Much hope, scarce treasure

Antiques: An occasional gem turns up at the Cross Street Market appraisals, but most of the time people take items of lesser value.

September 30, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Johnny Sexton thought the framed 1969 cardboard print of the young Apollo 11 astronauts could be worth something. Bob Donaway was curious whether anyone would pay good money for a poster signed by the forgettable 1996 Philadelphia Eagles football team. Sharon Johnson wanted to know the worth of an FDR-era census form.

But alas, it was all junk.

They lined up yesterday morning outside Cross Street Market in Federal Hill, with their old paintings and books and paperwork, hoping to learn that trash was actually treasure. Unfortunately, it turned out that most of it is better off stashed away in an attic.

"So it isn't worth anything?" asked one man, who came from Dundalk with, among other items, a pair of souvenir ashtrays. "I didn't say that," replied appraiser Chris Bready. "It's not worth a lot."

You've seen the public television program Antiques Roadshow. This is the roadshow, Federal Hill style. It's here that anyone can go and get their trinkets, baubles and memorabilia appraised by experts, who can tell whether the items are better suited for a collector or a trash collection bin.

The expert opinions are part of the neighborhood's once-a-month antiques and collectibles market, started a year ago to bring people here Sunday mornings.

"People just love this," Donald Garfield, a volunteer with the Federal Hill Main Street program, said of the appraisal tent.

Nothing really valuable was discovered yesterday. But on a recent Sunday, Garfield says, two women brought Civil War-era swords and found they were worth "a lot of money."

Bready, president of the Baltimore Book Co., is this month's appraiser, and he is not getting paid. He turns away a woman with an old cash register, a man with china, another with a vase, saying he doesn't deal in those items and can't help. His expertise is in old paintings and etchings and books, topics on which he holds forth long past the five-minute time limit.

He speaks with authority about early 20th-century Maryland artists, about the lower-quality materials being used today to bind books, about how some religious books in the 17th century were printed in cities different from the ones laid out on the title page.

He tells one woman that her 1931 map of Maryland, drawn for the 300th anniversary of the state but peeling around the corners of its frame, is "flea market." He tells one man that his piece of 18th-century German calligraphy, while beautiful in its craftsmanship, is not particularly valuable because it is too generic.

"A lot of times, people don't know what stuff is worth," Bready said. "It's to the benefit of everyone the more knowledge that's dispersed."

Up steps Elmo Zeun, the retired owner of Elmo's Bar in Patapsco, with a heavy pile of books -- an old illustrated edition of The Swiss Family Robinson, some Dickens, a cookbook called A Treasury of Great Recipes.

"The doctor is in," Bready quips. "Five cents."

Bready rejects the children's book. Then the Dickens because the editions are in poor condition and because there are so many good copies of his books that have endured. "Dickens was prolific," he said. "He had financial problems. He lectured. He toured."

As for the cookbook, "there are very few great cookbooks from the 20th century. This is not one of them."

Zeun had pinned his hopes on the cookbook. "I thought it would be worth something," he shrugged. "I wasn't so interested in making money. I was just interested in if they were worth money."

Not Johnny Sexton. Despite the sentimental value -- which turned out to be the only value -- of his portrait of the astronauts who landed on the moon three months after his son was born, Sexton said he could have parted with it for the right price.

"If it was worth something," he said, "then bye-bye."

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