Treasure or Trash? Appraising Family Gems, Collectibles, and Other Old Stuff

A wide swath of the Vineyard mosaic – seniors on canes, young men in work boots, mid-lifers in classic cardigans – made the scene. They were collectors, dealers, and for the most part, curious heirs. On a bright December Saturday, they crammed into the Cooke House, toting boxes, bags, scuffed furniture, massive frames, and odd-shaped, bubble-wrapped curiosities. The furtive among them kept their treasures close to their chests. All were lined up more or less patiently to await their moments of truth at Appraisal Day.

Since about 1990, Appraisal Day has been a popular, irregularly scheduled fundraiser hosted by and for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in cooperation with Skinner, the eminent Boston appraisal and auction house. On this day, for the bargain price of ten dollars an item – or twenty-five dollars for three – one could finally settle the family argument over whether the gun in the shed really dates from the Civil War, or find out if the ceramic bowl from the yard sale is early Ming or late K-Mart. One woman learned that the sterling bowl presented to her cousin as a wedding gift in 1900 is worth $3,000 to $5,000, due in large part to the inscription naming the gift givers: President and Mrs. William McKinley.

“My most valuable treasure is right here next to me,” said one smooth talker in line, squeezing his wife’s shoulder. He was quick to point out that she was not an antique.

Without so much as a coffee break, Skinner appraisers Stuart Whitehurst and Sara Wishart spent seven hours, including an hour of overtime, raising the heartbeats or spoiling the dreams of 120 people.

With regret, the museum ultimately closed the door on another twenty hopefuls.

According to Whitehurst, a veteran of past Appraisal Days as well as PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, the treasures he most typically sees on the Vineyard are old items of Massachusetts origin and a great many things nautical. “I heard the phrase ‘my great-great-grandfather was a whaler’ a lot today,” he said.

“I think they should do this once a week,” said one enthralled participant. Alas, the next Appraisal Day isn’t until December 2007. Here’s a smattering of what landed on the appraisers’ tables this time around.

Laura Hotchkiss painting, necklace, and mug

Date of origin: 1850
Combined value: $3,000 to $6,000

About 25 years ago, West Tisbury’s Nancy-Alyce Abbott inherited an 1850 portrait of eight-year-old Laura Hotchkiss. Along with it came the necklace and mug depicted in the painting. Her generous benefactor was Hotchkiss’s granddaughter, with whom Abbott worked at the Great Harbour Inn, now the Kelley House, in Edgartown. On the back of the large, unsigned oil is a brief biography of the girl. “She married late,” observed appraiser Whitehurst. “Well, look at how homely she is,” said another observer.

Ted Williams photograph

Date of origin: 1953
Value: $500 to $1,000

When Red Sox luminary Ted Williams returned home from active duty as an Air Force pilot in the Korean War, he received a hero’s welcome. In 1953, an Associated Press photographer captured Williams’s ceremonious re-signing of his baseball contract with Red Sox General Manager Joe Cronin and team owner Tom Yawkey. The photograph was never published. Years later, Red Sox fan Tim DeFelice, of Oak Bluffs, bought the photo from the  photographer’s son for $75. As is often the case with sports memorabilia, Whitehurst said today’s value may vary widely.

Wedgwood plates

Date of origin: early 1800s
Value: approximately $200 per plate

Mary Lu Keep’s father was a country doctor in upstate New York. “He collected everything,” said the West Tisbury resident. “I remember when he used to come home with this and that.” This and that included a dozen gold-rimmed Wedgwood plates, each with an extraordinarily detailed, hand-painted fish in its center. “I don’t just own these things; I love them,” she said. “The question is: Where do I leave them? I don’t think my heirs give a hoot.”

Copper-alloy English spoon

Date of origin: late 1600s
Value: less than $200

While working on a landscaping job near the head of Lagoon Pond, Kurt Crossland, of Edgartown, found a blackened spoon lying on the ground. Since he knew some historic settlements had once been in the general area, “I figured the spoon was either very old or something someone made in eighth-grade metal shop,” he said. The appraisers confirmed that the spoon was indeed very old. Otherwise stumped, they consulted Martha’s Vineyard Museum curator Jill Bouck, who launched an investigation. Now Crossland knows his find is a copper-alloy English trifid, or three-lobed, spoon made in the late 1600s. It’s the earliest spoon Bouck has ever seen on the Island. “In terms of its age and origin,” she said, “it’s a wonderful Vineyard artifact.”

Cane-seat chair

Date of origin: late 1800s
Value: $100

The honey-toned chair with the cane seat and graceful bent frame sits in Willoughby Fine Art Gallery in Edgartown. “It’s not for sale, but someone’s always trying to buy it,” said gallery owner Marge Willoughby, who picked up the chair at a moving sale about four years ago. “It’s such a neat little piece, I wouldn’t dream of selling it.” Wishart said she believes the “English-looking” chair dates from the late nineteenth century. The wood is probably cherry. “You can’t even buy a new chair for a hundred dollars anymore,” Willoughby said.

Whaling schooner’s passage document

Date of origin: 1773
Value: $600–$700

In 1773, the Office of the Admiralty issued an elegantly scribed document authorizing the passage of Amy, a Tisbury-registered schooner, through the British blockade. Owned by ancestors of the Cottle family, Amy was bound for the coast of Africa at the time to do some whaling. Along with other family possessions of the past three centuries, the passage document was removed years ago from the old Cottle homestead in Lambert’s Cove. It has since moved across the road to the wall of Jane Cottle Baker’s bathroom, where she said, “It doesn’t get any light.” As for the appraised value, “That was a little disappointing,” said her sister Barbara Cottle Childs (on left in photo with Jane). “We thought it was pretty rare, but the appraisers said they’d seen papers like it before. We still treasure it, though.”


Date of origin: 1870s
Value: $150

David Jendrick’s mother-in-law is 87 years old and in a nursing home in her home state of New Hampshire. “She’s been giving out things to the kids,” said the resident of Oak Bluffs. To his wife Nancy, she bestowed the family bible, a thick tome bound in deeply carved leather. It holds several items of family memorabilia – Nancy’s grandmother’s wedding certificate, a pressed corsage. Jendrick learned that the bible is one of a great many that were  mass-produced in the 1870s. Its importance is mainly sentimental.

Ceramic clock

Date of origin: about 1885
Value: $250–$300

On a tip from an in-law who works at the museum, Susan Houghton traveled to Appraisal Day from her home in Orleans, toting the ceramic clock her grandmother gave her when she was ten. “She told me that her mother had it with her when she arrived at Ellis Island from Vienna,” said Houghton, accompanied by her nine-year-old niece Molly. “Whenever someone in the family said they liked something in her home, she would say, ‘Just take it now,’ so she wouldn’t have to worry about them getting it after she died.” The ceramic clock has been packed away for a long time, since it doesn’t fit Houghton’s decorating scheme, but it was worth pulling it out of storage to find out that the clock case is German (Royal Bavarian) and the clockworks are American (Ansonia). Houghton plans to have the clockworks restored to working order, and one day, it will probably go to one of her two children. “I’ll say, ‘Just take it now.’”