You’ve no doubt heard of public television’s “Antiques Road Show.” I’ve come up with a home version of the show. All it takes is access to the Internet, a few tchotchkes lying around the house, and a mildly curious nature.
It’s also preferable if you have acquisitive ancestors and possess a certain degree of avarice yourself. In other words, that you’re interested in what your crap is worth, if anything.
I discovered this rainy-day diversion while rooting around our basement upstate. Though I confess that our house, inherited from my grandparents, who had a peripheral relationship to the antiques business, is more laden with random treasure than the typical homestead.
For example, it’s not unusual to open a drawer and find not one but a hundred cherub heads. I have no idea about their intended purpose. But 40 years after my grandparents passed on I’m still discovering drawers and cabinets filled with strange objects.
And the beauty of technology—as worrisome as it can occasionally be—is that no matter how seemingly obscure your possession, you can probably find information about it online, not to mention its value, with a few keystrokes.
One of the things I happened across in our basement, in the toy category, was a pencil sharpener in the shape of a globe. I could tell it was old because it identified places such as “The Chinese Empire,” “Congo State,” and “Formosa.”
I almost immediately found the pencil sharpener on Etsy, the accompanying description revealing that it was manufactured in Germany, circa 1914. It had been sold, but a similar one on eBay went for $49.99 last year.
In the same box as the globe were a bunch of children’s books, including “Animals to Paint,” a coloring book from 1910, its lions, giraffes and hippos filled in with watercolors in the haphazard hand of a child. I know the publication date because I unearthed the book in the collection of the Huntington Digital Library.
I have no intention of selling any of this stuff. After I discover its provenance, I print out the information and store it with the object. In case my children or their children care.
The house also boasts more adult, even military, fare. For example, a pair of periscope-looking 10×50 Zeiss binoculars that I recall my father telling me came from a German U-boat and that he must have liberated during World War II.
I sent a couple of photos of the device to Nicholas Brawer, who owns a sporting-antiques store on East 72nd. While not offering a value, Mr. Brawer responded that they were manufactured in the 1930s and were “recommended for use with coastal artillery cannon.”
A smaller, much smaller, piece of hardware discovered in my father’s bedroom was a miniature pistol, not much larger than a quarter and marked “Austria.” It was selling online for almost $600. In the same drawer was a jewel-like oval souvenir box with a picture of a tiny island marked “Helgoland” and inscribed, “Aunt Elizabeth from G.B. Nov. 17th, 1879.
I’d never heard of Helgoland, Elizabeth or G.B. But a brief Internet search revealed that Helgoland is a German Island in the North Sea that was popular with upper-class tourists during the 19th century.
Among the most edifying objects I’ve found in our basement are antique baby photos, one of them marked “William Parmer Fuller 3rd, age of 10 months, March 1889.”
Though he was no relative of mine (beats me how or why they ended up in our cellar), an Internet search of the name revealed that the infant was a member of an illustrious San Francisco family with connections to Stanford University.
One William Parmer Fuller Jr., Class of 1910 and a future president of its board of trustees, wrote in “Stanford Mosaic,” a 1962 book about the school, “I was suspended twice, expelled once, and ordered out of the editorship of the Daily Palo Alto, and graduated with my class. What more could anyone ask?”
I even tracked down and exchanged emails with family members, including Parmer Fuller, a composer and professor at the University of Southern California, through Mr. Fuller’s 1981 wedding announcement in the New York Times.
His sister Kit Fuller, the family genealogist, informed me that William Parmer Fuller Jr. and William Parmer III were one and the same, and their grandfather.
I’m looking forward to returning the baby pictures to the people who rightfully own them.