PITTSFIELD, Maine — The world is chock-full of Stradivarius violins. To antiques appraisers John Bottero and Kaja Veilleux, most of them are worth squat.
While some priceless Stradivariuses belong behind security glass in a museum, there’s another all-too-common version that isn’t so impressive. Thousands of Stradivarius-emblazoned instruments were sold by Sears, Roebuck and as such, might be worth $100 or less.
“We see them all the time,” said Veilleux, owner of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries, who was in Pittsfield on Friday conducting a fundraiser. “So far we haven’t seen any of them today, knock on wood.”
Despite the fact that they are in the business of finding valuable antiques and auctioning them for the highest price possible, they see their jobs as preventing people from making a big mistake by throwing something away. Just as often, they find themselves easing someone into the truth that the value of a “priceless” artifact is more in line with Wal-Mart than the Louvre.
Equipped with what they call a mobile appraisal coach, Veilleux and Bottero looked over more than 80 items Friday at an antiques appraisal fair at the Pittsfield First Universalist Church. More than three dozen area residents brought everything from art to jewelry to old dolls. Depending on what they learned, some walked away happy and some walked away a little deflated.
Melanie Wakefield of Unity had a bridal basket appraised. Family lore had it that the basket was brought from Ireland by Wakefield’s great-grandmother, but the appraisers had a different story. Like those replica Stradivarius violins, it came from Sears.
“We believed she was a housekeeper for an aristocratic family in Ireland who gave it to her,” said Wakefield. “I guess not.”
Bottero said the conversation just as often goes the other way, too. He has seen numerous instances where something bound for the dump ends up being of considerable value.
“We’ve seen families’ lives changed by what they had in their attic,” he said. “We see that all the time. We need to tell people what they have so they can make decisions.”
The appraisers declined to talk about specific items they had seen out of respect for the privacy of Friday’s participants, but they did say they noticed an interesting theme among the artifacts.
“Many of the items we’ve seen came from the period from 1880 to 1910,” said Bottero. “This area was booming at that time with all the mills. All these little towns were bigger at that time than they are now. They were thriving.”
Asked what advice he would offer someone trying to decide what to do with that dusty old painting or stately vase, Bottero was quick with an answer.
“The main thing is don’t throw anything away,” he said. “Have it checked out first.”
Church members said that because Thomaston Place Auction Galleries donated its services, more than $500 was raised to benefit the church.