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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 27, 2006

Beloved heirlooms worth more than money

 •  Crowds roll in for 'Antiques Roadshow'

By Elizabeth House
Advertiser Staff Writer

Elizabeth House's lap desk contains letters dating from the late 1890s through the 1940s. An appraisal of the desk put its value at $1,200.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Growing up, it was always my job to polish the silver. Even after I left home, whenever I visited, it was still my job.

We didn't have a lot of silver, but there were three engraved pieces a large pitcher and two matching goblets that I actually enjoyed polishing.

The engraving on the pieces "To Our Mother, Sept. 19, 1860" always made me think about history and my family. So when PBS announced that "Antiques Roadshow" was stopping in Honolulu, I had to go.

I inherited the silver pieces (so it's still my job to keep them shining) and I wanted to find out their worth. Not that I would sell family heirlooms at any price but still, it would be nice to know.

The pitcher and goblets were given to my great-great-grandmother by her children: Mary, who married my great-grandfather, and her brothers. Long ago, my mother told me that originally there were other goblets and a matching tray, all engraved, but she received only the three pieces.

I also own an antique lap desk that belonged to another great-grandmother. It is filled with letters, dating from the late 1890s through the 1940s, mostly written to and from my grandmother's sister, who got the desk from her mother.

The desk went to my grandmother after her sister's death, then to my mother, and then to me. It has abalone shell inlays, and still has the original quill and glass ink bottles.

I told my brothers and sister (and a couple of cousins) that I was taking the silver and desk to the show, and promised to tell them if I appear on TV.

A friend, Charlie Aldinger, who works at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, came with me and brought a Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print. It had been found in a friend's sea chest after his death, and had been given to her by his widow.

Since each person was allowed two items, I gave Charlie a wooden-handled silver tea strainer, another family heirloom, to be appraised.

Several thousand people had tickets, each with staggered starting times, and ours told us to come for the initial showing at 8 a.m. When we arrived at the Hawai'i Convention Center around 7:40, there were 200 to 300 folks in line, all waiting to have their treasures appraised, all hoping to discover they had something really valuable.

One man had an old-style aloha shirt made by Arakawa's; another held an antique table. Several people held 'ukulele, and a woman next to us had a mandolin that she said belonged to Queen Lili'uokalani. A friend of Charlie's brought in an old sea chest. I proudly showed off my silver and received appropriate "oohs" and "aahs."

Inside, Charlie headed toward the Asian art area and I went to the decorative arts.

The appraiser at decorative arts, Marybeth Keene from Wayne Pratt Inc. in Massachusetts, admired the inlays and the workmanship of the wooden lap desk. It was probably made in England, she said, in the latter part of the 19th century. That fit with what I knew about the desk.

Keene said it was in very good condition, and because the lock still worked, it made it even more valuable.

None of that surprised me. But the appraisal did.

"It's probably worth about $1,200," she said. I had thought it was worth about $300, max.

Keene recommended using paste wax to preserve the desk. "You'll be amazed at how much it will shine after you polish it."

She advised me to photocopy the letters for posterity, and to keep them in the desk. "Don't wrap them in plastic," she said, "and try not to handle them."

Her final words: "It's a very beautiful piece."

The Asian art experts told Charlie that her piece was a "genuine reproduction," but she didn't seem disappointed.

At the silver area, a woman in line ahead of us had a collection of cups made of coconuts, rimmed and footed in silver.

When it was my turn, I told the appraiser, Sara Wishart of Skinner Inc. in Boston, that the pitcher and goblets had been a gift to my great-great-grandmother, and she was able to identify the maker as J.A. Caldwell, from Philadelphia.

"They were a good maker of silver, and this is in good condition, with just a couple of dings and dents," she said. "Together, I'd say this was worth about $800."

That surprised me because I had been sure the silver was worth more than the lap desk.

The little wooden-handled silver tea strainer? Worth about 40 bucks, Wishart said.

But none of that matters. It's the stories behind the pieces that make them valuable. They are a part of my family history, and no matter what any appraiser says, to me, they are all priceless.