Mom knew the chairs were valuable because no one was allowed to sit on them. They belonged to my grandmother, who bought them in Georgetown (D.C., not Sussex County) at an antiques shop frequented by Jackie Kennedy.
An armless pair, the chairs were French and clearly 18th century. The golden silk on the seats was tattered, exposing the creamy innards. Grandmom said the silk was a rare document fabric and people who understood antiques were happy to live with such imperfection.
After Mom inherited the chairs, the frayed silk stayed. She didn’t want to wind up like those folks on “Antiques Roadshow” who stripped cupboards of value along with the milk paint.
A few years after Grandmom died, Mom decided she would sell the chairs and reap a pile of cash. I suggested we take one to Appraisal Day at Winterthur, which houses the renowned collection of Henry F. du Pont. I would bring a painting I’d bought at auction, a dreamy scene of a young woman waiting for a sailing ship.
On Appraisal Day, we took baby steps, carrying our treasures to an auditorium, where we waited to learn how rich we would become.
One woman brought a small, dark painting of gondolas bobbing on a canal in Venice, a scene you might glimpse while slurping spaghetti in a cheap Italian restaurant. Mom and I were unimpressed. The experts were excited.
Although the painting was not signed, it was in the style of Canaletto, the 18th-century Venetian master. Cleaned, it could easily fetch $40,000.
Mom gave me a sideward glance and winked. Surely, our gondola was about to come in. We presented the chair to the appraiser and waited for cash registers to chime.
Instead, the appraiser explained the chair was a reproduction, manufactured in the 19th century. He valued it at $50, then upped the estimate when he learned Mom had another one at home. For the pair: $125.
I discovered what most folks learn in antiques kindergarten. My painting was created no earlier than the 1950s, as evidenced by the staples used to stretch the canvas. Before then, artists used tacks. Still, it was worth the $425 I paid for it. “It’s pretty,” the appraiser said kindly.
Mom and I trudged to the parking lot. We loaded the chair and the painting into the car like canned peas. “Don’t bother to lock it,” Mom said.
I didn’t like the painting anymore. The girl looked blowsy. The ship looked leaky. Mom didn’t reupholster the chairs. It would cost more than they are worth.
All this inspired us to contemplate the value of possessions. I bought the painting because it was decorative and mysterious and, in time, I fell back in love with it. We revered the chairs because they belonged to Grandmom, not because they were functional or good-looking.
Still, we keep an eye peeled for treasure. Good fortune could fall into our laps, like the Van Gogh at a tag sale—or the Canaletto in the rec room.