Everybody has heard a "treasure in the attic" story. You know the kind: An old Ozark farmer discovers that Granny's sideboard, sitting half-forgotten in the barn with tractor parts on top and a litter of newborn kittens in a drawer, is an authentic Duncan Phyfe worth zillions. Or a nice suburban couple from Milwaukee learns that the floral still-life that has been hanging over their living room sofa for decades is an original Van Gogh.
Far-fetched? A dizzy optimist's very own urban legend? Not at all. That Ozark farmer may be a fictional figment, but the second story actually happened just last month. The painting, "Still Life with Flowers," brought $1.43 million at a Chicago auction.
"These incidents do happen. They're not just fairy tales," says Emyl Jenkins. The very day the antiques appraiser was reached at her Raleigh, N.C., office for a phone interview, she had been reading about the Philadelphia man who bought an old frame for $4 at a Pennsylvania flea market and discovered, tucked behind the tattered painting of a country scene, a 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Such discoveries are once-in-a-lifetime events for the people they happen to, but are not all that unusual for Ms. Jenkins, who in the course of her professional work has uncovered quite a bit of "hidden treasure," and has informed clients that they were actually wealthier than they ever suspected. One man, for example, had a chair that he thought was just "an old family piece" which if refinished might bring a couple of hundred dollars. He was astonished when the appraiser told him that the chair was a near-perfect 18th century original. When he decided to sell, the chair brought $80,000.
Ms. Jenkins, owner of Emyl Jenkins Appraisals and author of "Emyl Jenkins' Appraisal Book" and the new "Guide to Buying and Collecting Early American Furniture" (both published by Crown), will be presenting the M. Austin Fine Memorial Lecture at the Baltimore Museum Antiques Show at 10 a.m. Friday. Her topic, "Putting a Price Tag on the Past," may sound somewhat mercenary, but she offers solid reasons why people should know the value of their possessions -- even if they would never consider letting Sotheby's or anyone else have them.
"The cost of personal property today is staggering," she says. "You find this out when you go out to buy a single piece of furniture, or a piece of sterling silver. You begin to look around the house and say, 'If one piece costs so much, how much can my whole collection be worth?' You then realize you need insurance protection."
Ms. Jenkins, who sells neither antiques nor insurance, can't emphasize enough the importance of adequate insurance coverage, even for items that are, to their owners, "irreplaceable."
"Unfortunately, as an appraiser I've seen what happens to people when they lose items through hurricanes or tornadoes or fire or theft. These can be heartbreaking experiences, both in terms of the sentimental value and the financial loss. Nothing can replace sentimental value, of course, but when you lose both sentiment and money it's a double whammy. When you get the compensation that comes with adequate insurance, at least you are able to replace these items, both for your own use, and to pass on to the next generation."
In certain cases -- insurance, the settlement of an estate or the division of property in case of divorce, for instance -- the services of a professional are essential. But most people can develop appraisal skills themselves, she says. Her books and lectures, and "Value Judgments," the column she writes for Arts and Antiques magazine, all include how-to material to help individuals learn about the objects they own, and to help them avoid making expensive mistakes when they purchase antiques.
"I was born into a family where collecting and antiques and love of history were second nature," she says. While working for an antiques shop in Chapel Hill, N.C., she discovered the need for knowledgeable, objective appraisers not tied to the buying and selling of antiques. Making use of the research techniques she had learned while working for her master's degree in English from the University of Virginia, she learned everything she could about antiques and, making use of her literary skills, began to write about the topic. Emyl Jenkins Appraisals was founded in the early 70s, and Ms. Jenkins and her four colleagues have been appraising antiques ever since, for such institutions as the Winterthur Museum as well as for individuals.
Antique fanciers who set out to become collectors should not rush into things, she cautions, but should take the time to become absolutely familiar with the objects of their interest. With price tags as high as they are, caution is essential.