They come out in droves, hoping their trinkets or heirlooms turn out to be something much, much more.
Mark Moran waits to meet with them. The longtime author and collectibles expert has hosted more than 800 appraisal events over the past six years. He carefully looks over their items, identifying where they came from and how old they are.
Using a network of databases, he can pinpoint the significance of each painting, credenza or old statuette and give the owner a sense of its worth.
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In Moran’s job, and in the world of antiques in general, something new presents itself all the time.
“It’s an endless treasure hunt. You never know what is lurking out there in the bushes or in the junk shops, flea markets, rummage sales. Every day, something amazing turns up,” he said.
Antiquing can be big business, with valuable treasures hidden away in garages, attics, basements and barns. Moran’s job is to help people navigate that world of collectibles.
With a keen eye for detail and a vast knowledge of all types of historical items, he uses his experience to bring detail and a backstory to the items people find.
“There are TV programs such as ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ ‘American Pickers,’ even ‘Pawn Stars.’ It keeps the topic of antique appraisal on people’s minds,” he said. “At all of my shows, I see things I’ve never seen before.”
Moran will bring his appraisal skills to to the White River branch of the Johnson County Public Library on Tuesday during a Friends of the Johnson County Public Library program.
“Everybody has an item in the attic or something that they inherited that has a story attached to it,” said Ann Alexander, assistant director for the library system. “Whether it has monetary value or not, we all want to share that story behind it.”
Throughout his career, the items that Moran has seen range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Once, a couple came into one of the programs Moran was doing in northwestern Wisconsin. They had what looked like an old copper can that they had found in swamp, and wanted to know what it was.
Right away, Moran noticed unusual features of the canister.
“It had a sealed separate bottom with screws around the edge. And on the top, it had a little symbol that looked like a flame. It turned out it was someone’s funeral ashes that had been put in a can. Who knows how it got into the swamp?” he said. “They were shocked that they had a funeral urn.”
Another time, a man brought a painting into one of the events that he had bought at a yard sale for $5. The oil painting was an original from Harry Ekman, a renowned illustrator in the 1950s who specialized in pin-up art.
Moran estimated the artwork would sell for $10,000. The following year, it was auctioned off for $16,000.
“The guy thought I was crazy, and I told him the only way to be sure was to put it out in the public and let them decide,” he said. “That was a $5 investment.”
Moran remembers walking into his first antique shop in 1973; by the 1980s, he was a part-time dealer. His interest in the furniture, jewelry, paintings and other historical items intersected with his past as a journalist, and he started writing books focused on antique appraisal.
Eventually, he left the newspaper business to focus on writing antique reference books. He has written 27 books, and was senior editor of antiques and collectibles books at Krause Publications until 2011.
“Those books all turned out to be quite popular, and they’re all out of print. So the books themselves have become antiques and collectibles,” he said.
After leaving the publishing business, Moran started his own series of appraisal events. He has traveled throughout the Midwest, doing shows at libraries, historical societies and other community institutions.
The Friends of the Johnson County Public Library, which helps raise money to pay for programs and activities at the library system’s four branches, invited Moran to take part in their annual public meeting.
The idea was to provide an experience that the community would enjoy and that they might not be able to do often, board president Jane Bingham said.
“It’s likely that many of us have some items tucked away, some dishes or photographs or maybe some costume jewelry that has been passed to us, and we’re curious as to its value,” she said. “Perhaps we’ll uncover some real treasures that have been collecting dust in the attic.”
At the events, people present Moran with their items, ranging from folk art to vintage photographs to furniture. He spends about four minutes on each item, asking them about what they know about the object and where it came from.
Moran keeps a list of accepted objects that he will appraise, and others that he will not. The accepted list includes items such as fine art, ceramics, advertising, folk art, old toys, clocks and sporting memorabilia.
At the same time, he will not appraise any weapons, including swords or knives, Nazi memorabilia, fine jewelry or Beanie Babies.
His goal is to provide them with details about its history, who made it or what country it was made in and eventually an opinion on the value.
If the person is interested in selling it, Moran can answer their questions about how to find a market for it. He never buys or arranges sales on commission.
“I use half a dozen different internet databases that give me access to current auction values from all over the world,” he said. “People can see in real time all of the databases I use to track down value, so they know I’m not just pulling a number or description out of the air. I can show them the back story.”
While the worth of an item is the attention-grabbing aspect of antiquing, Moran has found that a majority of the people he meets with are less concerned with the money than about discovering exactly what it is that they have.
Helping them uncover the clues to an object’s past is the rewarding part of his job.
“Most just want to know if the story they’ve been told all their lives about this object that’s been in the family is true. Sometimes it is, sometimes it grows in the telling,” Moran said.
What: An antiques and collectibles appraisal fundraising event featuring author and antiques expert Mark Moran, organized by the Friends of the Johnson County Public Library.
When: 4:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: White River branch of the Johnson County Public Library, 1664 Library Blvd., Greenwood
How will it work:
General admission for viewing is at no cost and is open to the public. The public is encouraged to drop in for all or part of the evening. Light refreshments will be served.
Appraisals are open to Johnson County Public Library card holders for $10 per item, payable by cash or check.
Registration and payment are required for patrons bringing an item to be appraised. Registration is on a first-come basis and the $10 fee is due at the time of registration. Register in person at any branch or at the Library Services Center.
Registration for appraisal of items is limited to 40 items total, one per person.
- 14 slots from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.
- 14 slots from 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.
- 12 slots from 7 to 8:00 p.m.
- All weapons, including swords and knives, though folding knives with advertising are accepted
- Traps, such as like leg-hold
- Nazi memorabilia
- Coins and paper money
- Fine jewelry, including precious gems
- Beanie Babies