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For What It's Worth : Collectibles: Ever go on a treasure hunt? Try the free weekly appraisal clinic at Butterfield's auction house.


People carry shopping bags full of hope into the Westside auction house.

It is a Tuesday, the day that Butterfield & Butterfield holds its weekly appraisal clinic.

From all over Southern California, people come bearing objects they secretly believe are worth a fortune--old dishes, paintings, vases bought at flea markets, dusty Oriental rugs, toys, chairs, tarnished jewelry, things of beauty as well as things of astonishingly bad taste.

On a busy Tuesday, 300 people show up at Butterfield's offices at 7601 Sunset Blvd., prepared to submit their treasures to the expert scrutiny of Los Angeles' only major international auction house. Whatever the outcome, the price is undoubtedly right. You see, Butterfield's doesn't charge for a clinic appraisal, which all but guarantees that some of the visitors are merely curious.

Everyone who comes here wants to learn that he or she owns a gold mine, albeit one in the form of a silver platter or a kachina doll that has been in the family for 100 years. "This is a treasure hunt," says Stacey Roman, head of Butterfield's fine art department and the staffer who routinely rules on paintings. "I've had some great stuff walk in."

Indeed he has. At one clinic, a woman brought in a handsome charcoal drawing she had inherited from her grandmother. No signature showed, but Roman lifted the matte and saw the drawing was signed "W.H." It was a study by Winslow Homer for a painting that is now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. The drawing sold at auction for $60,000.

Butterfield's hopes that the fortunate few will consign their valuables for auction. The house makes 10% on such sales. But the appraisers are careful not to pressure potential clients.

"We keep a file, and I will follow up, but we're not going to attack you," says Roman. On any given clinic day, he says, "There's one thing I salivate for, and they don't leave it."

Most visitors are destined to be disappointed. This Tuesday, Roman has to dash the hopes of a woman with a 17th-Century Flemish painting in tow. It would be worth $5,000 to $6,000 in pristine condition, Roman tells her. But it is worth much less because it has been so extensively restored. She shouldn't expect to get more than $2,000 for it, he advises.

But Roman has good news for Roy Kunkle and Smith Bacon of Corona del Mar. Among the men's paintings is a landscape that Kunkle recently bought at a garage sale in Orange County. Kunkle recognized the painter, Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel, as a major California Impressionist. "He has a better eye than I have," Bacon says admiringly of his friend. Kunkle won't say how much--or how little--he paid for the painting but allows, "It was a steal."

Roman tells him the painting will probably bring $4,000 to $6,000. Kunkle signs the papers to have it sold.

Ginny Magana, who runs an antique shop called Sentimental Journey in Big Bear City, sits waiting her turn. She has some old pendants she wants appraised, a Japanese Imari plate and an Irish Belleek pottery vase.

"I usually appraise my own things," she says. "But these I don't want to sell right out. I want to find out their real value." She says she likes coming to the clinic because she always learns something. And she loves eavesdropping as other visitors unwrap their objects and tell the tales that lie behind them. "I could sit here all day and just listen to the different stories," she says.

There are hundreds of stories at a typical appraisal clinic, enough to keep a soap opera--call it "Auction House"--running for years. Some of the tales are heartbreaking. "I had one woman who needed money for dialysis," Roman recalls.

Many of the objects are rich with meanings known only to their owners, reminiscent of the sled "Rosebud" in the movie "Citizen Kane." Elaine Greenwood of Glendale has come in to get an appraisal on a doll carriage that has been in her husband's family since 1875. The Greenwoods' cat, Fusa, had slept in it for 15 years. But Fusa died recently, and now Greenwood feels sad every time she looks at it. "Besides," she says, "we're basically French Provincial."

Butterfield's appraiser takes a photo of the carriage to send to the firm's San Francisco office, where an evaluation will be made.

John King, who is Butterfield's director of furniture and decorative arts, says the character trait that clinic visitors have in common is curiosity--about the history of their treasures if not about their monetary value. When he was best man at his twin brother's wedding, King recalls, guests going through the reception line whipped photographs of family valuables out of purses and pockets and asked him what they were worth.

Like Roman, King has had great days in treasure hunting.

He tells one story that has become a legend at Butterfield's.

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