Antiques Roadshow appraiser visits MWH

Ken Farmer presented the lecture, “What Do I Do With That? Conserving Your Treasures and What Not to Do,” at The McFaddin-Ward House, May 12, 2022. Photo by Andy Coughlan

“There’s a $500 chest with 140,000 dollars’ worth of paint on it,” Ken Farmer said, pointing to a slide of a rustic painted Stirewalt School chest from the Shenandoah Valley. Condition, as they say, is everything. And knowing what condition is best is a handy piece of information to have.

Farmer, who has been an appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow” since its inception in 1996, spoke to a packed room at the McFaddin-Ward House earlier this week. His talk, “What Do I Do With That? Conserving Your Treasures and What Not to Do,” leaned heavily on personal experiences from a long career of collecting — including mistakes.

Farmer’s easy-going style was as entertaining as it was informative. The native Virginian has collected American and Southern culture material since 1974, in addition to operating two auction houses until 2015. He is also an avid musician and singer of Appalachian and American roots music. It was through researching the history of the music that he built his expertise in folk art, furniture, decorative arts and musical instruments.

“I am a self-confessed ‘stuff nerd,’” Farmer said, and the laughter from the crowd suggested he was far from the only one in the room.

When it comes to restoration, Farmer drew upon the Hippocratic oath, with the mantra, “First, Do No Harm.” He recounted a story from when he and his wife first had an antique shop. He had bought a green-painted blanket chest from an estate sale and was under the shade of a tree trying to remove the paint.

“And this big old car from West Virginia came flying up the driveway, and the door flew open, and this lady was getting out of the car before it even stopped,” he said. “She says, ‘What are you doing?’”

Farmer told her he was trying to remove the paint, but it wouldn’t come off.

“And she said, ‘Well, how much do you want for it if you don’t take it off?” He got $200 for it.

“So, that was my first lesson,” he said. “It was a lot less work. Not everybody wants everything all slicked up.”

Condition is important in the value of an object, but just because something is old, doesn’t mean it’s valuable. And some objects have value that cannot be defined by money. It is the sentiment versus dollar value debate, he said.

Farmer said the Great Depression was a dark time for people, and afterward, they were not interested in objects being “in the black” (he doesn’t use the term “original condition”). They wanted to paint things bright colors and shiny. That affects the value now, but there is a sentimental value in things inherited. So that has to be taken into consideration.

Ken Farmer talks about a Stirewalth School blanket chest at The McFaddin-Ward House, May 12, 2022. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The blanket chest mentioned earlier almost fooled him, Farmer said. The paint was so good he thought it must have been repainted. But all the family had ever done was wipe it down (Farmer said to avoid spray furniture polish). It takes a lot of training to look at paint and know if it is real, he said. Collectors want things to show their age, Farmer said, to see “evidence of honest wear.” The most important thing one can do is know how to store a wooden object.

“I think the biggest enemy of your wooden items is humidity, or lack of humidity, and heat,” he said. “Temperature extremes are going to affect the objects in your house more than anything else.”

Farmer said that people should find someone they can trust to talk about if and how an object should be restored or kept (framing works on paper, for example, is particularly troublesome. Always find out if a framer wants to glue it down, which they should not).

One should live with an object for a while before deciding whether it is worth paying to restore it, Farmer said. Farmer showed an example of a painting he owns that has been in his wife’s family. It didn’t matter how much it cost, he wasn’t going to let it get thrown away, he said. So, we are back to the sentiment vs. dollar value again.

Farmer said it is up to us to be stewards of history, to take care of things. For many of us, our collection of things defines our legacy, but they may not be as precious to others.

“Basically, you know, we’re just traveling,” he said. “I think if you’re an object person, and you have things in your past that you love, especially things from your family, those things give you, I wouldn’t call it love, but I would call it some kind of vibration.

“I think you need to surround yourself with things that you love and take care of them. If you’re lucky, maybe somebody in the family will want them, but you know, guess what? If you’re gone, what’s the diff?”

These are wise words, but I got the feeling most of the other “stuff nerds” in the room probably would rather not think of that. We love our stuff. And now we have a better idea how to take care of it.

Andy Coughlan is a freelance writer for The Beaumont Enterprise.

This article first ran in the May 15, 2022 edition of The Beaumont Enterprise (published photos by Kim Brent)

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