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The Appraiser CallsEncounters with Aristocracy
By JOHN HAZARD FORBES
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 John Hazard Forbes
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE APPRAISER CALLS
"You can observe a lot by just watching."
I drove down a lane so full of potholes I feared for my muffler. I parked near a lawn gone to hell and I looked up at the day's job site. At first glance, I saw a spectacular mansion, all cut stone, black shutters, and slate tiles. On closer inspection, I noticed peeling paint, cracked chimneys, and a sagging roofline. I walked along a path of crumbling bricks and rang the bell. Over the span of my career, I had entered dozens of similar houses. I knew shabby rooms hid inside-rooms with worn out carpets, faded wallpaper, and too much furniture. And then I noticed the little sign on the door: "Bell broken, please knock." And I chuckled to myself.
My client, a tall, spare man with striking blue eyes and white-white hair, answered my rapping. Dressed in baggy chinos and a frayed shirt, he apologized for dragging me out to look at his worthless junk. He scoffed at those damned insurance people who wanted an appraisal and he assured me I'd be wasting my time. And I chuckled to myself.
The gentleman walked me through green-gray rooms in need of fresh paint. As we went he gestured toward dusty furniture and dark paintings. His comments included, "Grandfather bought that old thing," and "I'm afraid my mother was keen about this stuff." When he unlocked a big safe, he shrugged and said, "I suppose nobody wants this rubbish anymore." And I chuckled to myself.
So I inspected his shabby rooms with the worn out carpets and the faded wallpaper. I wrote down descriptions of the worthless junk and the rubbish. I put a value on the old thing his grandfather bought, along with the stuff his mother was keen about. And I chuckled to myself.
At the end of the day I collected my fee and said, "Thank you, Mr. Rockefeller."
And I chuckled to myself.
* * *
I worked as an art expert and appraiser for thirty years. In this capacity I identified, listed, and assessed valuable items. After my first few years, the silver and antiques became routine; even lovely paintings became everyday items and the finest jewelry ceased to excite me.
The owners, though, always fascinated me.
I came into this career obliquely. I majored in art history at the University of Pennsylvania, but I never took my studies seriously. Even at nineteen I knew Florentine altarpieces and Chippendale furniture did not hold the stuff of real life. I treated Penn as my day job; my broader interests lay elsewhere. I became what the French call a flaneur—somebody who rambles around—and Philadelphia offered endless flaneur opportunities. I liked to look at things, at neighborhoods and buildings, at department stores and junk shops, and at trees and at people. Nights my mother imagined I studied in the Quad, I checked out the bar at the snooty Barclay or the entertainments offered in an Arch Street dive. Penn maintained a sporting attitude and never cramped my wider education. Dad paid the bills, I maintained a C+ average, and everything was jake.
A generation ago, the Ivy League – especially the second tier such as Penn or Brown – seemed easy to get into and even easier to slide through. A mediocre student in high school, I staunchly believed no gentleman made straight A's and I mostly got by on a terrific singing voice. Although I never cared about grades or SAT's, I found myself accepted into a number of excellent universities. I can only assume each reserved a quota for eccentric boys with so-so report cards. Were I applying today none would let me use the men's room, let alone consider my application.
My family's status also hovered at so-so. Although my folks had legitimate claims to Old Money ancestry, we had become long on old but short on money. My mother's people dwelt in the afterglow of glamour and glory past. On the Hazard family tree perched an honest-to-gosh Pilgrim, a Rhode Island governor, two commodores, a Civil War general—plus some almost millionaires—but the string began to run out. Unfortunately, every Old Money family has a self-destruct button and my mother's father pushed it repeatedly. In merely a dozen years he managed to put the kibosh on nine generations of Hazard ascendency. His fundamental problem, typical of spoiled brats everywhere, mixed the conviction of his own entitlement with generous servings of alcohol. Even though my great-grandfather ranked as a high mucky-muck judge, our once illustrious family hung on about two train stops from The Skids. My mother maintained enough veneer to make the impression ladies with fancy ancestors generally do. Tall, good-looking, and reliably well-dressed, ordinary folks considered her sophisticated. Yet for people of wider discernment, her upper-class notions sounded borrowed and more likely glimpsed from afar than experienced at first hand.
Father's father was a Scotsman, a Freemason, and a cynosure of uprightness. He lived in those halcyon times before the rise of a certain damn magazine, when all Forbes everywhere could live without intrusive questions from rubes. My father's Swiss mother, markedly beautiful and elegantly turned out, came from big-wigs in Bern; they even owned a schloss. My father, too, knew the better points of clothes and manners, though his education remained slipshod. He eked out a degree from an unremarkable engineering school, and by the time of my birth in '51 my parents could be described as at loose ends.
Salvation came as a prize from a box of corn flakes. We found ourselves displaced persons: native New Yorkers banished to Battle Creek, Michigan, courtesy of an up-tic in my father's career with The Kellogg Company. To his relief, nobody at Kellogg's cared what college anybody attended; the president of the company barely finished the eighth grade. Gentility, shabby or otherwise, was scarce on the ground in Michigan and simply being from out east made us mildly notable. My Dad became a Kellogg's vice president, something in Battle Creek on a par with an earl in England, and firmed up our grip on gentility. While a rich town—making cereal seemed akin to printing money—Battle Creek remained steadfastly anti-posh with no country day schools, no hunt clubs, and no gated manors. What Battle Creek lacked in affectation, the town made up in grit. Fifty thousand no-nonsense people lived practical lives without the burdens of class or snobbery. I have often thought Gladwyne, Greenwich, and Palm Beach could use a wallop of Battle Creek.
Anybody believing Old Money lives only in ritzy aeries around major cities is wrong. Every American town has families who came early, platted the land, and started the local industries. Certainly, Battle Creek had an Old Money set. This upper tier got rich by businesses long gone, such as a vanished lumberyard or steam heat plant. Nevertheless, they rolled along on no visible means of support, though everyone whispered these families had heaps stocks bought way back when from Mr. Kellogg, Mr. Post, and Mr. Ford. While they lacked the grandeur of the Social Register crowd from Boston or New York, they subscribed to the same tenets of from-money people everyplace: dress simply, speak quietly, and remain inconspicuous. Old Money Battle Creekers lived on marginally nicer streets in colonial-style houses, each kept up but none attention grabbing. Cadillacs, minks, and diamonds were beneath contempt. The local gentry summered on Gunn Lake in clapboard dwellings rarely worth more than seven or eight thousand dollars. Only a half dozen families owned winter places in Florida, usually in super-WASP Naples and never in—heaven forbid—Miami.
What interest I held in art came from my parents, and I credit them for their instinctive preference for authentic things over shams and reproductions. My father, an engineer, became fascinated with the craftsmanship of fine furniture and paintings, while my mother bolstered her Old Money status by collecting antiques. Their tastes upheld the standards of WASP propriety: English furniture, academic seascapes, and too much china. Everyone on both sides of my family kept a sharp eye out for good-looking old things, fueled by our Scots -Yankee love of bargains. Although Battle Creek had no art galleries or fancy shops, I would accompany my parents to the rare auction or antiques show. I unwittingly picked up a fund of knowledge as I tagged along.
At college, I majored in art history because old stuff felt familiar. The art history department at Penn was small but choice, and full professors with international reputations often gave lectures to only three or four students. I think my instructors despaired at how easily the material came to me, but how little I focused on anything. They didn't realize the professors themselves became more interesting to me than images projected in darkened classrooms. Here before me stood remarkable old-school gentlemen who grew up amid immense privilege around World War I. Because the classes remained so intimate, professors felt free to digress—and oh, how they digressed! A lecture on Chartres cathedral by Robert C. Smith spun off into a sentimental journey through the cafes of rural France. Professor Tony Garvan once started talking about the graphic work of George Bellows, then rambled away to describe his duties as Master of Hounds at the Radnor Hunt. Other students fidgeted when professors wandered from the subject. Me? I was riveted. I could listen to this my whole life.
And for the most part, I did.
As a decade, I give the 1970s a "D": defeat, debacle, double-knits, and Debby Boone. Watergate followed Viet Nam and America fell into doldrums. National problems got personal when a recession arose just as I graduated college. The myth of every Ivy diploma coming with a spot in some walnut-paneled office burst; with nobody hiring, the annual job fair for seniors got cancelled. I had to focus, and fast. My skill set comprised arcane information and a sharp eye. During my last week of college I rented an apartment at 1212 Spruce Street, got a phone, ran some classified ads, and presented myself to the world as an art appraiser.
The '70s economy offered me one advantage: the rise of art and antiques as viable investments. Outrageous interest rates, inflation, crippled real estate, and miserable returns on stocks left investors looking for new places to put money. Long considered a fusty hobby, art became a desirable financial asset. The collecting craze popped up at all levels and everybody started checking their attics when Americana began selling for serious money. Christie's and Sotheby's opened auction houses in New York and supplied the carriage trade as the Franklin Mint churned out bicentennial junk for Middle America. When insurance companies, courts, and the IRS demanded experts to evaluate all this stuff, the appraisal industry took off.
Forty years ago a man could take a shovel and dig a hole without local, regional, state, and federal supervision by shovel, dig, and hole oversight committees. Only knowledge and skill determined the success of an appraiser, not today's pseudo-regulatory associations demanding many hours of rigmarole—and many, many dollars of fees-before an expert is deemed so by pinheads. The classifieds brought in a dribble of assignments. With my rent at only seventy-five dollars, a dribble was a not-bad start. I filled in with twenty-five dollar singing gigs at churches.
Albert Gordon Clarke, appraiser emeritus of the Philadelphia Main Line, noticed one of my ads. Mr. Clarke, then in his late sixties, enjoyed a four-decade career of sorting the valuables of the Old Money crowd for insurance reports and tax filings. Quite the Old Money boy-o himself, his plumy voice and tweed jackets slid as a hand into the glove of the old elite. He rang my bell one morning, gave me a quick look-over, and hired me as his assistant. For the following year, I worked at the elbow of an expert appraiser, an absolute aristocrat-and something of a high-class jerk.
Although remarkably knowledgeable, Albert Gordon Clarke's career rested on his social connections. He seemed linked to every blueblood in Philadelphia by six ways to Christmas – the Episcopal Academy, the Assembly Ball, the Merion Cricket Club, or though some convoluted acquaintance of his second cousin's. And I became grateful to be connected to his connections. Only under his aegis did an inexperienced appraiser of twenty-one enter into the mansions of Pews, Drexels, and DuPonts. That I spent days at a time immersed in these houses struck me as phenomenal, and that those Pews, Drexels, and DuPonts became so eager to tell me about themselves doubled my astonishment. Nothing gets people talking like possessions. Relaxed within their homes, clients freely related family histories, regaled old scandals, told funny stories, and opined on about every subject imaginable. My education started coming full circle.
A typical appraisal day began at Mr. Clarke's house in Haverford. His house presented the proper Old Money meld of Georgian design and tattered detail, yet so crowded the effect looked more Collyer brothers than Elsie de Wolfe. He would give me an overview of the day's job and at ten o'clock sharp Mr. Clarke and I would arrive at the appraisal site. If the clients were particularly grand, Mr. Clarke came in full Old Money mode: Saville Row suit, Lobb shoes, and witty chatter. Appraisers inspect entire interiors, going beyond front halls and sitting rooms. Clients showed us bedrooms, servant's rooms, pantries, cupboards, closets, and the contents of wall safes. Mr. Clarke set me upon the boring chores of counting dishes and listing books while he concentrated on the value-heavy artwork. Lunch became the day's highlight. Something about Albert Gordon Clarke assured everybody we would not be eating in the kitchen. More conversation ensued with the clients over semi-formal meals of rich-people lunch food—crustless tuna sandwiches, devilled eggs, and ginger ale. Still, we were not there socially and Mr. Clarke saw we always left at four-thirty, front-ending the awkward question of whether we should be asked for cocktails.
I would meet him to appraise about twice a month. After several weeks, I graduated from books and china to assess furniture and silver as well. Then his time with me on-site became shorter and shorter. He started showing up on the job only to introduce me, chat up the clients, and exit. Then he stopped appearing altogether and merely gave me names and addresses over the phone. Although this showed remarkable confidence in my abilities, only Mr. Clarke signed the final reports and I never saw any of the appraisal bills. I began to get the queasy feeling of being exploited. A friendly client tipped me off she'd paid Clarke eighteen hundred dollars for her appraisal, the exact same appraisal I conducted entirely alone and for which he had long owed me a paltry two hundred bucks. Dismayed, I adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
The dénouement turned on a tiny incident when he did show up to help with a porcelain collection. He lifted a cup and noted it as Chinese export. I casually commented the handle seemed like English Lowestoft. Two expressions flickered over Mr. Clarke's face. First, he raised his eyebrows, startled by my grasp of detail. But another expression supplanted his look of surprise: fear. He no longer saw just a useful kid, but real competition. He had never had competition and he didn't like it. Clarke summarily dropped me and my apprenticeship ended; churlishly, he never paid the hundreds of dollars in fees he owed me. The whole matter turned moot when he retired to Maryland. I moved from Spruce Street to Chester County and built my own client base in Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware. In many ways, I am grateful to Mr. Clarke as his appraisal methods and business patois stayed with me my entire career. Now I realize we ran the usual course between mentors and the mentored. And with this lesson learned, I never took on an assistant.
During a look-see to Naples, Florida, I married a local girl. I commuted monthly between Florida and an apartment we bought off Park Avenue. I enjoyed working in New York and I would have happily continued. But America changed and appraisal work evaporated. When I first started appraising, my best clients were in their sixties and older. As they died, the generations who followed became less likely to need an art and antiques expert. Young people began buying laptops, not lowboys, and new brides no longer needed silver for forty. Great mansions turned into money pits full of widgets and whim-whams few people wanted anymore. Appraising truly died when point-and-click technology gave everyone the illusion of instant expertise. In 2002, I became a foundation director in New York and later retired to write.
Excerpted from The Appraiser Calls by JOHN HAZARD FORBES Copyright © 2012 by John Hazard Forbes. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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