How Much Is a Treasure Worth?

PEOPLE come and go in a steady, near-silent stream, bringing with them treasures, objects of all shapes and sizes wrapped carefully in yellowed newspaper, soft tissue, crumpled paper towels, old rags - whatever happened to be handy. Outside, in Manchester, N.H., a raw May wind whips rain against the buildings. Inside, people drip small puddles on the floor as they pause to buy tickets for the antique show.

In the appraisal room, five or six rows of chairs steadily empty and then fill again as people take numbers, shift their bundles to the other arm, and make their way to a seat. At the front of a small room, behind two long metal tables, Gretchen and David Neligan lean forward, conversing in hushed tones. They are young, knowledgable, meticulous. Certain of their work. They have been sent by Skinner Auction House of Boston to serve as appraisers.

The people in the chairs are patient, hopeful. They shrug wet overcoats from their shoulders and whisk water from the wrinkled plastic wrapped about their treasures. They wait to be called.

"I have no idea what this is worth," says a woman as she approaches the table. Breathless and apologetic, she unwraps the tissue from the corners of a painting. "And I don't know if you're going to be able to tell anything on this. It's filthy. It's been in a house that's been heated with a woodstove for years." She rambles on as David Neligan peers closely at the painting, tilting it to catch the light.

"Actually, it's not a painting," he says finally. "See how it's pitted like that? It's so consistent, so smooth. If this were an oil painting it would be raised, a bit rough. This is a reproduction of a reproduction."

For a moment there is silence. Then the woman tells more of her story. "My grandmother had this relative who took it to this guy who gave her some long spiel about how it was worth almost $4,000, and I really wondered...."

"No, absolutely not," says David. "This is probably worth maybe $100 or so." His voice is smooth. Gentle. Nonjudgmental. He is simply stating the facts. The woman smiles. "I'm not disappointed," she says. "I just thought maybe, you know, it was worth checking anyway."

That's how most of the stories go. Again and again it's a variation on the same theme: "I didn't think it was worth much, but ... you never know." There's the lady with the 32-piece canister set, the young mother with the miniature tin doll dishes, the man with photographs of an old bedroom set, the college kids with the oriental scrolls. They all come with secretly high hopes.

Here at the appraisal table, there is no time, or need, for formalities. No introductions are made. No names are exchanged. Only one thing binds these treasure-bearers to the experts on the other side of the table: their carefully wrapped objects.

For a few minutes, the thing rests between them, offering a glimpse inside family history. There is little discussion; others are waiting. They keep coming, one after another, like flipping pages in some gigantic photo album picked up in a second-hand bookstore.

Sometimes the stories are funny. "This has been hidden in the back of a closet for years," says one woman. "We both hate it - my husband especially." She holds up a portrait. "We call her Prudence. Figured we better find out if she's worth anything." The woman laughs. "Does it decrease in value because of ugliness?"

"Maybe it's one of your husband's ancestors," David Neligan suggests, face straight, as he reaches for the piece. Then he leans forward to inspect the surface. "There's some mildew here in the corners, and it's cracking here," he says. "And besides, it's not very well done. Hmmm. Can't think of anything else bad to say about her!" He flashes a quick grin at the good-humored owner.

"I guess it's back to the closet with her," the woman quips as she turns to leave.

Occasionally, pieces come to the table that will actually fetch a respectable sum at auction. "The woman who brought this in really had no idea what it was worth," says David, pointing to a Federal candlestand in the corner behind the appraisal table. "She thought it was worth maybe $200 or so. But we took it with an estimate of $1,500 to $2,000. The fact that it has its original paint makes it very desirable. If that finish had been taken off, it would be worth only several hundred dollars."

If the owner chooses, objects like these are put up for sale at auction. Their owners receive a check when the pieces sell. Today there was a painting worth $3,000, "a rather dark scene with a cow in it," says Gretchen. "Not very appealing, but it was an original." She remembers other days when they've seen a clock worth $10,000 and, once, a diary that sold for $25,000.

The Neligans are trained to spot such value. They know authenticity when they see it. But on appraisal days like this one, they spend most of their time discussing value of another sort. "These are all treasures, in a way," says Gretchen, "even if they're worth only $5. You're dealing with people's lives, their sentiments."

When David begins explaining to a white-haired woman that her bookends are not real bronze, he does so with the same careful diplomacy both Neligans are accustomed to bringing to their work. "It's what they call white metal," he says, "and they're probably 20th century, more decorative than anything else. Value is probably around $100."

The woman listens quietly, then nods her head. There is relief in her voice when she speaks. "It would have been a very big sacrifice," she says.

"You like them?" David asks.

She nods her head and answers. "I love them. I got them 50 years ago at graduation. These are my lions," she says, picking up one of the bookends and resting it in her palm. "I have some beautiful sets of books - Hawthorne, Longfellow, Shakespeare. They are my priorities. These and my children. Nothing else. To me, these things are priceless. See the sword here and these words?"

She points to the inscription on the lion's surface. "If they never had Latin, they don't know, but it means 'Faithful unto death.' I give everyone who sees them my history lesson about Caesar and the Helvetians, the most beautiful, bravest people in the world, whom he defeats, but so greatly admired. 'Faithful unto death it was a compliment to them.

"Of course, I didn't really think they'd be worth much, you know, but I was looking for something to help me pay my property tax." She hesitates, then begins rewrapping her beloved bookends in their tissue paper.

Others, too, seem relieved not to have to part with their treasures. "This was the bowl my grandmother used," says one young woman holding out a yellow-and-brown mixing bowl for inspection. "We'd make pancakes in it every Saturday morning. It was her pride and joy."

In the end, after hours of the same hopeful, sometimes sheepish question - How much is it worth? - the real answer is clear. Most of these objects are at once worthless and priceless. This day of appraisal turns up little in the way of hidden treasure or unrecognized masterpieces, the sort of fabulous discoveries that inspire headlines.

What this day does turn up are stories. Stories of grandmothers, great uncles, and second cousins; of old closets, musty basements, and dark attics. The stories come in bits and pieces, tales of summer excursions, long-ago weddings, graduations, and birthday gifts. Here in this room, on a rainy Sunday late in the 20th century, these snippets of conversation weave a tapestry, binding us. For an afternoon, we are somehow connected by a multitude of simple treasures, visible knots among the threads of memor y.

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