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Thursday 25 Jul 2024

Delicious Uncertainty
David Simmonds

Real estate agents have a saying that goes something like this, “Your house is worth only what someone is willing to pay for it.” Truer words never spoken, as a couple of infamous recent valuation incidents, one on the ‘too high’ side, one on the ‘too low’ side, reveal.

Courtesy of an expert appraiser on "Antiques Roadshow."

The ‘too high’ incident came courtesy of an expert appraiser on my favourite television show, “Antiques Roadshow.” Alvin Barr paid $300 at an estate sale for a brown jug bearing six grotesque faces. Intrigued about both its origin and possible value, he took it to a taping of the “Roadshow.” An appraiser, Stephen Fletcher, thought it may have been a rare “face jug” made by slaves in South Carolina in the 19th Century; he gave it a provisional value of between $30,000 and $50,000.

Barr was astonished at his good fortune, until he heard from Betsy Soule. A friend of hers had seen the episode and realized the piece was one that Soule had made, in high school, in the 1970s. Fletcher, after wiping a fair amount of egg off his face, revised his estimate downwards by a factor of ten, claiming that $4,000 was still a good valuation.

So Soule was delighted, Fletcher was chagrined, but Barr? Pity the poor fellow. One minute he is standing there holding a pot worth more than a hundred times what he paid for it. The next minute, the same pot is ‘only’ worth more than ten times what he paid for it; a massive lost opportunity that overshadows the fact that he stands to make a decent profit on a canny purchase, especially now that it has been seen on national television.

Of course, the irony lies in the fact that not a soul has actually offered Barr a nickel for the jug. All of this ‘it’s worth such and such’ is a tempest in a face jug barring the appearance of an actual purchaser.

Rowling makes a donation.

The ‘too low’ episode comes via a chair once used by the mega-best-selling children’s author J K Rowling. Rowling donated the chair to a charitable auction. On the chair, she had emblazoned her name, along with scripts and symbols from the Harry Potter series.

Rowling also provided, what “Antiques Roadshow” fanatics call, a ‘provenance note’ that stated "Dear new-owner-of-my-chair. I was given four mismatched dining room chairs in 1995 and this was the most comfortable one, which is why it ended up stationed permanently in front of my typewriter, supporting me while I typed out Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. My nostalgic side is quite sad to see it go, but my back isn’t. J.K. Rowling.”

Rowling was apparently quite delighted when the chair fetched $21,000. The plot started to thicken further. Potter aficionado, Gerald Gray, paid $29,000 for it during an online auction in 2009; a healthy appreciation in value.

Then, Gray decided to sell it, again by auction, in 2016, with the initial bid estimate in the range of $45,000. Then the gavel went down, with an anonymous purchaser the winner or loser, depending upon your incredulity level, at $394,000. Gray, presumably in a fit of conscience, promised to donate ten percent of his profit to Rowling’s charitable cause; he expressed the hope that the new owner would allow the chair to be on public display. Who would have thought that a piece, twice sold on the open market, would sell a third time for more than ten times what it sold for the previous time?

I don’t feel particularly sorry for Rowling, who is doing all right financially, although I do feel a little bit sad for her charity; it might have preferred to get a hundred percent of the proceeds of the 2016 sale. I certainly don’t feel sorry for Gray. It’s also hard to feel sorry for the person who originally bought the chair and resold it to Gray. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the latest purchaser, whom one suspects may have overpaid a tad, when he or she has that kind of money to lavish on a beat up old chair. Perhaps he or she would be interested in dropping $500 or on an old toothbrush used by the very author of this column.

What profound conclusion do I draw? None really, except that you can’t really rely on an opinion of value or past cash sale to decide how much something is ‘worth’ now. The only determinant is cash on the barrelhead.

Price paid is what an item is worth to the buyer.

What something is ‘worth’ to us does not indicate what it may be worth to a purchaser. Besides, something truly ‘worth’ something to us is not usually for sale. What delicious uncertainty with which we surround ourselves!

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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