by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 20, 2010
THE FISH PLATE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Some time ago, middle-class suburban ladies like my mother held teas.
To enhance the look of the table, the most stylish of the women bought delicate but deliberately unmatched china cups and saucers. Some of them had exquisitely painted flowers on them, some were gold-trimmed, some were Wedgwood, some were Belleek. My mother was very proud of her set and thought of them as being among her most valuable possessions.
Then there was the fish plate. It was huge and long and uglier than any dead fish has a right to be, and it came with a set of smaller matching plates. Whenever my mother was in one of her moods, she would march me to the china cabinet and point to the fish plate. "Remember, after I'm gone, this is worth $700," she'd say. "Don't settle for less."
Then there was the lovely 24-piece English bone china dinner set that she used only for special occasions. And the cut-glass vases that shone with refracted light when she filled them with flowers. And the crisp white tablecloths that my grandmother had embroidered.
To my mother, these things had real value and she was proud to own them.
I mention them now because, sadly, at 92, frail, and fighting to keep hold of her faculties, my mother, who lives alone in Florida, is selling the house she's lived in for 38 years and moving to an apartment in an independent living facility.
So I brought in a highly recommended appraiser to evaluate the art on the walls, the many books, the ceramics and sculptures, the vinyl record collection and, of course, the china.
After wandering the house over with a flashlight and a magnifying lens, after opening drawers, turning the pages and poking into corners, Richard, a tall, handsome man with white hair, a white mustache and a friendly red face, sat us down for what he called "the spiel."
"You have nothing here that knocks my socks off," he began. "You have what everybody else your age has. It must have been quite a thing in your day, mismatched tea cups. Now everyone is selling mismatched tea cups. They're all over the place. And no one is buying mismatched tea cups. Young people? They don't even drink tea that way."
"The set of china is lovely, but no one wants china these days," he continued. "They don't want to deal with caring for it. They like disposable, highly-styled plates."
My mother was dismayed, but he continued. "The books, they're all Book of the Month Club."
"I joined in 1937," my mother said proudly.
"They printed millions of those books," he said. "If you had a signed Hemingway it would be different, but you don't. Remember how I opened your set of Truman biographies? Well, Truman made a lot of tours to sell those books, and he was generous with his signature. It's worth about $300 now. But your copies are unsigned."
And the large, heavy art books?
"They printed so many that when I ran a book shop, I sold them for $1 each," he said. "I'm afraid I can't do much for you. Here's Carlos' name and phone number. His business is flea markets. When you're ready, he'll come in and take a lot of it. Cash will change hands, but it won't be what you're hoping for. There's too much of this stuff on the market, and no demand."
All my life, I've always thought of things as having intrinsic value. A painting. An antique set of china. A diamond watch. An old desk.
It's not that I've been spoiled by too much "Antiques Roadshow" on public television. I wasn't expecting an $800,000 score.
But my mother's taste as well as her money was on the line here. These objects defined her style and her life. And she thought she would be able to sell them for at least what she paid for them when the time came. Or that I would, after she was gone.
My father, while he was alive, was dazzled by my mother and always gave her jewelry for special occasions. For my brother's bar mitzvah, he gave her a double string of glowing pearls. For an anniversary, he gave her a delicate Art Deco-style diamond watch. When she dressed for the evening - as she often did - he would proudly clasp the watch on her slender wrist and it would shine. I always thought of it as a symbol of her femininity. I brought this jewelry, along with some other pieces, back to Vermont to have them appraised.
And it was the same story. No intrinsic value. The pieces had sentimental value. They were beautiful. But gold is around $1,200 an ounce and the money is the metal, not in the design. The watch? Too many on the market. The diamonds? There's a glut.
"Keep them for the sentimental value," I was told gently by the jewelers. And I will. But I probably won't tell my mother.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a freelance journalist and a columnist. You can reach her at email@example.com.