From Canyon To Cove: From trash to treasure, and back again

Laguna's own "Antiques Road Show" rolled into town last week, and I wanted to get in on the action. Bonhams and Butterfields held its second art appraisal clinic at Laguna Art Museum, and for $5, professional appraisers mulled over everything from ceramics and statuary to oils.

I was dying to know more about a rather unusual ceramic vase that my partner, Sharon, had inherited from her grandmother. It's not pretty; in fact, it's pretty ugly. The 8-inch-tall black vase has horror-type masks, scowling faces and strange cigar-type figures randomly floating on it.

But I knew it was an "antique." It had stood on her grandmother's knick-knack table in her Santa Monica apartment since the mid-1950s. The fact that it was stamped "Made in Japan" did not dissuade me from thinking this might be a rare gem. I became more convinced that it could be valuable after a trip to the Getty Villa, where I saw Roman theatrical masks on black pots that were quite similar. Surely some artistry had gone into the making of this vase. I was convinced.

So I wrapped the vase in tissue and placed it in a paper bag to take to the appraisal, held in the main gallery at the museum. The room was filled with eager folks toting their own treasures: mostly paintings, some wrapped in paper, some in bubble wrap, some in beach or bath towels, and some not wrapped at all.

I got my number, 7, for the ceramics table. I found the table and sat down, thinking I would have some time to enjoy the hubbub around me, when immediately my number was called. I placed my item on the table for the appraiser, who picked it up, frowned and said, "Oh yes, I've seen these before."

She looked it all over, and at the "Made in Japan" stamp on the bottom and said, "This is a Japanese porcelain from the second half of the 20th century. It would be worth under $100 at auction." I thanked her, put the vase back into its bag and left, somewhat crestfallen.

I admit my high hopes were no doubt fueled by the experience of one of my relatives, who appeared on the real "Antiques Road Show" in 2008. She had brought a painting American Impressionist Charles Curran did of her grandparents — my great grandparents — dating from 1894.

A year later, the show was rebroadcast, and we were told not to miss it because Cousin Ellen would be on it. I hadn't seen Cousin Ellen in umpteen years. She was all the girls' favorite older cousin when we were growing up. We had to watch almost the entire program before Ellen finally appeared with the painting — a romantic couple in elegant garb overlooking the Lake Erie shore. The appraiser first exclaimed over the good looks of the couple and their beautiful clothes, then the unusual oval framing, and then, after a suitable pause, pronounced the painting to be worth at least $75,000. Poor Ellen was so flabbergasted she nearly lost her hat.

I suspect Ellen did not run out and put the painting up for auction; she is too passionate about family history. But she probably had to insure it for that much, an experience my late father also ran into some years earlier when he had one of several paintings of other family members by Curran appraised in the six digits.

That painting, "On the Porch," ended up getting sold because of the high cost of insuring it. (One of my paternal grandmother's cousins was married to the painter, and various of my ancestors are in a lot of his works, including the famed "Lotus Lilies," reported to be Nancy Reagan's favorite painting.)

So there's an upside and a downside to finding out you have a very valuable work of art hanging around.

One of the people I bumped into at the Bonham's appraisal was thrilled to be told she had a Guy Wiggans work worth $15,000 to $20,000. The painting — flowers "pour le boudoir" as was scrawled at the top — was painted by Wiggans for her grandmother many years ago, intended for her Sutton Place bedroom with its turquoise wallpaper. The appraisal firm took a photo of the painting, and she had high hopes for its sale. But after Bonhams and Butterfields looked further into the current market for Wiggans' work, she was told it might not sell at all, or only fetch $1,000 to $2,000. Hopes dashed.

Over the morning, the formal "appraisal clinic" took on the aspect of a street fair or flea market. One woman in a wheelchair unwrapped an unending stream of glassware and ceramic figurines before the wide-eyed appraisers, pulling them out of an enormous bag. One man intoned as I passed by, "I should have brought my Elvis painting on velvet."

This second event was, by all accounts, much better attended than last year's. Some 400 items were appraised, compared to last year's 150, according to museum spokeswoman Marni Farmer. The fees generated, an impressive $20,000, will be used for the museum's art education and exhibition programs. The museum plans to host the event every year, Farmer said.

Some of the other treasures uncovered at the event included:

•A painting by William Joseph McClosky of wrapped oranges, appraised at $150,000 to $200,000;

•An Indonesian painting, valued at $40,000 to $60,000;

•A Jasper Johns painting, appraised at $6,000 to $8,000; and

•A painting by Carl Benjamin, valued at $5,000 to $7,000.

As I wandered around the appraisal clinic I heard more than once the phrase, "Worth under $100 at auction." Even worse was the deadly phrase, "Decorative value only." Ouch. That one really hurts.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or

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