Historical society fundraiser helps satisfy curiousity

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Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Still haven't fulfilled your New Year's resolution to clean out the attic? You still have time, and just in case you need a little motivation the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest is back with its third annual winter fundraiser Family Heirloom or Flea Market Find: What's It Worth?

This year's event will take place on Saturday, Feb. 9 at the Nineteenth Century Club. Eight certified appraisers will be on hand to appraise jewelry, fine arts, furniture, decorative arts, books, coins, toys, comics and much more.

Jean Guarino, chairperson of the event, encourages locals to consider bringing in any items they think might have value, either in monetary terms or as it pertains to historical significance.

"Everyone has something in their home — either a family heirloom or a curio they picked up at a garage sale — they'd like to know more about, but they don't know where to go. As a historical society, this is one of the things we do: help people understand and learn about the past and their roots by providing experts in every field under one roof who can fill in the blanks."

As in previous years, Oak Park's own John Toomey Gallery, along with Forest Insurance Agency, Frame Warehouse and Downtown Oak Park, will be sponsoring the event. Located on North Boulevard, the John Toomey Gallery has been a staple for years.

Joe Stanfield, an appraiser in the fine arts department of the gallery, will once again be appraising at the historical society's event. He notes that while few people have an undiscovered gold mine waiting to be appraised, everyone can learn something about their possessions.

"At these events, about 80 percent of the time an item may be interesting to the owner, but not particularly valuable; 10 percent of the time they have a good item, and 10 percent of the time, it's something that's actually valuable, that you should be excited to have in your hands," he says. "Last year, I would say I saw between 50 and 100 people, and four or five had very nice items."

According to Stanfield, it is the rare participant who comes into an event with no background knowledge of their item.

"A lot of people do research at home," he says. "Very few people with internet access come in completely blind. That being said, there are some surprise moments. Last year, the fine arts appraiser sitting next to me appraised a painting that is one of the better items I've seen doing these events."

The painting that knocked the socks of appraisers is one of the more interesting stories of last year's event. Years ago, Ray Colon worked for a family in River Forest. While helping the homeowner clean out her basement, he found a painting. The homeowner planned to throw it away, but Colon liked it, so she let him take it home. Colon was quite surprised to learn that his almost-trash is actually a valuable painting titled Porte Vitrer by artist Orville Bauman. Appraiser Cathy Peters gave the Colons an appraisal-for-sale value of $27,000 on the painting.

Also at last year's event, Elizabeth Condon was pleasantly surprised to learn the value of a family heirloom.

"I have a turquoise and onyx necklace and bracelet set that my great aunt gave me. I didn't know much about it other than the fact that she bought it while traveling in Mexico during the 1950s. I hadn't done any research, so I thought they were just costume jewelry."

At the event, a jewelry appraiser recognized a small etching on the back of the necklace and was able to identify the artist who created the set. The jewelry maker was just starting to make a name for herself in the '50s but by the '60s had become a famous sterling silver artist. Condon's necklace was appraised at $1,300 and her bracelet is believed to be worth $700.

Condon says she is pleased to know the background of her heirlooms, but has no intention of cashing in.

"People always ask me if I'm going to sell them, but there's no way I'd do that. These items have a lot of meaning. To me, they're priceless. I like to think of my aunt shopping in Mexico and buying them from the artist."

Stanfield notes that these kinds of surprises can make appraisal events quite fun. "I wouldn't be surprised if something in the $10,000 range shows up. At an event a few years ago, we appraised an item at $100,000, so you never know."

Guarino points out that it doesn't take a big money item to have a good experience.

"Of course, everyone would like to experience a eureka moment like the Colons, but sometimes having an expert satisfy your curiosity with information on the provenance and current value of the piece is just as important."

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