19 August 2011

The Antique Road Hoe: a play in four acts

[NOTE - This post is part 1 of a series chronicling a trip to the ARS.]

As you may know, Cara and Tommy's television experience is limited largely to two shows:  Top Gear, and Antiques Roadshow.  A strange pairing to be sure, but both smack of entertaining nonfiction (though Top Gear pushed that boundary pretty far at times), and both feature live studio audiences in favor of laugh tracks.  Thus, it's only natural that we would endeavor to visit the show(s), particularly when one visits our town 'burgh.  That's right ladies and germs, Antiques Roadshow came to Pittsburgh last week, and thanks to Grammy Vera C, we tickets to the big event.

The first thing you must know about Antiques Roadshow, is that Thou Shall Not Forget the Letter "S".  Seriously - it's posted on a big sign by the door.  Something to the effect of "Be sure to remember the S in Antiques Roadshow."  Apparently they have significant problems with people referring to it as Antique Road-how.  Strange.

Anyway - the other rules stipulate that you can bring two items per person, so we rummaged through our stuff for the hidden treasures.  The primary reason for our visit was a rocking chair that we had found some years back via Craigslist.  Thus, we had to round up a few more items to get the best value-for-afternoon possible.   Thus, below is our story, which is hilarious, tragic, and only slightly unnerving.

ITEM No. 4: The Chess Board

It's a chess board.  Inlaid with lots of mother-of-pearl, and with reasonably good craftsmanship.  We know NOTHING about it, aside from the fact it hung on a friend of the family's wall for many years.  It was a tough call between this and an Andrew Wyeth print (from the same estate), but we figured since we were visiting the holy grail of appraisers, we might as well go with the bizarre and unknown, since any gallery can tell us what the Wyeth is worth.

The Appraisal: Act I

YOUNG APPRAISER:  What do we have here?

TOMMY:  You tell me!  It's been hanging on a family friend's wall for years, and was given to me.  We know nothing about it.

YA: What can I tell you about it?

T: Anything?   I'm pretty sure its inlaid Mother of Pearl...

YA:  Well it's a checker board and (rubbing the surface) I'm just feeling here to see what the other squares are.  Onyx perhaps...

T: I think they're just the same black paint that the rest of the board is covered in.

YA: Probably true.  And I'm guessing it is, maybe, 20th century.  So what's it worth?

T: You tell me.

YA:  Well it's pretty.  With black and white squares.  And it's shiny...  So what would you pay for a pretty, shiny, checkerboard?

T: I have no idea.

YA: How about $50 or $100?

T: Sure...


THE VERDICT:  Roadshow appraisers are not gods who know all about everything.  In fact this one was likely an intern.  There was little to go on with the chess board, so the appraisal was that it was shiny  and pretty so it might be worth $50.  Cara and Tommy had hoped for a bit more info, but hey, now it can be put back into service as a chess board with no regrets.

ARS ITEM No. 2: The Brass Serving Tray

[NOTE - This post is part 2 of a series chronicling a trip to the ARS.]

ITEM No. 2:  The Brass Serving Tray

Now here is a PERFECT Antiques Roadshow item.  It is old, has been in the family for at least four generations, and is marked with a maker's mark, and a date.  And the thing is damn heavy!  Cara flew back with it from NY just to bring it to the roadshow, and did the obligatory research ahead of time.  It was made in 1885 by Nicholas Muller Sons NY.  The magic of google turned up a few pieces (a clock and such) from the same company, but nothing even vaguely similar.

The Appraisal: Act II

BLASÉ APPRAISER: (lowering his glasses and looking slightly interested) Well, what do you have here?

CARA: Well, I don't know much about it except that my Great Grandmother bought it at an antique store in New York.  It's been in my family ever since, and no one really likes it, but we've held onto in because it's really old.

BA: (searches on his computer under the name Nicholas Muller) Well, this name isn't coming up.  Nicholas Muller is likely the company that made this-- you don't know the artist?

C: No.

BA: (clearly losing interest) Well, that's about all I can tell you then.  It's brass.  And this scene on the front is a mystery.  Maybe it's biblical?  As far as worth, as a decorative piece, it might be worth a few hundred dollars.

C:  So you don't know anything more about this company?

BA:  No, but you could try google.

C:  I did. A few clocks came up under this name, but nothing like this tray.

BA:  Really.  Well, it's brass, and it's not in great condition.  It has lost its patina.  Someone tried to clean it.

C:  Yeah.  Thanks.


THE VERDICT:  Google: 1  -  ARS Appraiser: 0

ARS ITEM No. 3: The Not-So-Danish Rocking Chair

[NOTE - This post is part 3 of a series chronicling a trip to the ARS.]

ITEM No. 3: The Danish Rocking Chair

The whole reason they wanted to attend Antiques Roadshow in the first place.  This rocking chair is absolutely splendid.  Purchased when first pregnant with Wee Zoe, the idea was that anyone with a baby needs a good rocking chair.  Cara and Tommy are picky about their furniture, and very specific about what they like.  Particle board is right out, and those momma gliders are hella comfortable, but have no place in their house.  So to craigslist it was, with both searching high and low for months in the hopes of finding the perfect rocker.

Cara won.  After lusting after several expensive chairs on eBay, and with a due date rapidly approaching, she found precisely what they had been looking for.  The ad was simple: "Wood Rocking Chair, one piece broken, $100." There was a blurry cell phone picture, but the lines looked great.  And it was located way out in the middle of nowhere.  A long dark drive into farm country, a u-turn, two lovable dogs, and an interesting storie of church-sale flipping later, Cara and Tommy were headed home with a great new rocker.

Tommy knew, without a doubt that it was danish.  The lines, the craftsmanship, and the wood made that absolutely certain.  Cara knew that she loved the chair and that it had a great rock.  One splat on the back was broken clean off, and another had heinously been repaired with Gorilla Glue.  Other than that, it was in fine shape.  Due to the damage, the chair went into the basement, until Tommy could come up with a fix.

Well over a year later, and fueled by the freedom that occasional neighborly daycare provided him, Tommy took the chair out of the basement.  He put it on his head and walked it around the corner to a small chop called Chair Restorations by Aleph.  He knew that he didn't have the know-how to repair the broken splat properly, and it seemed like a chair that deserved a proper fix. Immediately as Tommy walked in the door of the tiny shop, Aleph put his tools down, and said: "Let me see it."  He pulled and twisted and so thoroughly inspected the chair that Tommy feared it might fall apart.  And then, the verdict:

"This is a very special chair."  said Aleph.  "I know - we really like it." Tommy replied.   "No." responded Aleph "I don't think you understand - this is a really special chair."   And so the conversation went.  Aleph didn't know anything about the chair, but after doing nothing but repairing chairs for the past 30 years, he knew that this one was special.  He agreed that it was Danish, and said he'd be honored to fix it.  Two weeks later, Tommy gave the fixed chair to Cara as a Mother's Day present.

It is striking, it is beautiful, and it rests perfectly when unladen.  When you sit in it the splats conform to your back and the chair balances just right, and the rock is entirely effortless and even.  And it's well made.  There is no metal in the chair - every joint is pegged.  So Cara and Tommy and Zoe and all of their house guests have been using it, and it owns a prominent corner of their home.  And then came Antiques Roadshow tickets...

There's no doubt that the chair is well made, but by whom?  There is a round void on the bottom where there was, presumably, once a maker's mark.  Somehow it's gone, and has been since the purchase.  Tommy has literally gone through hundreds of google image searches, and never seen anything even remotely like it.   It's too perfect to be a one-off, so what's the story?  There were even debated about the wood - is it a seasoned walnut or a light teak?  Antiques Roadshow couldn't come soon enough!

What they don't tell you, is that for each item you bring, you'll wait in line for about an hour.  So Cara and Tommy hauled this chair from line to line, all afternoon.  And boy did it attract attention.  Every volunteer and dozens of Roadshow-ers were lured by the lines and asked what the story was...  And here's how it all went down:

The furniture line was quite short, so the wait was only minutes.  XXX XXXXXX met us straighyaway and had only one question:  "Is this a Maloof?"  "No idea." Replied Tommy, and XXX motioned to a staffer "I think we're going to need Peter.  Get me Peter."  To put things into perspective, Sam Maloof was to the rocking chair world what Enzo Ferrari was to sports cars.  Maloof marks the pinnacle of artisan rocking chairs, and some of his chairs are worth more than Cara and Tommy's house.  That said, Tommy knew of Maloof, and this chair didn't look like a Maloof to him...   Let's get Peter indeed.

Peter Loughrey is the founder and director of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) a high end modern furniture auction house in LA for the past 20 years.  He's also a respected authority on American Modern art and furniture, and -- lucky for us - he moonlights as a featured Antiques Roadshow appraiser.  In short, there are likely few people in the world who know more about modern furniture than he does, so it was a treat that he was summoned for the humble rocker.  He came running over and...

The Appraisal - Act III

PETER LOUGHREY: Wow - what can you tell me about this?

TOMMY: Well, we bought it when Cara got pregnant since everyone said we'd need a rocker, but we know very little about it.

PL: Have you ever heard of Sam Maloof?

T: Yes

PL:  Well, I don' think it's a Sam Maloof.  [goes on to explain in detail why with specific aspects of the rocker, it probably wasn't made by Maloof.]

PL: Have you heard of Vladimir Kagan?

T: I think so. Yes.

PL: Well, I don' think it's him either.  [explains how the joints would be slightly different]  But it's clearly an artist who is familiar with both of them, yet is very much its own style.  [long discussion of the specifics of the chair, the craftsmanship, and it's presence.]  It's definitely American black walnut, and I'd say it was certainly made on the west coast in the late 1960s.  [...]  The maker's seal on the bottom might have fallen off, or a previous owner might've removed it, if the name wasn't recognizable.

T: Really - and all along I'd thought it was Danish?

PL: Definitely not.  It's too well made.  At that time the Danes were masters of high-design that could be broken down and packed.  This chair is entirely pegged and solid, and it's made of American walnut - it would have had to be shipped in a massive crate, which just isn't what the danish were doing. [...]  The maker's seal on the bottom might have fallen off, or a previous owner might've removed it, if the name wasn't recognizable.

T: I've been trying to research it, but have come up dry.  I've looked through hundreds - probably thousands - of pictures online over the past years, but have never seen anything that even comes close.

PL:  This is what I do - I've dealt in thousands of modern rocking chairs through my auction house, and I've never seen a similar one.  It's remarkable.

T: You know - in my research, I've read a lot about people talking about how a rocking chair is to be judged by it's "rock" but I never really bought it.  Until this chair.  We've had a few rocking chairs over the years, but honestly, the way this one rocks is really beyond comparison.

PL: You mind if I try it out?

T: Of course not - that's why we're here!

PL (after sitting and rocking for a time) Wow - you're right.  You know - that was the hallmark of Maloof chairs.  Most of them were bespoke for their owners - he'd take measurements and craft the perfect chair, and for rocking chairs, that's really difficult.  [goes on to detail the specific of how a rocker must sit right with and without a person, and how the rock works, etc. - all while rocking.]  You know, you're right.  This is a fantastic rocker - all those things are right.  It works.  It's a shame the mark isn't on the bottom - we'll likely never know who made it.

[They all chatted a while longer and then parted ways.  The staff noted that it must've been special because the appraisal took so long.  Tommy and Cara carried their chair back out to get in line for the next thing.  It wasn't filmed, and you won't see it on the tv.]

THE VERDICT:  It was a fantastic, legit, Antiques Roadshow experience.  Peter went into great detail about the chair, and Cara and Tommy learned a whole lot.  There's a lot that's still unknown - and will likely always be - but it was put into perspective in a healthy and honest way.  As for value, Peter said the current market is very depressed for such goods, and at auction it might fetch a couple grand.  A few years ago? An easy 5-6 grand.  And if it were a Maloof (which it definitely isn't) it would have a value like a small house in a nice neighborhood.

Perhaps somewhere, someday, someone will see the chair and know who made it.  Because at the end of the day, this chair didn't fall from a factory line.  A hugely skilled artist crafted it, and for some reason, that artist never made a name for him or her self.  But here in Pittsburgh, a couple of asses are appreciating this chair day in and day out.  And it would be thrilling to know what other furniture this person made...

ARS ITEM No. 4: The Camera

[NOTE - This post is part 4 of a series chronicling a trip to the ARS.]

ITEM No. 4: The Camera

All things in this world are not created equal, and such is the case with cameras.  Being lovers of all things old and mechanical, Cara and Tommy have a Nikon SP  rangefinder camera.  It's a funky bit of kit, and much to their surprise, seems to have some value.  A cursory search on eBay shows Nikon SP camera bodies selling in the thousands of dollars.  (There are currently four on eBay with asking prices well over $10,000.)  Having seen this trend, and done due diligence, Tommy has confirmed that the camera they own is definitely not worth anywhere near that.  (It's not the limited edition black-painted model.)  However, given that it is a Nikon SP, with a few matching lenses and accessories, it would take an expert to tell whole the whole kit is worth.  Enter Antiques Roadshow:

The Appraisal: Act IV
 (The end of a long day.  The appraisers are EXHAUSTED.  It is the very last day of the 2011 Antiques Roadshow Tour, a grueling schedule:  They've been working one day out of every two weeks for the past three months. Amazing that the appraisers are still standing sitting.)

DISCONTENT APPRAISER (browsing eBay on an iPad): What is it?

TOMMY: Well I brought in an old camera kit.  It's a Nikon SP with a few lenses.

DA: Well you see, now that most people shoot digital, there isn't much interest in film cameras.

T:  Sure.  But I believe this is a bit of a special camera, it--

DA:  Well, it's a Nikon, which is a good brand, so you might be able to get $100 for it.

T:  Really?  Because the last few I've seen all sold in the low thousands of dollars.

DA:  And where's you "see" this?

T (gesturing to the iPad): On eBay.  I actually think this particular model is regarded as a fairly significant camera.

DA (looking over her glasses, while searching eBay): Well the camera and tool "expert" isn't here today.  I mean we can't be expected to make it in to every single day of filming.  You can e-mail him.  (scribbles an email address on a scrap of paper) Here.  (Dismissing him.) Next?

T: Thanks, have a good evening.  (Carefully picking up the camera parts and handing some off to Cara while clearing the space for the next contestant.)

the end.


THE VERDICT:  Sometimes an amateur's due diligence is worth more than an expert at the end of a long day.  This particular appraiser clearly knew nothing of cameras, which is fine.  After all, they can't always get it right.  However, at the end of a long day, it wasn't an ideal end to an Antiques Roadshow experience.  An e-mail has been sent to the "camera and tool guy" in the hopes that better information will be forthcoming.

All in all, we really did have a blast.  The chat about the chair was a wonderfully genuine Antiques Roadshow experience, and we met lots of interesting people carrying around their dreams and detritus in their arms.  Net win to be sure - and you can sleep well knowing that we gave it our all in the feedback booth...