John Sewell This Old Thing!


Appraiser gives downsizing tips

Cautions to be ready for disappointments and surprises

by Donna Jean MacKinnon

October 11, 2008 Toronto Star


"Where other people see a dirty cellar, I see a possibility of a treasure," says antique appraiser John Sewell, who inspects some Fiesta plateware at a Cabbagetown-area home.

With the offspring gone and pensions in place, you are ready to move on to smaller digs and foreign shores. But there's one hitch — piles and piles of possessions to unload.

Enter John Sewell.

"Where other people see a dirty cellar, I see the possibility of a treasure," says Sewell, an antique and fine art appraiser.

That could be your cellar. Lurking in a corner that you haven't penetrated since you moved into your house 30 years ago could be a historical or collectible find of value.

Sewell, who confesses he lives for surprises, offers a combination of good advice, expertise and common sense. During his 30 years of experience with auctions, antiques and just plain stuff, Sewell has built up a network of professionals who know how to realize hard cash for valuable items. He often acts as a negotiator with auction houses, serious collectors and donations to public institutions. (Think tax receipt.)

Downsizing is also a good opportunity to have your belongings appraised for insurance purposes.

Sewell thinks fondly of one family's brass "baby cup" that turned out to be a rare solid gold 4th-century Persian artifact that sold at auction for more than $100,000. If that family hadn't consulted an expert to evaluate their furnishings, they would never have known.

"People do not have the time or resources to do their own research. You can't expect the average person to know the value of vintage items and important art," says Sewell, who is also an avid researcher.

Sewell starts with the premise, if it's good quality and in good condition, someone wants it. Collectors want perfection — not that anyone would turn down a sword that belonged to Henry VIII because it has a nick.

"In days gone by, people would repair furniture, linens and appliances. Today, they just walk by," he says.

Sewell agreed to visit a Cabbagetown house to look over objects accumulated over a 40-year span. The homeowner plans to retire and to downsize, from a three-bedroom Victorian house, to a small (800-square-foot) condominium.

Before starting, Sewell warned she must be prepared for both disappointments and surprises.

As Sewell swept through the home, he stopped to examine several off-beat items including a Whitby jet handheld mirror (c1870).

"I've never seen one before. Something I've never seen before excites me," he says. "It could be a museum piece."

His advice about selling it: first research to see if there's another one around and then keep it for a specialized catalogue sale — most likely in England.

"Ephemera (old advertising, booklets, pamphlets) sells," says Sewell as he zeroed in on a Col. Sanders (chicken) bank that the owner forgot existed.

He explains it's vintage, an advertising icon and a bank, therefore the Colonel has three categories of interest to collectors.

He advises saving iconic items such as the bank (1960s), an Edward VIII biscuit tin (1930s) and a pair of kitschy turquoise horse-head lamps (1950s) for sales appealing to collectors of objects from those decades.

Sewell was also taken with a vivid selection of Fiesta tableware, launched in the 1930s, and popular in the '40s and '50s.

"No matter what era you are talking about, a collection is usually of more value than individual pieces. People get excited when they see a collection because it makes an impact," he says. "They also pay attention when pieces are stamped or signed with big names like Susie Cooper, Moorcroft, Tiffany."

If you know the provenance (history) of a piece or can tell a story about it, this helps with its identification and its value, according to Sewell.

Sewell recalls visiting a woman in Ingersoll in southwest Ontario who knew the Group of Seven and bought a small painting from each of the artists. As they chatted, she suddenly remembered that she had letters from all of them. These signed documents were worth good money.

Sewell also points out an expert or appraiser sees things you don't.

"Often your own furniture and belongings are too familiar for you to notice them," he says.

On one occasion, Sewell was hired by a family who wanted a house full of inherited chattels appraised. (Often people require an estate appraisal after a death, or before death if required for a will.)

"I generally start with art," he says. "In the hall, I spotted a little picture (by Prudence Heward). It turned out to be worth 12 times the value of what they thought was their best piece."

So, once it has been established you have a few treasures, the next step is to find a market.

If Sewell feels the best venue for your goodies is an auction house, he will arrange the pickup and negotiate expected prices. Be aware auctioneers usually charge vendors 15 to 25 per cent.

Sewell is not a big fan of eBay, but admits it has its place when selling high-ticket items of international interest. The problem with eBay is you must photograph things, one at a time, and pack and ship them.

Bushels of books are always problematic when downsizing. If you think you have rare books of historical or aesthetic interest, because this is such an esoteric field, you definitely need a dealer to sort through them, according to Sewell. But the reality is most of your books are destined for the lawn sale or a charity store.

No matter what avenues you take to de-clutter and unburden yourself of too many possessions, it's impossible to dispose of a lifetime of goods in a month, Sewell says.

"Be realistic. Think ahead. Give yourself a sensible time frame and enjoy the disposal process," he says.

© October 11, 2008 The Toronto Star


© 2010 John Sewell Antiques
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