Mom knew the chairs must be valuable because no one was allowed to sit on them. They belonged to my grandmother, who lived in suburban Washington, D.C., and bought them at an antique store in Georgetown - a shop, Grandmom confided, frequented by the young Jackie Kennedy.
An armless pair, the chairs were French and made in the 18th century, we were told. They had sinuous turned legs and arched upholstered backs rimmed in carved walnut. The golden silk on the seats was tattered, exposing the creamy innards. Grandmom said the silk was a rare, document fabric and people who knew the true value of antiques were happy to live with such imperfection.
After Mom inherited the chairs, the frayed silk stayed. She didn't want to wind up like those folks on "Antiques Roadshow" who stripped cupboards of value along with the milk paint.
A few years after Grandmom died, Mom decided she would sell the chairs if they were as valuable as we were programmed to believe. I suggested we take a chair to Appraisal Day at Winterthur, the country estate outside Wilmington, Del., which houses the renowned American furniture collection of Henry F. du Pont. I would bring a painting I'd just purchased, a dreamy scene of a young woman under an autumnal tree waiting for a sailing ship.
On Appraisal Day, we gently packed our treasures into the car and drove to Winterthur. We took baby steps, gingerly carrying the chair and the painting to an auditorium, where we waited to learn how rich we'd soon become.
The woman in front of us brought a small, dark painting of gondolas bobbing on a canal in Venice, a scene you might glimpse while slurping spaghetti in an Italian restaurant. But while Mom and I were unimpressed, the experts were clearly excited. They shined a black light on the painting. They leafed through books and conferred.
Then they issued their verdict. Although the painting was not signed, it was unquestionably in the style of Canaletto, the 18th-century Venetian master. After cleaning, the painting could easily fetch $40,000.
Mom gave me a sideward glance, adjusted her glasses, and winked. I could tell she had a feeling our gondola was about to come in. We presented the chair to the appraiser and waited for cash registers to start ringing.
Instead, we were resoundingly humbled. The appraiser explained the piece was a reproduction, probably manufactured in the United States in the late 19th century. He valued it at $50, then upped the estimate when he learned Mom had another one just like it at home. For the pair: $125.
When I presented my painting, I received a primer on the things most folks learn in art and antiques kindergarten. My painting was modern, created no earlier than the 1950s, as evidenced by the staples used to stretch the canvas. Before then, artists used tacks. Still, the appraiser said, it was probably worth the $425 I paid for it. "It's pretty," he said kindly.
Mom and I trudged back to the parking lot, lugging the items we'd carried so tenderly less than an hour before. We loaded them into the car like cases of canned peas. "Don't bother to lock it," Mom said.
At home, I suddenly didn't like the painting any more. The girl under the tree had been transformed from hopeful maiden to jaded Jezebel. I suspected a leak in the sailing ship.
Mom hasn't decided if she'll reupholster the chairs yet - not because the tattered fabric is historically significant but because it will cost more to replace it than the pieces are worth.
All this inspired us to contemplate the value of possessions. I bought the painting because it was decorative and held the allure of something undiscovered. We revered the chairs because we loved and respected Grandmom, not because they were functional or good looking. We realized that sometimes good fortune falls into your lap, like the Van Gogh at a tag sale - or the Canaletto in the rec room. But you are far more likely to prosper if you do your homework before you buy.
The bottom line: If any of our belongings had turned out to be fabulously valuable, we could have sold them cheerfully and invested the money in the oldest, most precious relic - our family.
We stand reminded that possessions are simply vehicles that create the ephemeral image of prosperity or pleasure - and to always keep an eye peeled for the good stuff.