If you had a pair of 18th century silver sauceboats, would you know their value? If not — or if you wouldn’t even know what a sauceboat looks like — you could use a friend like Sarah Campbell Drury.
As Vice President of Fine and Decorative Arts for Case Antiques Inc. Auctions and Appraisals, Drury has learned all about how to separate vintage from “just plain old.” She works primarily in fine art, furniture, ceramics and silver, but tries to be well versed in many different facets of the appraising game. That’s not uncommon in a field where someone could be an expert in “crystal-cut blue glass of the lesser Dutch Renaissance period, circa 1765.” (Ed. Note: That is totally made up. Don’t go looking for that.)
“There are appraisers who can be very esoteric in their specialties,” Drury deadpans. “Or they really have just one thing that they are passionate about. But most of us have to be generalists, which means you know a little about a lot.”
Hitting the jackpot
While not every find is a treasure, they do come along every once in a while.
“I once met a lady who had a pottery jar, and her kids shoved their ice-cream sandwich wrappers in it. One day she noticed a name on the jar: J.A. Lowe. She looked it up on the Internet and somehow found us.”
Turns out that this may be one of the few, perhaps even the only, intact example of pottery from John A. Lowe (1833-1902), a Greene County, Tennessee, potter. Its auction value? An estimated $63,000.
“That was cool,” Drury says calmly. “And then another couple brought us a tea set they found in somebody’s garage at an estate sale. It was in a box with a bunch of tools, and it turns out it was a Chinese export tea service dating back to the 19th century. Chinese items are red hot right now, because the Chinese want their heritage back. These people paid less than $20 for the whole box, and the tea set will probably fetch between $2,000 and $3,000.”
Out from behind the lens
Drury lends her time and talents to Nashville Public Television’s Appraisal Day, a summertime fund-raising event that is similar to the wildly popular Antiques Roadshow. Although the event isn’t televised, there are plenty of cameras around. Participants are allowed to take photographs with the expert appraising their treasures, but they cannot record the actual appraisal because it’s technically just an evaluation, not the in-depth procedure an appraiser would undertake in his or her office.
And if NPT should ever want on-air evaluations? That’s not an issue for Drury.
“I was a news producer at Channel 5, which is pretty different than what I’m doing now,” she says. “I left the station when my first daughter was born in 1997 so my hours would be more family-friendly. But I still wanted to work, so I fell back on my knowledge of collecting, which comes to me thanks to my grandmother.”
Drury had been hitting antique fairs and auctions with her grandmother since she was 8-years-old, and picked up quite a bit of knowledge about art and more along the way. As a new mother, her time was limited, so she started out as a dealer and then worked her way into appraisal.
“I wanted to know what things were worth, and to see more interesting objects,” she explains. “Appraisers get to see extraordinary art and antiques that may never come on the market, and I wanted that insider knowledge. So in 2000 I decided to become an appraiser.”
Apprenticeships and other challenges
Drury spent about three years studying and gaining work experience through the International Society of Appraisers to earn her ISA Accredited Member designation. She roamed the country working with other professionals to prepare for her antique and fine-art appraisal exams, and spent time at the National Gallery and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.
“The ISA trains and tests appraisers, and we have to do continuing education,” she says, “and we have to follow the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice. This business is continually, and rapidly, changing. There’s more to it than just walking in and looking over a roomful of objects in an estate. What people don’t see on Antiques Roadshow is the sheer volume of computer databases, books and more that appraisers are constantly using for research before they go on live television with a value conclusion.”
There’s no actual college degree program for art and antique appraising, but an interest in these areas usually comes with certain kinds of coursework.
“A lot of art appraisers start out as art history majors, and a lot of people who have studied history do this as well,” Drury says. “Political history influences design, for instance. Many, many people who are appraisers have come to this after a very successful career as something else, or because of a lifelong interest in a subject that’s led to this area of work.”
There’s a certain glamour to appraising, especially when you’re working with high-dollar or historical items, but it’s also requires long hours. The research can sometimes be tedious — time consuming.
“When you’re talking about furniture, sometimes we have to take samples of wood and send them off for microanalysis,” Drury says. “That can help determine where it was made, and that can make a difference of up to a decimal point in the appraisal value right there. And to get to that point, sometimes we need to call in a specialist above and beyond what we might know. There are a lot of little things, boxes to be checked off, that can make a significant difference in the value. That’s why the research we do is really worth it.”
Mama always said this was Tiffany …
So, if it’s a few months out from Appraisal Day, how does one go about luring an appraiser to look at great-grandma’s whalebone corset? Like anything else these days, most people hunt for a pro online. Once they find Drury, the fun begins.
“I will ask the history of the item, when they inherited or bought it, and then start to look at the item itself,” Drury says. “From there, it depends on what the item is. I want to see the condition, of course, but also look at the secondary-market track record for the artist if it’s a painting. In 2008 the art market changed forever because of the recession. Artists that were red hot before then can sometimes now be incredibly difficult to sell.”
Jewelry is gauged on the quality of the metals and gems, as well as the provenance, and furniture gets evaluated and checked for prior sales. Something as esoteric as folk art is trickier.
“There’s often nothing to look up, so we’re looking at quality and craftsmanship,” Drury says. “Is it well-made? Is it in style? Mid-century modern furniture is a good example of something that is ‘hot’ right now. In our last auction we had a George Nakashima table and we could have sold those all day long. At the same time, we won’t even accept Victorian marble-top dressers, because they are almost impossible to sell.”
I spy with my little eye
After a few dozen teapots, mixed-media paintings and well-seasoned coat racks, it can be tiring to ascertain the value of anything and everything. For Drury the real thrill lurks in attics and basements full of boxes, bins and trunks.
“The next house, the next box, always gives me a little chill of excitement,” Drury admits. “What kind of treasures might be in there? My best-case scenario is having a client who really needs the money, and finding something really valuable. I’ve had clients who were about to lose their homes, but I was able to identify something that was much more valuable than they thought, and help them market it to the right dealers and collectors through our auction, and the sale of that item gave them some breathing room.”
But, she adds, “I am much more involved with people than I am with objects. Don’t get me wrong — I am all about the objects, but it’s really fun to give people information and see how excited they get. Bringing them in on the process, and learning together, really makes appraising a lot of fun for me.”
So do the finds that come out of the blue. Those sauceboats? They were from a little country auction not far from Nashville, where a gentleman had purchased a box of silver-plate bowls and other items. Drury later examined the sauceboat, saw the markings and realized they were the work of an 18th century silversmith.
“He paid less than $50, and they wound up bringing in $43,000 when correctly cataloged and advertised through our auction,” she reports, adding that even if she’d wanted them for herself, buying something she has appraised is against ISA ethics policy. And when it comes to auctions, Case acts as an agent and never buys the items it lists in its sales.
But when she is out on her own, prowling around, lightning hasn’t struck, or at least not yet.
“You’d think I would be lethal at a yard sale, but I never find anything,” Drury laments. “I’ve given up.”