Aug 24, 2012
Ted Westin

Antiques Friday: Top Appraiser Shares 37 Years of Stories

For today’s Antiques Friday (hashtag #ABAntiquesFri on Twitter), I’m excited to bring you stories and tips from a DC-area antiques legend: Jerry Ford, who is both an experienced appraiser and runs an estate sale company, Items of Value, Inc.

Just the other day, Ford was examining gifts from foreign governments that included original oil paintings, large and fine pieces of blown glass, gilt silver drinking cups, books autographed by their authors, elaborate hand embroidery, a gold jewelry set set with rubies, and expensive wristwatches. It was just another day in his storied career of over 37 years in the appraisal business.

Read on to find out about some of the famous items Jerry has appraised, how he got so knowledgeable, what he collects, and what kinds of items  are “hot” now in his estate sales:

“Looking back, I have had and am still having a most privileged career, now 37 years in the appraisal business. I hold two five-year contracts to appraise both foreign and domestic gifts for representatives of federal agencies here in Washington, DC.  

“Among the jewelry items as foreign gifts, the leader of one country gave one of our government representatives every year for three years a jewelry set of necklace, bracelet, earrings, and ring; always starting off with diamonds and further enhanced with emeralds, or sapphires, or rubies. Each set appraised over half a million dollars.  On our side, our federal policy limits the dollar value of gifts we can give to a very low amount.  I have been asked to find gifts that we could give, such a autographed books by well-known American authors.

A Toe’s Difference

“Once I was appraising the gift of an antique Chinese porcelain bowl that had broken into 5 pieces, been repaired with metal staples and paste and a silver rim added.  My escort asked me why anyone would give as a gift an item in such poor condition.  I asked him to look at the dragons depicted on it and count the number of toes they had.  He counted five. Then I explained that the “common everyday dragon” has three toes per foot.  The dragon permitted to be shown on items belonging to or gifted to high ranking military and civilian had four toes.  Only the imperial family could own or give items portraying dragons with five toes.  That is what made this bowl so important.  I assigned a value of $1,500 to the bowl “as is”.  He asked me what value I would have assigned if the bowl had been in fine condition.  I said ‘$5,000.’

From Buffalo Bill to Charles Lindbergh

“Among the special appraisals I have done are one of the personal letters and photo albums of William Cody (“Buffalo Bill”). They had spent over a decade sitting in a garage in northern Virginia before the present owner brought them to me. The material included letters written by Cody while doing his Wild West Show in Paris, France to his ranch manager in the States. Since I had been a student in Paris, I held my hand over some of the letters and imagined him writing these letters on a warm summer day in Paris. Through photos of him then, I could see what he looked like. One of the photos showed his cowboys on horseback at the Eiffel Tower.  Can you imagine what
impression that made on the French?  

“I have the same feeling of associating with history (one of the joys of my business) in holding my head over a letter written and signed by Abraham Lincoln or Charles Lindbergh, or the Marquis de Lafayette.  Looking at the place and date of the letters, I try to imagine what the weather may have been like on that day.  Reading up on history, I guess what events were happening in the country or the world on the day they wrote these letters.

Authenticating A Grandma Moses

“To illustrate the extensive knowledge it takes to ‘discover’ valuable items and to authenticate them, I was doing an estate appraisal in a very small house in northern Virginia and found a small painting signed by Grandma Moses in a very inexpensive frame. I contacted the publisher of a book on her, cited the painting to him, then he confirmed that the name of the purchasers of that painting was the same as the name of the estate I was appraising.  So, that’s how I confirmed the authenticity of this painting, which otherwise might have been sold at a garage sale for $30. When appraising, I like to contact artists to learn their inspiration for a particular painting or the time it took to create it, including how many versions they did and what modifications they made. 

“I have written correspondence back from Norman Rockwell, now deceased, who was a prolific American artist.

The Education of a Good Appraiser

“Once, while doing an insurance appraisal for a member of our State Department, the individual kept showing me items saying ‘I bet you can’t identify this.’  After guessing correctly four times, he brought out a brass ring, less than 1″ diameter with a bar attached perpendicularly at one point.  The gentleman had a big smile on his face and said ‘You’ll never guess this one.’  I told him it was a toe ornament worn by Asian.  The ring goes on the toe and the bar passes under the joint indentation to keep the ring from slipping off.  He was surprised that I knew that. So, being a good appraiser requires constant reading as well as attending museum exhibits.

“Every year I select an area to do extended study in.  One year was Native American items. Then, I thought that original animation art would become popular, so I studied it and contacted collectors and artists, accumulating a lot of information on how ‘cels’ were made and how this process changed over time, also the size and use of watercolor backdrops.  I ended up appraising an extensive collection of cels and backdrops that had been accumulated over years by a woman working with the original Disney artists. For me this ended in an invitation to a party at Smithsonian Institution when Disney Corporation donated original artwork. I remember seeing Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters parading in costume across the stage while we ate cake and ice cream.  A cinematographer for an Arab news agency was there and recognized me, asking ‘What are you doing here?’  I said ‘I was invited.’

MacArthur’s Pipe

“Among the most valuable items I have appraised, one will probably not be exceeded in my lifetime. I was selected to appraise all items of historical value at the Pentagon.  In the MacArthur corridor, having 2 walls of display cabinets, I appraised the corn cob pipe used by MacArthur and across the corridor the corn cob pipe used by Gregory Peck when he portrayed MacArthur in the movie. I also appraised the pen used by the Japanese to sign surrender papers in World War II — at $1.2 million.  I feel sure that its value now would be about $2 million.

“Once a young woman called me saying that she had found a copy of the Declaration of Independence in the attic of her grandmother’s house on the Eastern Shore in Maryland.  She brought it to me, I photographed it, measured it, and then did research. Through contacting the Library of Congress, I was able to determine that what she had was an 1820s copy made by the printer commissioned to makes copies for members of Congress, who then moved his name from one side of the print plate to the other and made additional copies. This was one of those later copies.

“I work had to remain a GP (general practitioner) appraiser, able to appraise a wide variety of items, because when I am in a home, often a wide variety of items has been inherited or accumulated over time.  Once a lady brought a shoebox of costume jewelry to me to sort through that was her mother’s and she was going to give it to her church for their charity auction.  Among the costume jewelry was a ring with a real opal. She later sold it for $400.  So, a good appraiser has to know a lot.  

Ivory Specialty

“Perhaps a specialty of mine is ivory, I guess because when insurance companies were looking for appraisers of ivory a few decades ago, I was the only one who felt qualified to appraise it. A good appraiser needs to know the different types of ivory (what animals it comes from), as well as whether the ivory dates from the last few centuries or is fossilized. Identifying a piece as Japanese Meiji period requires being able to note the extreme detail of the carving. Identifying the maker is very difficult and usually unsuccessful.

“Assessing condition is extremely important in determining value. A Meissen figurine may have a repaired finger or a crack. A painting may have several restored areas. When I have to go up against other appraisers in lawsuits because of a discrepancy on valuation, it is usually because the other (first) appraiser was not careful in examining the item to determine damage, deterioration, or repairs.

“Correctly identifying the materials that an item is made of is crucial to determining value. Look-alikes for ivory include resin (look for tiny burst bubbles in the surface) and tagua nut (an organic nut carved in Latin America). Also, when purchasing an item, most people are not knowledgeable enough to determine variances in quality and condition.  I have even had a dealer bring me a picture that he sold on eBay as an original watercolor but returned because it was a print.  I used by 10-power loop to look at it and then showed him how to use it to see that the image was composed of many dots, showing that it was a print copy and not an original watercolor.

Hollywood Calls

“Among clients I have had the privilege to meet include movie stars and movie directors (I have done appraisals in Hollywood, so to speak); authors (had a nice conversation with James Michener); congressmen; artists; and music groups (I was appraising acoustic equipment and musical instruments in Honolulu for a rock group when female fans were going berserk outside the floor-to-ceiling windows of the hotel where they were rehearsing).  

“I have appraised Oscar awards.  I have also appraised antique religious garments of the Catholic Church.  I was asked to appraise items following a disastrous fire at the Catholic school adjacent to Georgetown University.  I was able to appraise a concert piano based solely on reading the black register number on the metal frame (all that was left of the piano when the crane lowered it onto the street from the 4th floor where it had burned up).

“I have done appraisals on the largest personal collection of Lucille Ball items, including
personal property from her home and ranch house, along with Desi Arnaz’ congo drums and smoking jacket, plus costumes and costume jewelry she used in the ‘I Love Lucy’ shows.  I have appraised personal journals written by US statesmen and military leaders, including items now in presidential libraries.  I had to wear linen gloves when appraising a Native American chief’s eagle feather headdress and also while appraising a handpainted silk flag for the independent state of Texas.  I also wore linen gloves when I appraised an original document promoting the establishment of settlements every six miles along the Connecticut River which now divides New Hampshire and Vermont.  This document contained several French terms (I am French/English bilingual) and is now in the Vermont state archives.  This extremely significant historic document is only 3-1/2″ x 5″.

What’s “Hot” Now at Estate Sales?

“What is ‘hot’ now?  Several types of items we are getting much higher prices for now at our estate sales:  vintage women’s hats with wide brims, ‘hand-hammered’ effect aluminum trays and drink sets, Victorian cravate pins, cameos, vintage photographs.

“Both my mother and grandmother were painters and my grandfather did woodwork. I grew up with them and learned art styles as well as materials and building techniques. They taught me to be very careful in inspecting things to learn from them. This later served me well as an appraiser. I left teaching because of insufficient income to support a family, then spent ten years in management consulting where I was very highly paid but hated that work environment. I wanted a job where there was endless learning, constant newness if being able to discover things, a love of history and appreciation for humankind expression through their created objects. Having lived on three continents, and knowing a few languages, all of this has come together in a most fulfilling career.

“I also do fire and water damage appraisals.  I have had to climb the two sides of burnt-out stairs to reach the second floor of a house that burned and opened the closet to find the clothes, all sooty, hanging there, and the items in chests of drawers still clean and extant. I have had to interview people following house fires where family members died and people whose homes have been robbed. In one case, a police detective told me the robbers were probably in a house near Fredericksburg, VA less than 20 minutes but managed to steal thousands of dollars of Civil War items the couple had collected. Through my interviewing questions, I had to create a list of stolen property that the insurance company could use to reimburse them.

I have had to establish the insurance value of what remained of 14 Russian icons that had been stored in a box in a basement that was flooded when the water heater leaked. The water has completely dissolved the image on one third of every icon.  Thousands of dollars of damage was done. Based on what remained, I had to determine the age and quality of each icon for the insurance company.

What He Collects

“Here’s a question some people ask me:  What do you collect? If anything, I have a quantity of Inuit ivory and stone carvings. What appeals to me is how anything artistic could be made with a limited number of tools in such a barren environment using only available natural materials. Beyond that I have accumulated items that represent diverse creativity from around the world and also history. It took me half a year when I was in graduate school at Georgetown in the 1970s to save $200 to purchase from a book dealer in Arlington an original newspaper printed by Benjamin Franklin. There is a connection to a ‘renaissance man,’ like I am.”

***

I’d like to thank Jerry for taking the time to “brain-dump” all those great stories. My question for you all is, have you ever had anything appraised, and why? How do you research or authenticate items you sell? Post a comment here!

Leave a comment

About - Contact - Privacy - Terms of Service