Arts + Culture

New Hope for Old Treasures

Antique dealers report that new technology brings more intelligence to the discovery of value and opens the market to buyers from abroad.

BY April 17, 2018


An old porcelain plate that sat for years on a family’s shelf; a card table purchased at a yard sale for $25; an antique store painting mislabeled as a fake. We have all heard the stories of hidden treasures unearthed on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow.

When learning that plate was actually a rare piece from the 1700s worth $185,000, you might find yourself rethinking even the bowl you drop your keys in. After hearing that table was an 18th century creation worth a quarter of a million dollars, all your yard sale purchases suddenly hold more intrigue. And the $673,000 estimation ultimately attributed to that “fake van Dyck” oil painting? It might compel you to cast another glance over those canvases you picked up at the thrift store.

Kristin Vaughn, director of business development, estates and appraisals for the Naples office of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, shares one of many such stories from our own area.

“A Southwest Florida nonprofit contacted us with a gift of artwork they had received through a woman’s estate,” she says. “There was very little information on the collection—just the estate tax appraisal from an independent local appraiser. While many of the works were identified correctly, there was a large painting by abstract expressionist Theodoros Stamos that was not recognized by the generalist who completed the evaluation, and it was listed on the appraisal as an ‘unknown artist’ and valued at a few hundred dollars. Our art expert immediately recognized the signature as Stamos’, and the work sold through our Post War and Contemporary Art Auction in Chicago for $155,000.”

Hearing stories like these has long sent us scrambling to discover the secrets held by our dusty possessions. But now, Vaughn and other antique professionals say, technology is changing the way we do it—and the way the professionals work as well. Information, assessments and even buyers are easier to reach in the art and antique world than ever before.

Gone are the days when one would check out a Kovel’s Antiques & Collectibles guide from the public library and speculate on the value of household items. The internet now provides vast resources for comparing photos; evaluating recent trends; matching up markings, signatures and seals.

As helpful as this can be to those looking to auction their possessions, Vaughn, for one, has learned the delicate balance between encouraging clients to bring in their heirlooms and explaining that they need to be wary of value assumptions gleaned from even the most thorough online research. It appears it’s always best to pair said research with the expertise of a reputable dealer.

“Value is subjective and confusing to many people,” Vaughn says. Sometimes, sentimental attachment translates to incorrectly perceived worth. “We work with a lot of beneficiaries who stand to inherit their family’s most cherished objects only to find that sometimes the resale value is not as high as the replacement value insurance appraisal their parents carried for decades, or the items are no longer desirable to buyers and have fallen out of fashion.”

“We do our best to educate our clients on what’s realistic at auction by showing them auction records of similar items,” she adds. “There’s a lot of transparency in our business. Anyone can go onto one of the numerous databases that track auction records, type in ‘Pablo Picasso Ceramic’ or ‘Louis XVI Gilt Bronze Mounted Commode,’ and view sale results from auction houses around the world.”

Consumers aren’t the only ones wielding technology. Kathleen Pica of Dovetails LLC in Naples explains that broadening the scope of antique auctions through use of the internet has allowed her dealers to access potential buyers worldwide. “With a recent auction, we had 40,000 views of our auction catalog,” she says. “This resulted in 560 online bidders, with only 256 of those registered participants being located in the U.S.”

Whereas at one time your family treasures might have been viewed only by visitors to the consignment shop you chose, “We had anonymous bidders from Qatar, Australia, Russia and Singapore,” Pica says.

Aside from reaching greater numbers, she’s also reaching a greater range of cultural tastes. An Art Deco bronze plaque she had assumed would go for close to $800, for example, was able to garner $3,900 from an overseas bidder.

Mike Joyce of the Bonita Springs-based Gulfcoast Coin & Jewelry says an upcoming Gulfcoast auction will be seen in 80 countries.

He reflects on a recent auction, during which a woman brought a collection of watches her father had left upon his death. Knowing current trends in the United States would put the timepieces’ worth only in the $3,500 to $6,000 range, Joyce and his staff did their due diligence in researching where the watches might hold more appeal. They were able to fetch $32,000 from a buyer in China.

“Most people know what they have,” Joyce says. “If they have a family heirloom, they know it’s valuable. Sometimes through the years the piece is much more valuable than they know. But maybe not in the sensationalizing way they might hope for.”

Vaughn of Leslie Hindman advises clients who think they possess something of value to have it evaluated by respected experts who can assess not only its local value but its potential appeal to buyers in other locations. While she feels honored to be entrusted with rare and historic private collections, she upholds her role as an antique professional. “Our job is really to provide our clients with realistic expectations for the sale of their jewelry, artwork, and fine and decorative furnishings, and bring these items to auctions to realize the highest possible price.”

That is not to say that there haven’t been exciting surprises through her years in this business.

She recently worked with a couple in the area who had no children and wanted to downsize and see the sale of their jewelry during their lifetime.

“It was a spectacular collection that spanned three generations—from Victorian and Edwardian pieces to Art Deco designs and more modern creations,” Vaughn says. “Our jewelry expert immediately picked up an intense blue sapphire ring to study under magnification. He recognized the subtle nuances within the stone as pertaining to the Kashmir region—which is the most desirable location for sourcing sapphires. With the couple’s permission, we insured the ring and had it certified through (American Gemological Laboratories), which confirmed it was indeed from the Kashmir region, and later sold the stone for $473,000 (including premium) in our Important Jewelry auction in Chicago.

“Our clients had no idea what they had. It was a beautiful stone that had been in the family for generations, and she would wear it to the grocery store and not even think about it.”

Dovetail’s Pica says Chinese porcelain is currently in high demand. So you may want to retrieve that tea set from Aunt Pearl that the kids have been using in the playroom, boot up your computer and get on the phone to a local expert. You might have a treasure hiding in plain sight.

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