Wilcoxes: From dump diving to appraising

Mike and Sherry Wilcox forged their future climbing the fence of a rural Ontario dump.
It was the second date for the now-married Worthologists. What started as a country drive on a weekend afternoon became, in Mike’s words, “a dump crawl.”

Love—and a shared passion for discovering collectibles amid life’s debris—was kindled.

“Most dumps weren’t recycling or compacting back then,” Mike recalled. “I spotted something as we drove by, and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind . . . ’ She spotted things I didn’t even notice.”

She’s a “divvie” spotter

He describes her as a “divvie”—a diviner, just like the nefarious Lovejoy character in the British novels and television series “My wife has a knack for spotting exceptional items right from the back of an auction hall and just say, ‘There’s a good one.’ Next thing, it’s gone through the roof.”

Today, the Wilcoxes live and work in the Toronto suburb of Belleville, Ontario. While Mike Wilcox is the Worthologist with the family history in antiques, Sherry Wilcox is not precisely a prodigy. Her grandfather owned a 2,000-acre farm in north Ontario and filled it with just about any type of parts and pieces that he came across. She learned at his side.

“If Roy didn’t have it, you couldn’t get it. If you needed an airplane propeller, there would be one in the loft,” Mike said. “So it became second nature to Sherry.”

The inspiring Ms. Bernhardt

Today, Mike and Sherry have cultivated a special interest in art-nouveau jewelry, ceramics, glassware and other decorative arts. During a London vacation, they got a nose-to-glass look at the Belle Époque collection of Sarah Bernhardt on exhibit, “and we were kind of hooked right there,” he explained.

But they collect little of it—or anything else—for themselves.

“Things I’d like to keep are out of reach, like Art Deco figurines that were $1,200 in the early ’80s and now are $18,000,” he said. “Every time I move up, they move up.”

Besides, Mike’s background demonstrates that he is too interested in sleuthing out value to be boxed in by any one style or period.

His grandfather started making Art Deco chrome furniture the 1930s. His father branched into antiques repairs in the early 1960s. As the apprentice, Mike cleaned the shop and sharpened tools, eventually selling his own restorations.

And he learned the secrets of the trade. There was an early Victorian ship captain’s lap desk—with the collapsible shot glass and old letters hidden inside.

Or the Queen Anne drop-front desk that had a loose piece of trim on the back. “I turned it and out popped a drawer holding a 1685 coin,” he recalled.

Check for treasures

“You always have to check. Some of them will have 10 or 12 secret compartments, and the owners never knew,” he said. “It’s a big expedition.”

Today, the business is known as Wilcox and Hall Appraisals. No repairs, but Mike and Sherry are listed in 288 categories of collectibles and personal property—all in an effort to keep pace with the region’s changing demographics and customer interests.

In 1997, Mike plunged into online appraisals at appraisers@sympatico.ca and since then has performed thousands. Today, he will provide a nonbinding e-mail appraisal based on digital photographs and other information for $18.95. He also offers online tutorials for general antiques, fine arts/prints and rare books.

For $4.95, his Web site offers instant appraisals and online price lists for items such as Royal Doulton figurines, Royal Doulton Toby Jugs, Royal Copenhagen figurines, Hummels, Precious Moments figurines, Normal Rockwell plates and Singer sewing machines.

Small items hold up in down times

Collecting during a recession might be an extravagance, but Wilcox says figurines and other smaller items always seem to sell.

Like others in the collectibles business, the Wilcoxes watched in astonishment as prices in the fine-art market zoomed higher this year. But they don’t appraise paintings, and Mike’s long and varied background taught him when to expect trouble.

“There’s always a peak in the fine-art market right before a recession,” he said. “And then you see the price of copper dropping. Because it’s such a basic commodity, you know that bad is on its way.”

Any other advice, Mike?

“Auction coffee is always dreadful. Bring a thermos of your own. And always have a raincoat, a folding chair and spare candy bars in the truck. Be prepared for anything.”

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