Antiques 'detective' tracks down values
By Michele Stewardson
Published: Thursday, October 11, 2012, 9:01 p.m.
Updated: Friday, March 29, 2013
Karen Zvara walked into Commissioners Hall at Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood carrying a bag full of designer chopsticks, a watch fob, an inkwell, a small Abraham Lincoln bust, prints and an old chair.
These items her father brought back from the war and she was hoping to get them appraised by John Mickinak.
At the same time, she was making a donation to the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Westmoreland County.
The appraisal was offered so that proceeds could benefit the RSVP program at WCCC's Youngwood campus. The program is a part of Senior Corps, which is a network of programs that help older Americans find opportunities to address community needs through service.
“We've been doing the appraisal program for several years now because it's something different and relates to the population we serve,” said Amy Halula, coordinator of the RSVP program. “Older individuals have older items they hold on to and it seemed like a good match for us.”
Mickinak examined Zvara's six items and gave her a total estimate of worth between $400 to $500.
He was also able to identify the time periods for the items and their uses.
After careful research, the original oak chair, dating back to the 1840s to 1870s and fashioned with a splint woven seat, was determined to have a value between $150 to $250.
Mickinak said he would have to do more research to confirm if it was a Shaker-style chair, which would make it worth a lot more.
“This is good information to go by, I've never done this before,” said Zvara, a Grapeville resident who heard about the program because her daughter attends the school. “(I) probably won't have the kids jump all over the chair now.”
Mickinak, who owns Ligonier Antique Gallery, is an antiques dealer and an appraiser on the “Pittsburgh's Hidden Treasures” television show who handles many estate sales.
He said he volunteers his services for programs like RSVP, as well as other organizations, to help get people involved.
He said it's an incentive for people to learn more about various nonprofits, helps the nonprofit bring in money, and lets people know what appraisers do.
“It's a win-win situation,” he said.
Years ago, he attended appraisal sessions like this with a dolly full of research books that he carted into the room.
Today, a tiny computer does all the work for him.
In determining an item's worth, Mickinak said he looks at various subscribed websites and eBay.
And he uses his trusty magnified glass.
“You're part detective, part jeweler and part historian,” he said. “You look at each piece and evaluate it and draw conclusions with what you see. The detective part is very important.”
Mickinak made his first purchase at an auction when he was 12.
“I used to buy old radios and trucks,” said Mickinak, who was an art major at St. Vincent College in Unity. “I have that old-floor model radio still today.”
Mickinak, who does not appraise modern firearms or fine jewelry, was happy Zvara wa s pleased with the estimates.
Many times, people are disappointed. He said many times people have had items appraised in the past, and then he has to tell them truth.
“You're doing someone a great disservice by telling them something is very valuable, when it's not,” he said.
The items people bring him the most are Stradivarius violins.
He commonly sees more than two dozen of those a year. He said a Sears catalog offered these violins and people think they have the original because it says so inside. Mickinak said it is not the real thing and people are disappointed to hear that.
Sisters Maureen Schroeder and Debbie Hauser, both of Derry, brought Mickinak two old scrapbooks to be appraised.
The books were given to their mother as a form of payment for cleaning an older gentleman's house back in the 1940s. Mickinak said some of the lithograph images featured in the book usually came from Germany but were featured all across America.
Several individual pages in the 50-page book were worth well over $100 a piece.
In addition, several prints inside — including one original pencil drawing of Queen Victoria dated February 1831 — is worth several hundred dollars.
Both women had never done anything like this before and were pleased with the results.
“We had no idea what these books were worth,” Schroeder said. “It was very helpful. Now that we know, we're going to sell them.”
Mickinak said he enjoys letting people know if what they have is valuable.
“People may have very valuable items in their homes,” he said. “In these economic times, it's nice to find something of value that you didn't know you had.”
Michele Stewardson is a freelance writer.
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