Stoking Interest in Antique Stove

Editor’s Note: While WorthPoint strives to help you get the most from your art, antiques and collectibles, it also strives to give back to communities by offering advice and expertise. Christopher Kent relates one such attempt.

When we think of community most of us think small. We tend to include in that equation, our town, parish or township. It might be even that we think statewide. Few of us think globally.

WorthPoint does.

WorthPoint not only offers a venue for collectors to meet, exchange ideas, ask questions and receive expert advice, but, in this case, gave a small-town community center hands-on know-how.

A month ago, I received a telephone call from Bill Leinbach, a board member of the Birdsboro (Pa.) Community Center (BCC). He had gotten my number through my mother, who still lives near that small community. Mr. Leinbach was seeking advice regarding the possible sale of a historic item. The item in question was a unique Mark Bird Hopewell Furnace six-plate stove, dated 1772, belonging to the Birdsboro Community Center and on loan to the Hopewell Furnace National Site, which is part of the National Park Service.

Sacrifice sale

Mr. Leinbach said the community center needed to sell the stove to raise funds for property upkeep and maintenance. This was a sacrifice sale, a step they did not wish to take. He went on to say that the stove had been on tour with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the ’90’s and was exhibited in New York and Los Angeles.

At the completion of the tour, the curator of the Met’s Department of American Arts suggested a possible figure should the community center, at some point, consider selling it. The Met representative let it be known, conversationally, that the museum might be interested in buying the stove. This is usually how deals in the fine-arts and antiques world get started. Many years later, the Birdsboro Community Center was ready to reconsider the offer and possibly open a dialogue.

The process begins

I invited Thom Pattie, WorthPoint’s chief Worthologist, to look at the stove with me. Thom and I were brought in as experts, appraisers and also as potential WorthPoint brokers. As brokers, a WorthPoint service that demystifies the selling process to an auction house by doing all the contractual-detail negotiation, we had already discussed WorthPoint partner auction houses we thought were best suited to handle a piece of this importance.

Why, you might ask, is this stove important? It was produced by one of the oldest foundries on the East Coast, a foundry that not only manufactured some of the most cutting-edge heating devices of its day but also made cannonballs for the American Revolution. The stove is considered the oldest, intact example of its kind in existence.

Stove’s condition?

We arrived at the Hopewell Furnace National Site and were met by the curator of the collection, Rebecca Ross, and preceded to examine the stove. It was, more or less, in pristine condition. The original door to the stove may have been replaced, a turning-screw fastening was replaced, but the fastening reproduction piece was excellent. The base of the stove, the ornate legs that the stove stands on which is a cast piece separate from the stove, had been replaced. No problem.

The stove was wonderful, decorative and an excellent example of state-of-the-art 18th-century design. Our curator confirmed that the base on which it sat was not original to the stove but would convey should the BCC decide to sell the piece. This was good news.

On our way back to Virginia, Thom and I were excited by the prospect of brokering such a piece and established, as we drove, that the value estimate at auction should be set at a reserve of $25,000. A reserve means that bidding on the piece would be contracted to start at, or slightly below, the estimate and could not be sold for less than that amount.

Local group wants stove to stay local

It is important to mention, as we were later to find out, that an interested party within the Hopewell community had recently offered, when the news that the stove was going on the market, $10,000. These funds would be from private and state-park funds. The offer was made so that the stove would remain at the Hopewell museum and become the property of the Friends of Hopewell. The offer was based on the value listed for insurance obtained by the Met when it shipped the stove in the ’90s.

We told Mr. Leinbach not to consider the offer as the stove was worth considerably more than that and to bear in mind that the Metropolitan Museum had suggested a value of twice as much. I thought that, barring a bidding war, the piece would go for at auction at around $40,000.

We received a call halfway back to Virginia from the curator of the Hopewell museum saying that she was in error about the stove’s base. It had been supplied by the state park system and would not be conveyed.

Stove can go, base must stay

But, I offered, reproducing the conversation that we had had earlier in the day, you said that it would convey, it not being original to the stove, and that the museum would not have any use for it as it was probably not produced by the Hopewell Furnace. She apologized for her error and remained implacable.

Seeing that the conversation would not bear fruit and that we would not ultimately get the stove with the reproduction base, I thanked her for her call and left it at that. Let me explain what the intricacies, should the Hopewell/state park system decide to part with the base, entail. It begins at the state-park level and proceeds through all the state parks in the U.S. If the base isn’t wanted by any park, the process then moves to the federal-park level.

Should the federal parks not want it, the state park then would bring in an independent appraiser to assess the value of the base. Then and only then, at the discretion of the state park, would the decision be made to deaccess (removing it from the museum’s collection through a sale) the piece.

Was the Met still interested?

Thom and I were neither impressed nor too disappointed, though we flagged a bit at that point. So we’ll just find a base or have a reproduction made, we thought. It became a personal mission, at that point, to help the BCC.

We began making calls looking for foundries that would make the base on a “cost” basis or would defray upfront costs until the stove was sold so as not to put additional strain on the BCC’s limited funds. I also let the Metropolitan Museum know that the BCC was interested in selling, asking whether the museum was in a position to make an offer on the stove.

This ignited calls from the museum to Mr. Leinbach and follow-up calls to me. The museum was, indeed, interested and would be making an offer. I informed the Met representatives of the auction-reserve price Thom and I suggested and our projected sale price being in the $40,000 neighborhood.

I also asked if the Metropolitan Museum had any issue with the Hopewell museum making a reproduction of the stove. Knowing that this was hardship sale for the BBC, a copy in the Hopewell Museum would be, almost, as good as having the original. This reproduction could have made out of resin and simulated to look like the original. The Met had no problem with that.

Met makes offer

The Metropolitan Museum came back to the BCC that week with an offer of $40,0000. Thom and I discussed it and agreed, though disappointed that we would not be brokering the piece, it was a good price, and the BCC should consider accepting it. We speculated that the piece might go for a higher price at auction and certainly the Met’s offer would generate interest from other parties.

I told the BBC about this possibility and waited for the board’s decision. It decided to accept the Met’s offer and not take the risk at auction. It was a good decision, and we were happy to be a part of the experience and to be closely connected with a piece of such importance. We were also pleased that its new home would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses one of the foremost collections of Americana in the world.

The dice is back in play

Just when you think a sale or transaction is neatly wrapped up, it isn’t. I received a telephone call from Mr. Leinbach. He informed me that Friends of Hopewell had made a formal offer to the community center of—you guessed it—$40,000. This would mean that the center would get the asking price, and the stove would not be leaving the Hopewell Museum, which made the board of directors of the community center happy.

It looked, according to Mr. Leinbach, that the board of directors would strongly consider accepting the offer. Having gotten my feet wet many years ago buying, selling, negotiating for clients, I said that it was important to contact the Met and tell them of the offer and that the board was considering it. The board had not received anything that could be considered binding from the Met, contractually or monetarily, and therefore was not obligated one way or the other.

I also pointed out that the Met might add an incentive to its offer and that the community center should be prepared for that possibility. Mr. Leinbach assured me that the board did not want a bidding war. Nevertheless, I suggested, be prepared if they do.

To date, that’s where it hangs. I am frankly waiting for the next shoe to drop and feel, in a sixth-sense way, that WorthPoint is not done with this yet.

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