Down the road a piece: At auction


It’s another New Year and that means in with the new, out with the old. But here in Maine we’ve never been anxious to part with antiques and other old stuff.

For years Maine was to antiques what Saudi Arabia is to oil – a major producer. Over the years Maine has pumped out vast quantities of “genuinely old” – some might say “dilapidated” – objects and sent them down the antique pipeline to major markets to our south. And to some extent the flow continues to this day.

Someone once told me a little about how things in the antique business work. They said back in the 1950s, as many rural homeowners were installing indoor plumbing, antique dealers from Boston and beyond came to Maine and drove through our small towns with trucks stopping at almost every farmhouse where they’d offer nickels and dimes for those classic ceramic pitchers and bowls, which sat on tables in almost every Maine bedroom.

Farm families were so proud of their new bathrooms – with sinks and tubs! – that they were tickled to hear that someone wanted those old ceramic things. If this crazy city fella was willing to give them 25 cents each for them then who were they to refuse?

Those quaint pitcher-and-bowl sets eventually became hot items in the antique emporiums of big cities, selling for many times more than what was paid to folks here in Maine.

But I originally wanted to talk about public television’s “Antique Road Show.”

The thing I enjoy about the show is the genuine suspense that is skillfully created by the show’s antique appraisers as they begin talking about a particular item. They usually begin with a dazzling display of knowledge: “This rare vase is an excellent example of 18th century Russian ceramic artistry and even has the skilled craftsman’s name – Igor Klutzski – right here on the back, which makes it even more valuable. Klutzski was special pottery maker to the Czar Alexander and he made a limited number of these beautiful pieces.”

Upon hearing this the owner is all smiles.

The appraiser will then ask where the owner got the rare piece and the owner will say something like: “I bought it about 30 years ago at a yard sale in South Hiram, Maine, and I think I paid about 50 cents for it.”

This is where the suspense really starts building because it’s obvious the owner had no clue what the stupid thing was worth when he walked in the door but after hearing the appraiser go on about all those impressive-sounding details the guy begins to think he can sell it and pay off his mortgage or at least buy a nice camp somewhere. Us folks at home are thinking along the same line, assuming the vase is worth a small fortune.

That’s when the appraiser can say either, “This unassuming little vase would probably fetch at auction anywhere from $55,000-$60,000 dollars;” or, just as easily, he can say, “Unfortunately, the works of Igor Klutzski have fallen out of favor recently and aren’t doing too well at auction these days. If you had resold as soon as you bought it 30 years ago you probably would have gotten about $50,000 for it, but in today’s market you’d be lucky to get a buck, and that’s being generous.”

I sometimes imagine that when they turn off the camera the appraiser quickly flips the guy a buck and then takes the priceless object to a New York auction house where it sells it for $150,000. The appraiser then buys a place in Maine and starts collecting and selling pitcher and bowl sets.

Maine storyteller John McDonald is the author of several bestselling books, including “Moose Memoirs and Lobster Tails,” which is a sequel to “A Moose and a Lobster.”  John also entertains throughout New England, telling his Maine stories at banquets, conferences and other special events. Contact him at 207-899-1868 or