Q&A: John Case, an Appraiser at the East Tennessee PBS Appraisal Fair

John Case, with Lark Mason and Joe Rosson, will be an appraiser at the East Tennessee PBS Appraisal Fair Saturday, March 29. He also co-owns Case Antiques, which is the coordinating sponsor for the benefit.

Do you ever see really valuable items at these fairs?

Oh my gosh, we've seen so many. This past week at a fair in Maryville there was a piece of pottery worth $30,000. At a PBS appraisal fair I saw a sword presented to Andrew Jackson by Colonel John T. Coffee that's worth $75,000-$125,000. Many objects worth $50,000-$75,000 have walked in here. It's remarkable. I've seen things that have gone on to museums. And what I love is that here we are in Knoxville, and these are the things we'll see.

What about the other end—when people's stuff isn't worth much at all?

What I love: People bring in objects that are significant to them, with special memories. They may be only worth $50, but they deserve as much dignity and time as the $20,000 objects. Someone might have a 19th century mustache cup, and it's 100 years old, but its market value is $35. I tell them it would be great to take down the story of their grandpa who had the mug, and maybe add some photos. The significance to the family is of great value. And oftentimes we'll see things from a feuding family. They haven't talked for years, and they're fighting over a plate that's worth $10. They really need to make peace! With appraisals, while you're dealing with objects, it's really a people business.

What should people remember when picking an item to have appraised?

To help take some of the mystery away, start with an initial check on Google. It isn't uncommon to be able to find out more just searching the description of the item. Where we appraisers come in is when you hit a dead end—there are databases we have access to, and we've been exposed to a lot of objects, so we might have insider input. A lot of time the value of an object is hard to find on the Web. An object might be listed for $2,000-$4,500 on eBay, but regularly sell for $100. What is the true value, versus the asking price? We have auction records that have been digitized, and that's brought a level of transparency to appraisals. It used to be someone would bring a dealer a lamp, and depending on how I felt that day and whether it tickled my fancy, I could say, "It's worth this." Now we can ask, "What did it sell for?" We can help a client look at trend analysis and data from the past 10 years. Sometimes we can lead someone to a free database, and say, "If you get stuck, call me and we'll go from there."

Why do you support PBS?

Since I went into this business in 2005, I've worked very closely with PBS and other non-profits, but I like PBS and public television in general because they provide information sources. It used to be if you were talking about art and antiques, it was someone walking around in a beret saying, "This is beautiful. This is not." But PBS' Antiques Roadshow, what it does is show a methodology. I have a bachelor's in biomedical/biochemical engineering, and I'm analytical—I like the logic and the tools they use to educate people about arriving at fair market value. One of the most important things there is searching the web—the right vocabulary and the right combo of keywords is essential. It's fascinating now, too, that we're able to upload images with great bandwidth, and Google that image.

How'd you start with antiques?

Before college, I collected Coca Cola advertising from the turn of the century through about 1960. Coke is iconic in showing the change in American ads during that time. I sold that collection in college. I went to Duke, and a lot of my friends were from the New York area, and they made fun of me for being from Tennessee—a lot of jokes about dirt floors. But that made me branch out and dig and find out more about the art and history of the state—that's when the light bulb went off. My loves are Tennessee pottery, textiles, furniture, and art, and my overarching interest is Southern art and antiques. Before college, I thought we didn't have much of consequence made here, but that wasn't true. We have so much to be proud of.

The fair is March 29 from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture (1327 Circle Park Drive). Appraisals are $10 each; for more information see the event Facebook page.