. I never got to the beach that day. By the time I got it all wrapped up, the wind had blown in a thunderstorm off Lake Ontario, and I was soaked before I made it to my car….

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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