For What it’s Worth
Local art and antique dealers share a few appraising tips
Almost 10 years ago, a woman walked into Kahn Fine Antiques in Chatham carrying a crumpled paper bag in her hand and with her daughter and granddaughter at her side. For Richard Kahn, the business’s owner and a longtime art collector and appraiser, this was not an unusual situation—until he saw what was in the bag.
The woman showed Kahn a powder horn that her grandfather had passed down to her. The horn, crafted of ox horn, was about 12 inches long, Kahn recalls, and engraved with images of ships, forts, and other symbols. “More importantly,” Kahn says, “it also showed the name of the owner, Timothy Bugbee, and the date, 1774.” For the woman, the item was not much more than a sweet family memento. “She really had no idea how much it was worth,” Kahn says. “She didn’t have a clue.” As it happened, the powder horn turned out to be a rare find in the folk art field.
“I immediately knew they had something,” says Kahn, who specializes in Americana items and antiques and maritime-themed works of art. He began his research into the history of the piece, browsing websites, and talking with other experts. Eventually, he determined a Connecticut soldier had used the horn during the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill in the early stages of the Revolutionary War. “It was of immense historical importance,” Kahn says. “It’s like finding Custer’s gun at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.”
Originally taken on a consignment basis, Kahn eventually purchased the horn from the owner outright. Sold to a high-profile collector at auction in 2006, the piece fetched $45,000.
According to Kahn, this kind of scenario—when an untrained owner discovers that his or her antique or painting is a real-life treasure—while fascinating, is also unusual. “Probably 90 percent of items that people have in their homes are of sentimental value,” Kahn says, “things they inherited or picked up on vacation. Very few of those will end up on the auction block.”
Roy Mennell, who owns Bradford Trust Fine Art in Harwichport with his wife, Sheila, also encourages a healthy dose of skepticism for anyone casually assessing a piece of art. “Remember,” Mennell says, “when we watcha Antiques Roadshow, they have thousands of people come in. We the viewers don’t see the 99 percent of people who come in with something of little or no value.” Mennell, 80, has been buying, selling, and appraising art for more than 50 years. Today, he and his wife concentrate on coastal New England and Cape Cod art.
One thing Mennell says he has learned in his career is that people are often fooled by reproductions. “Most people aren’t that familiar [with art evaluation],” he says. For the beginner, both Mennell and Kahn suggest starting with the signature of the artist or sculptor, and conducting some online research.
Sometimes, Kahn adds, information can be gleaned from a framer’s sticker that may be affixed to the back of the piece. Another option, he says, is “to shortcut the process,” by sending photos of an item in question to an appraiser, or arranging to meet an appraiser in person.
Appraisers like Kahn and Mennell often specialize in certain periods or styles. One local business that offers a wide variety of art and antiques—as well as appraisal expertise—is Robert C. Eldred Co. in East Dennis. Eldred’s has been owned and operated by the Eldred and Schofield families for three generations. As New England’s oldest established antiques and fine arts auction house, Eldred’s holds approximately 25 auctions each year featuring Americana, paintings, Asian art, European decorative art, maritime antiques, sporting art, and collectibles.
Eldred’s professionals also provide estate and insurance appraisal services for individuals, banks, trusts, and attorneys, supplying appropriate formal documentation for tax and accounting purposes.
Eldred’s and other appraisers often participate in art appraisal events in the area, many of which serve as fundraisers for different charities and organizations.
This summer, the Cahoon Museum of American Art will host one of these events—the “Third Annual Appraisal Day: Trash or Treasure.” The event is to be held Thursday, August 6, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the museum’s temporary home at 30 Bates Road in Mashpee Commons.
The event is a fundraiser to help bolster the museum’s capital campaign. All the needed funds have been raised for the renovation and new addition to the museum’s permanent quarters on Route 28 in Cotuit; the fundraiser will help cover the cost of operations. The museum, a circa-1782 Colonial Georgian home, is due to reopen to the public in April 2016.
At the event, professional appraisers from Eldred’s will be on hand to conduct appraisals; they are donating their time and expertise for the effort. The focus of this particular event, says museum director Richard Waterhouse, is the appraisal of art—not antiques. It is important to note, Waterhouse adds, that appraisals conducted at the event are verbal, rather than written, and therefore do not qualify as an insurance appraisal. The fee to have one item appraised is $15, or three items for $40.
“Pretty much anybody who needs something appraised comes,” Waterhouse says of the event. “Last year, we had everything from paintings, to sculpture, to postcard books.” For more information on this appraisal event, visit cahoonmuseum.org, or call (508) 428-7581.