COLUMBIA — A man and a woman stepped into Friends Together Antiques on East Broadway on Saturday and walked around the small shop. Surrounding them were early American antiques, all pre-Civil War, including a rack of handmade quilts, miniature Bibles and doll dresses that look like they were plucked from “Little House on the Prairie.”
“What is this?” asked the woman, holding up something resembling a combination oil lamp, glass bottle and tin pedestal.
Shop owner Nancy Russell smiled broadly as she reached for the object. “This is called a ‘make-do,’” she said, rotating it in her hands. “It is when something that has been broken has been repaired and turned into something else. The most common thing is a make-do pincushion. I love these things.”
These “Ah, ha” or “Oh, wow” learning moments have become a part of the antiques culture. PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow,” with an estimated 11 million viewers weekly, is built on such exhilarating moments, such as when someone discovers that Great Uncle Filbert’s pocket watch belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
This week, the Treasure Hunters Roadshow will be in Columbia, and people can take their potential treasures for appraisal and possible sale. The roadshow, which is not connected with the “Antiques Roadshow,” is based in Athens, Ill., and travels around the Midwest looking for forgotten gold.
With the appearance of the roadshow, it seems appropriate to ask: Why are people so fascinated with old stuff?
“I think it’s that sense of being able to own a piece of the past and really connect,” said Mary Barile, an appraiser with a specialty in antique books. “It really is a sense of passing on the past and knowing that somebody else cherished it, used it, or a family owned it or who took a photo. It’s universal, really.”
A book collector since childhood, Barile, who is also a grant writer at MU, has long been fascinated with antique books.
Russell, who said her expertise is in “early America, handmade country” antiques, thinks that people want to be in touch with their past and antiques give them a reason to do so.
“People can feel justified for who they are,” Russell said. “They love knowing their family history. And it’s something to get you out on a Saturday, something a couple can do together. You can visit with the dealer. It doesn’t have to be about buying.”
Of course, there is the temptation to figure out whether the old antique that connects you to your past might be worth a little cash. If that is the case, then Barile, who has been an appraiser for almost 40 years, and Russell, who is not a certified appraiser but does so in special cases, have some advice: Know as much as you can about your item before going to an appraiser, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Check the appraiser’s qualifications, Barile said. “‘Why are you qualified to appraise what I have?’ That kind of thing,” she said. “People have to do their homework.”
If someone were to come to Barile with an old book — she gives the example of a first edition second printing “Gone With the Wind” — there are several steps she would take to determine its worth. “First I would look at its physical condition. Are the pages loose? Are all the pages there? Are there any markings in the book?”
She said she would also determine its publishing history: What edition is the book? Is it a first printing or a second? Is there a dust jacket? If so, what is its condition? “But I only deal with books,” Barile added, “so I’m a little different.”
Russell said she would look at the item’s condition, age and uniqueness — “whether it’s handmade, one of a kind” — and whether anyone in the collecting market would want to buy it.
“Those aren’t official, though; that’s what works for me,” Russell said. “You find items that meet all the criteria but are in terrible condition. If the item is rare and only hardly ever seen on the market, then it can be valuable.”
There are the instances when, yes, Great Uncle Filbert’s watch is worth thousands of dollars. But this is not the norm, Barile and Russell said. More often, appraisers must tell people the old watch isn’t worth big bucks.
“I am very careful with my words when I have to tell someone that,” Russell said. “I say the item has no monetary value as an antique, but it still has sentimental value. ‘It has the love you have for it, so it’s still good.’”
Is it really time to go through Grandmother’s things in hopes of finding a small fortune? “Not everyone who goes to an appraiser needs an appraisal,” Barile said. “You need to think about it. They’re expensive and time-consuming. Doing some of your own homework and going in prepared will help you.”
Russell said people want help sorting through their old stuff. “What you need to ask yourself is this: ‘Do I need it?’ ‘Do I love it?’ Listen to your heart.”