Trash or treasure?

Published 12:03 am Sunday, September 13, 2009

It’s hard for Lee King to identify a favorite item that has appeared during the nine years of the Hidden Treasures antiques appraisal event.

There was the 20-by-30-inch painting by Thomas Moran, acclaimed landscape painter, that was thought to have been a “sketch” done for a larger version. The small version that was brought to Suffolk was appraised at $350,000. The larger version later sold at auction for $1.5 million.

It was pretty exciting the year that someone walked in with a group of four never-before-seen-in-public Civil War watercolors of black Union soldiers. When it turned out that the paintings were by yet another black Union soldier and had a total value of $40,000, everybody got excited.

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“I think he was surprised,” King said of the man who brought the paintings to Suffolk’s National Guard Armory for an appraisal. “He knew they were good, but I think he was surprised at just how good.”

The surprises are a big part of the fun for King and the other appraisers who work at the show, which is set this year for Sept. 26, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Many times, people just don’t realize the value of the things that they have in their attics and closets, he said.

That’s why the show, which benefits Riddick’s Folly museum, where King is the curator, used to be held in the spring — to catch people before they threw out their old things during a spring-cleaning binge.

“It’s just shocking what has been thrown away,” he said. Not to mention the things that have been destroyed by people who had no idea what those things might be worth one day.

“I probably put a Mickey Mantle baseball card on the spokes of my bicycle,” he joked.

The lesson is that so many things are collectible nobody can be aware of the value of everything that’s been stowed away in a box somewhere.

That’s where the antiques appraisal event comes in. Patterned after Public Television’s Antiques Roadshow, the event brings together appraisers from a variety of antiques and collectibles specialties. For a $7-per-item fee, they will give the owners a five-minute verbal appraisal of the items.

The event has raised thousands of dollars for the museum through the years, King said, allowing it to purchase “some significant pieces,” including an 1837 needlepoint by the girl who would one day become the wife of Nathaniel Riddick, the museum’s namesake.

The appraisals can’t be used for insurance purposes — this year, guests can set an appointment for King to make such appraisals at a later date. But the verbal appraisals can be a good starting point for owners who don’t really know what they’re holding on to.

Like the Gates County man who brought six tintypes of the James Gang and family one year. His old photos were worth $10,000.

Or even the woman whose Native American moccasins and baskets were valued at a few thousand dollars.

“She just screamed,” King said. “I think she scared everyone in the building.”