Dear Antiques Expert: My family has always prized a green and yellow pottery Tang horse given to our grandfather by an official of the Indonesian government in the 1950s. Could it really be valuable, or is its worth just a family myth?
Ever since grave robbers and archaeologists began unearthing the colorful pottery horses buried in the tombs of imperial rulers and wealthy Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), collectors have coveted them. But reproduction Tang horses have also been around for generations. Though an expert will have to determine your horse's age and origin, if it is authentic and in good condition, then its value could be many thousands of dollars. In 2003, a pair of extraordinarily rare Tang horses sold for $1.57 million.
There I was, shivering from head to toe, searching for family pictures and records left behind by Mazie and Hoyt Wyndfield. They hadn't had any children of their own to sort through their things after their deaths several years ago, which partly explains why, in the dead of winter, I was up in the attic of this place called Wynderly, digging through their lives. Once Wynderly had been a gracious home. Now it was a museum teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
Unlike the stately eighteenth-century Georgian plantations Virginia is known for, Wynderly was a sprawling place, reminiscent of a French chateau crossed with an English manor house. Rooms and wings jutted out here and there, as if some tipsy architect had thrown his plans up in the air and built rooms wherever the blueprints had landed. With its peaked turrets and slanting gables, soaring towers and stone ledges, Wynderly's message was loud and clear: Look at me. This is how rich we are; how rich are you?
Its vast attic, so large it could house three families with room to spare, mirrored the helter-skelter, multilayered house beneath. Every inch was filled with furniture, garden ornaments, boxes, books, paintings, trunks. I had begun with the boxes and trunks.
The first two I opened were filled with beautiful vintage clothing, which brought to mind the question about a 1950s Christian Dior evening dress I'd recently answered in my syndicated antiques column. But there was no time to think about that now, or to finger the lace negligees and slinky satin gowns. I was searching for papers, receipts, diariesanything that would tell me more about the opulent objects in the house below.
It had started when Matt Yardley asked if I was available to take on an appraisal in Orange County. My brain had zipped into overdrive. Orange County, California, in the middle of February? Who wouldn't jump at the chance? With my son Ketch and daughter Lily now grown, and without a husband to tend to, I could close the door and walk out with a clear conscience.
Anyway I liked being able to say yes to Matt. Ever since I'd met him when working for Babson and Michael, the New York insurance company, I had hoped he'd send another job my way. It was only after I said yes that I bothered to ask questions. That's when I learned he was speaking of Orange County, Virginia, a three-plus-hour drive down lonely back roads, instead of a five- or six-hour flight from my home in Leemont, Virginia. But it was too late. I had given my word.
There had been an unsolved burglary at Wynderly, and some items left behind had been broken during the theft. But because there were no signs of a break-in, and the police had no obvious suspects, a serious cloud hung over the whole situation. In addition, the most recent appraisal of the items at Wynderly was over twenty years old and totally out of date.
"The question is whether or not we should pay the full amount they're asking for the damaged and missing items," Matt had said. He was right to be cautious. As with stocks and bonds, the value of antiques fluctuates over time. Matt wanted me to assess the current value of the broken pieces and then to see what I could find out about the stolen objects. But it wasn't until my second day at Wynderly that I was able to escape the clutches of the museum's curator, Michelle Hendrix, for time alone in the attic.
Excerpted from The Big Steal by Emyl Jenkins. Copyright © 2009 by Emyl Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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