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At Home: What is sentimental value worth?

CorrespondentMarch 15, 2013 

I collapse in bed after day one of my two-day estate sale. The sale was to clear out the home of my parents, who have moved on to assisted living.

In my dreams, I see rooms of my parents’ old furniture, dealers laughing (mwahaha) and rubbing their hands greedily, as my parents are saying, aghast, “You sold that for what?”

Faced with selling my parents’ antiques and finer furniture, I was caught in the crosshairs, stuck at the intersection of clearing the house in a few days so we could fix it up to sell, and honoring the value of my parents’ treasured belongings.

In a panic, I’d emailed an antiques appraiser from PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.” (I had an in.) I sent photos of the antiques I was most unsure about for guidance on what they should sell for. While I waited to hear, I fretted about losing cash buyers to my ambivalence, and so I cut some very uninformed deals based on best guestimates and a dollop of prayer.

The morning after the sale, and another night of angst-filled furniture dreams, I heard from Gary Sullivan, one of the “Roadshow’s” featured appraisers who specializes in high-end antiques. Because I like to be in control of my own humiliation, I didn’t immediately tell Sullivan I no longer had some of the items he’d appraised. I waited until after his verdicts:

Antique clock: A sticker on the back dated the Seth Thomas clock from Dad’s side of the familyto 1883. It used to sound off every 15 minutes. One day that stopped, and we were all grateful. Over the years we lost the winding key, or maybe someone buried it. Sentimental value (on a 1-5 scale, 5 being most dear): 2.

Sullivan said: An antique clock expert, Sullivan knows the Seth Thomas line well. In the late 1800s, the maker was churning them out by the bushel. “It’s not worth much because though it’s old, it’s just too common.”

What happened: I checked eBay and found dozens of similar clocks that had sold for between $56 and $150. Knowing that a clock shop would have to replace the key and clean the clock to get it running, I sold it to a boutique owner for $60. “You maybe got the better end of that deal,” Sullivan said.

Table and chairs: Two gold-leafed caned chairs and a table were among several pieces my parents bought in France when we lived there in the 1960s. The three pieces sat in our entry. When a dealer offered $100, I had to walk outside to cry. Then I collected myself: What would I do with it? It’s rickety and would cost a fortune to ship to Florida, where it wouldn’t fit in my home. I returned with a thicker skin, a stiffer lip and a counter offer. Sentimental value: 3.5.

Sullivan said: Made in the late 1800s or early 1900s, the pieces were copies of period chairs from an older time. The fact that one seat was re-caned diminishes the value. The set would sell at an auction house for a couple hundred dollars. An auction house would keep a percentage.

What happened: I sold the set for $140. “That was a nice buy for the dealer,” Sullivan said.

Cedar chest: The cedar chest once sat at the foot of my grandmother’s bed. When Dad came home from a night out, he checked in with Grandma, and often talked while sitting on this chest. The maker’s name “Forest Park” is stamped inside the lid. Sentimental value: 4.

Sullivan said: “These chests were 20th century phenomenons. The company made them by the thousands. You’re never going to find one that has any value as an antique. It’s a $40 piece of furniture.”

What happened: I weighed the low market value, shipping costs and the fact that I have three chests at home, and called a dealer. He bought it for $50.

Lamps: The two hand-cast brass lamps were beautiful, and some dealers thought they were antiques made from kerosene lamps. I had tagged them “Not for Sale,” but took offers and phone numbers from interested shoppers.

Sullivan said: “Their value is not based on antiquity.” Before 1900, lamps didn’t come in pairs. These were made as electric lamps in the 1920s to 1940s to look as if kerosene lamps had been turned into electric lamps.

What happened: I sold the pair to a dealer for $150.


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