K.K. writes: "When my mom died after living with me for over 8 years, I thought I'd prepared. NO. The next 10 months were hard, emotional. It's one reason I put objects in storage. I knew I wasn't prepared to sift through everything. Now I'm ready. How do I go through my mom's stuff?"
Coincidentally, L.R. also wants advice for those who have an elderly mom or dad: What to do with a lifetime accumulation of a parent who is either too frail or whose emotions are too powerful to be of help?
Like K.K.'s mom, who was not able to downsize as her health declined, my mother, too, has been worried about leaving a burden.
L.R. writes that she was faced with downsizing after the death of a family member. I, myself, am traveling to Chicago this month, where I grew up, to pack my 89-year-old mom's house. Even though she has whittled down her collections of art and antiques, I find Mom is more attached now that her health is failing.
L.R. suggests that she wants to downsize because she needs a change of scenery to help with the grieving process. K.K. says much the same: As grief subsided, she feels she can tackle her mom's objects in storage.
This short article gives K.K. and L.R. some tips for dealing with these intimate issues. Overarching this theme is the fact that change in an emotional time, symbolized by loved objects, is difficult.
My mother was recently airlifted to a hospital close to my brother on the East Coast. I was elected to form the family plan: what was going into storage, who was going to inherit what, and what Mom's future living quarters might contain. All this with no assurance of anything. At the time of her airlift, she felt much too weak to think about her home of 30 years, and I packed only a small suitcase for her.
A few days ago, she felt well enough to tackle the first step in this process: She read my photographic appraisal of ALL her possessions. That was bittersweet. I do this for a living, and yet, as mom said, I never did it for HER. Here's what I learned:
Tip No. 1: When you do an inventory for your elder, list objects in the locations they occupied in the household. If Mom can't remember something, I reference a certain drawer in the china cabinet.
Tip No. 2: If the family agrees, make a shorter inventory of all the objects in a room-by-room fashion with fair market values (that is, what things would sell for as second-hand material) and make a copy for all the grown children and grandchildren of the family. Be transparent.
Tip No. 3: Agree on a period in which to digest the inventory, both for your elderly parent and for the heirs. Decide if age trumps interest. In our case, my Mom's kids' selections trumped the grandkids. Select the most computer literate family member to make an interactive spreadsheet on Google Docs. I suggest using a ranking system: number 1 is listed with an object of absolute desire, 2 for medium interest, and 3 only if the object is to be donated. Be ready for pushback once your elder sees what the kids want: Mom started this process ready to give much away. Now she wants to control object dispersal to family.
Tip No. 4: Bring the elder parent into a one-on-one discussion with care. Ask for a recorded, written or dictated document of your elder's wishes before you do so. Be prepared to offer both sides of a long-distance move. In the case of a treasured table, I gave the cost of crating versus the cost to leave with a family member.
Tip No. 5: Be cautious of subtext. What you are preparing for is what K.K. prepared for — a loved one's decline. Speaking to my mom about giving things up, she heard that subtext; she said, "It would be easier if I died." I gasped, but offered "The fact that we are planning your new room interiors means that you have a future house!"
L.R. suggests that divesting means, for her, a change of scenery. I tried that phrase on my mother. She replied that she has no energy to create a new environment, so to make it easy, she needs to keep everything. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of objects even the smallest home can contain, all or nothing is an easier concept than many small and painful decisions.
Tip No. 6: Ask professionals. I spoke to a few professional packers. An elder parent is used to finding objects in certain places, and this knowledge led to this suggestion: use technology. Take photos of objects where they live. When packing boxes for storage, that photo is then affixed to the box; all boxes are labeled with their origin locations (for example, "second shelf china cabinet").
Tip No. 7: When Mom and I first talked about the move, she wanted her kids to have everything; now she can't let go. Many of us have therefore reviewed her inventory. How do you speak to Mom about letting go? My nephew, our diplomat, said he would like to talk with Mom about a desired object's family history. Therefore, if one of us wants something, THAT photo will also be on the box. Mom will be getting a file of those photos and those names.
Tip No. 8: Consider renting two storage lockers — one for the most necessary of objects, such as clothing or computers, and another filled with the furnishings for a small apartment. We rented two 10-by-10 units so that we could find labeled boxes easily.
Tip No. 9: Assign family members who are good at tasks to help. My brother Dave is an IT professional; I have been in contact with him about the computer and paper files. My brother Paul is an engineer, perfect to oversee the logistics of the storage lockers. My sister Nan is good with space and color; she prepared a few suggestions for "mixed use" furniture adaptable for various-size rooms. Because Mom had lived with a bookshelf for 30 years, she couldn't see it might be used in the future for kitchenette storage.
Tip No. 10: Write this where you can see it: "Grant me, please, that I can face whatever awaits, as constructively as possible, for my mom, and for the rest of us. Without movement, there can be no change."
T. A. from Santa Barbara has an interesting quandary regarding the Art Deco sofa pictured. Is its antique value worth the cost to reupholster the piece? Or should T. A. buy something new, or donate it and take the tax write-off? Her new daughter-in-law plans to visit, and she is a designer….so T. A. wants to update the tired look of the retro fabrics she once loved.
Let’s look at the antique value in comparable sales of a 1930’s hardwood framed sofa with similar typical glamorous flaring arms and bulky, generous lines, which bespeak comfort. If this sofa sold at auction, buyers would undoubtedly take into consideration the necessity of replacing the ‘unique’ fabric T. A. chose in her 1960’s retro decade. At auction (which I regret to say, Santa Barbara has none: T.A. would have to ship her sofa to the San Francisco or the LA area to get into an auction) a sofa like hers will typically sell for $800-1,000, less 20% auction house commission. However, most auction houses will not take upholstered furniture unless it is rare: auction houses like the Bay Area’s Clar’s, or John Moran’s Discovery Auction (an entry-level auction for first timers), sometimes have a limit of $1000 potential earnings. The best way to find out if an auction house might be interested is to go to their website and send them a digital photo. Checking eBay, the asking prices for Art Deco era couches are around $800, and that does not include moving the beast. My clients have been discouraged by using Craigslist for selling large furniture, so she could always consider donating and taking the tax deduction, if she could use that deduction in her tax bracket. She would be advised to speak to her accountant about what I estimate to be a $1000 deduction.
On the side of keeping that sofa, consider the hardwood frame, the mahogany trim, the solidity of the seat, and the use of real screws and dowels in the construction, as opposed to the staples used on mid-market furniture today. This piece has lasted 80 years and there’s a reason.
Re-upholstery offers T.A. her choice of fabric, filling and trim. All those selections cost money. Average fabric will run $40, designer/better fabrics are $70 and up (per yard). An average sofa will need 16 yards; I wager T.A.’s will use 18-20. At $40 per yard, that’s $800. Labor will run an estimated $1,000, not to mention something extra for fabric if T.A. picks a repeating design, since patterns at seams should align. Looks like there’s fringe at the bottom of the sofa; that’s extra. She might need to pay a premium for the tufting around the arms.
Doing the math, her sofa re-upholstered will run $2,000, which is, coincidentally, the top price paid for such a sofa of that era (with no notable designer pedigree). That’s because the market today is not favorable to flamboyant lines, preferring cleaner geometry. She can buy a new sofa for less, but looking at affordable ($2000 or less) sofa options, she’s going to regret seeing her hardwood framed sofa leave her house for the softwood frames used in big box store’s furniture.
Being an old furniture Luddite myself, there’s some valuable provenance involved in her Art Deco sofa that she may not know of. Her sofa from the 1930’s reflects a period that gave birth to the dramatic lines of the Chrysler building in NYC. Art Deco was born from various design elements: Cubism, Fauvism, Louis XV & XVI Revival styles and Asian aesthetics, which blended into this unique style, associated with Paris, New York, and Hollywood (think Noel Coward). Her sofa partakes of the world’s first international style of design that influenced architecture and interior spaces in the tall 1930’s buildings of great cities. The luscious lines and outward embrace of the arms reflects the elegance and extravagance of the era that glorified in fine things after the Great Depression, screeching to an abrupt halt with the austerities of World War II. Style ever after was influenced by functionalism and the demands of industrialized mass production. Her sofa (with, perhaps, mohair fabric in a jewel tone) would have been at home when the Deco style was first seen by the world, at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925.
J.E. has a great-looking plaster sculpture of a lovely camel standing squarely on four skinny legs, bending his neck to gaze at his viewers. This 3-foot unsigned piece is painted matte black over white Plaster of Paris and is reinforced with rebar inside the animal's hulking body. A chip off the leg allows us to see the white plaster and the support.
The plaster piece rests on a plinth, which is part of the sculpture and also plaster, although the plinth is painted gold. Think of the Art Nouveau movement and the Arts and Crafts style of gold picture frames of the first quarter of the 20th century and you will find a commonality of line. That's one key to the age of the sculpture. But the other indicator of the age and the era is the camel itself.
The dominant style of the first quarter of the 20th century was orientalism, caused by the discovery of the exotic ways of Egypt, Arabia, China and Africa. People over there were not "civilized"; they were more animalistic, they were devious and mysterious and addicted to forbidden things, and had less reason to wear clothes, the thought was. The East was seductive. Remember the flowing robes and dark eyes of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik? Anything Eastern was beguiling to an era that had just thrown off the shackles of Victorianism.
The East was celebrated in the late 19th century music that retold "One Thousand and One Nights": think of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and Respighi's "La Boutique Fantastique." Theater promoters rode this Orientalist wave, such as the famous ballet aficionado Sergei Diaghilev , who used Picasso and Bakst to design harem pants, belly shirts and turbans for dancers such as Nijinsky.
Ladies' fashions rode the wave as well. Gowns were "al la Turk," or featured the high Greek waist and slinky folds. Designers like Fortuny draped his naked females with miniature Greek-style pleating, very revealing, and worn without a corset (gasp). Dresses of flowing silk from the East were ornamented by flapper-style headbands of a single peacock feather.
The bronze sculptors of the era jumped on the sinuous curves and discovered a ripe opportunity to depict half-disclosed nudity from 1900-20. Famous bronzes of this era usually paired wild exotic animals with female Turkish dancers; tigers and nude gypsies; nude dancers with Ostrich fans; and, of course, as we return to the camel — female slaves picked for the harem of Bedouin warriors mounted on — yes — dromedaries.
A father-son team of animaliers (this is the fancy French name for a sculptor who works with the animal form) made a name for themselves in Orientalist sculptures of exotic creatures. These were copied widely. These artists loved the awkward but compelling line of the camel. Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) sculpted his "Dromedaire debout," which will sell today in bronze for more than $5,000. His son, Alfred Barye (1839-1882), kept the flame alive with his "Mounted Moor on Camel," selling for more than $4,000 today in bronze.
Yet we cannot speak of sex, animals and wild abandon without speaking of Vienna in 1900. We do ourselves a disservice if we ignore the current in the Viennese air that produced the highest of this type of sculpture, with its wild animals and great stallions mounted by naked women and virile men. These are the famous Vienna Bronzes of the Austrian School of 1900-1920. And, yes, I meant to point out that Freud must have seen these bronzes, as they were the rage in Vienna in his day.
The most celebrated of these Austrian sculptors in 1900 was Franz Xavier Bergman (1838-1945) and Rudolf Chocoka (1888-1958). Their camels, horses, bulls and other virile animals go for thousands in bronze today, although they are small enough for a bedside table. And if the sculpture included a nude erotic pose of a female form with the wild animal, that's exactly where these were displayed.
J.E.'s camel is a middle-class version, cast in plaster, lacking the sex appeal of the Vienna School but containing the same reference to Eastern exoticism, which is, of course, embodied in the aloof and silent camel. Plaster sculptures could be purchased in 1900 for one-quarter the price of bronze and still had the oomph when seen on a mantelpiece. Few of these were signed but most were copied from famous bronzes of the day and sold to the frowning but eager middle classes. J.E.'s camel is worth $350.
If the storms and mudflows in Montecito, Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, and Summerland impacted you, and you have questions about your insurance, listen to this vital conversation with John J. Thyne III, Santa Barbara attorney, professor and real estate professional. Click here to listen to the whole interview.
I have often been tempted to photograph an antique I myself have found, and last week, returning to Santa Barbara from an appointment in Calabasas, I stopped at an industrial park in Camarillo, home to a tiny, dusty, fascinating, junk shop Treasures Second Hand Store. Behind the owner’s desk stood two 1950’s refrigerators, old crank tub washers, and 2 vintage stoves: I was hooked.
I purchased this copper sconce, which has no markings, no authorship to be found. Yet it has the quality of early 20th century Arts & Crafts handwork. Yet at first glance, one thinks Mexican 1980’s work. But the edges are rolled into a finish, the piece hangs straight, and the copper repoussé work is hand (burin) tooled and chased. The iconography of a blooming thistle is also telling: this weed, which can grow up to 8’ tall, with its jagged leaves and sharp spikes, is the national flower of Scotland, where the Arts & Crafts tradition of copper repoussé originated.
The Scottish Arts & Crafts movement (1887-99) was centered at The Glasgow School of Art, founded by Charles Rennie MacKintosh, Herbert MacNair, and sisters Margaret and Frances MacDonald (the “Four”). From this school was birthed “The Glasgow Style,” incorporating Scottish icons like the Scottish cabbage rose, Celtic tombstone motifs, thistles, and sprites or goblin mainly in the female form.
In fact, women were taken seriously as artists, and known in the group for fabulous repoussé copper panel designs with Scottish motifs, which were fitted into door panels, pieces of Arts & Crafts furniture, hardware and used on decorative objects. In the first years of the 20th century artistic women, such as the metalworkers Margaret & Mary Gilmour, rose to prominence. Essential reading is the Glasgow Girls by Jude Burkhauser, about this formative era in design. Love, however, did not change the importance of Glasgow women in the arts: the sisters Margaret & Frances MacDonald married “The Glasgow School’s” co-founders: Margaret to Charles Rennie MacKintosh, Frances to Herbert MacNair.
In England, such partnerships in art and architecture were unheard of in the Art Worker’s Guild of the era. Mrs. Albert Waterhouse established the Yattendon Metalworking class in 1890 for women to learn copper repoussé work. She penned the designs, derived from Scottish foliage and fauna, paid for her student’s supplies and materials, and helped sell the works through the Scottish Home Arts & Industries Association and through Liberty & Co. in London.
I have a feeling my sconce was born in Mrs. Waterhouse’s Yattendon School: this is because it is NOT signed. Such a fine piece by a male artist of the era in Arts and Crafts design would have been signed! Although women were recognized as working artists, few women’s pieces were signed or recorded.
And of course, there’s the image of the Scottish thistle itself on the piece, the symbol of Scotland’s highest chivalric order, founded by James V. The image appeared on Scottish coins as early as 1470, and entered Scotland’s coat of arms in the early 16th century. Legend has it that upon the 13th century Battle of Largs, the Vikings under King Haakon attacked the Scots at night, creeping in barefoot to an ambush. The Scots were saved by the thistle, which sorely provoked Norse screams of pain, waking the Scots. The oldest national flower known, the Scottish motto beneath is “Wha daur meddle wi me?,” or “Who dares to meddle with me?” in American English; the ‘proper’ English translation is “No one provokes me with impunity.” I had the great fortune to study art and architecture in Scotland, and delighted in the still extant Glasgow Arts and Crafts Tea Rooms, all in the Glasgow Style, as well as a visit to the beautiful Hill House in Rhu, Dunbartonshire, once owned by my son’s father’s family, commissioned in the Glasgow Style. The Arts and Crafts tradition of course is still very alive in Scotland today.
The value, if I am right, and the sconce is Scottish Glasgow style Arts & Crafts, created by a notable female artist in 1900, is $2,000.
J.H. sends me a ceramic fumigation pot, alongside a photo of her grandmother's house, in the first quarter of the 20th century set in an unincorporated area of West Covina. The house was located in a working class neighborhood between San Bernardino Road and the Pacifica Electric Street Car tracks. She remembers the train running between West Covina and Los Angeles. Grandma Grace was involved in the citrus industry, like so many entrepreneurs of the early 20th century.
Picture what you know about the industry in those days, and your vision will be informed by images of pretty toddlers and healthy young ladies picking the oranges off a green tree in a beautiful grove. These images say "this is the good life in the Golden State!" And the orange was the symbol of that life.
J.H.'s grandmother would have been familiar with the trappings of a citrus ranch, of which this pot was one, yet some of these tools are unrecognizable today. Grandma Grace would have recognized the picker's bag made of canvas and leather, her citrus clippers, her sizing rings, the field boxes, the belching smudge pots, along with J.H.'s little inherited fumigation pot. J.H. sends me Grandma Grace's front porch pictured in West Covina, lined with these pots, drilled in their bases to become planters.
Daniel Boule's 2014 book The Orange and the Dream of California traces the California citrus industry to 1870 with the introduction of the Washington Naval from Brazil.
The entrepreneur and freethinking spiritualist Eliza Tibbets bought a few Washington Navels as an experiment and planted a few of these trees. Noting how well they grew, she began selling cuttings, eventually making a small fortune. However, not all was prosperous and healthy in the industry, as J.H.'s 12-inch pot might have told us if it could talk.
J.H. writes that she recalls the pride of the early fruit growers, angling for the best looking, untouched fruit with which to bring to market. Perfection meant the eradication of pests that would eat the fruit and damage leaves. This is where her fumigation pot came into play back in the 1900's.
Workers in her grandmother's 10-acre orchard in Covina would cover orange trees with huge canvas tents, wielding long hook-poles, and then weighing these tents down with sandbags. The aim was to kill off the insect called the Icerya purchasi, the aptly named cottony cushion scale, which defaced the fruit. These little pillows of white attached themselves to a leaf and coated it with waxy fibers that protected their egg sac.
Here was the early 20th Century remedy for this disfigurement of the fruit: liquid cyanide was shot into these ceramic handled pots and pushed under the tree tents to sit and off-gas for several days. And someone had to handle the toxic chemical.
In and around those tents was hell to breathe. Cyanide gas caused respiratory and heart failures, not to mention paralysis, liver and kidney failure, and seizures.
J.H.'s Uncle Ray, hired as a young boy, was employed to pull the canvas tents off the trees after they had a few days of cyanide exposure. J.H. writes that Uncle Ray's boyhood coveralls would shred off his frame because of chemical rot. J.H. thinks that Uncle Ray's early death had something to do with the fumigation pots.
Happily, when cyanide was eventually banned, Grandma Grace turned the glazed ceramic pots into sword fern vessels living on her front porch in Covina. The year was 1940, when a gang of Covina boys gathered around those famous 40 foot tall Washingtonia Palms, which made Covina famous, and shot their torches into the top fronds. A tree close to Grandma Grace's orchard barn caught fire when a burning palm frond torched it. Inside was all the orchard equipment and her treasured Model T.
The fumigation pot owned by J.H. here in Santa Barbara is the last survivor of the orchard, and J.H. says it has lived for 100 years. Grandma Grace's pot is definitely a vintage California ceramic, very collectable, and its simple style and coloring is associated with the most famous objects of early 20th Century California pottery.
Pottery was, along with oranges, a California specialty. Notable potteries of the era were Gladding McBean, and Bauer, for example. However, the hole drilled into the bottom devalues the vessel, but certainly not the story. I would say a collector of California orchard equipment and vintage California pottery would pay $300. I bet I will hear from a few willing buyers for J.H.'s pot.
LS sends me a photograph of a dough box, which, in its heyday (1850) would have weekly felt the weight of “three pecks” of flour to make the family’s bread. Don’t know what three pecks of flour is? About 27 liters or 7 US gallons. And before you say, wow, that’s a load of flour, bread was your family staple. Especially if you had farmhands or household servants. A peck was purchased in a huge sack, and the baker-woman of the household hefted that sack and dumped it into this object, pictured here, called alternatively the dough box, bin, trough; with a cover or lid, called the kneading trough or tray.
You see LS’s box stands on legs. Tabletops in kitchens weren’t the best places to knead dough: they fluctuate in temperature and could be drafty. If her flour has legs, the baker-woman may move it into a more temperate part of the house. In winter, the flour must be warm, so the dough box was part of your household interior. Once the yeast was added directly in the box, the mixture had to stay warm for it to rise, perhaps overnight. The lid was a necessity: mice like dough. If you wanted a faster rise, the dough had to be dragged near the fireplace. You’ll notice the sides of the box cant down so flour does not spill, also a necessity as the process is very messy.
Next morning, your brick or stone oven had to be swept and then stoked which took hours. While that was heating, you shaped the dough into loaves, and set them on the lid of the dough box. The baker-woman carried the lid/tray close to the oven (women were strong) and she wielded a long handled shovel, called a “peel.” Notice your pizza guy; he uses a wooden peel, today’s stainless models, but in the past, long-handled in iron in the 17th century or a very long plank paddle in Rome of the 1st century. People who are learning to use the peel tell me that there’s a trick to having the dough slide without tearing into the hot oven.
Dough boxes are not just American, as in LS’s case. The finest and most expensive examples are French Provincial (1830) and those are carved in relief to the sides with baskets of flowers or wheat; the apron, which supports the box, is also carved meaningfully. A nice one will sell for upwards of $3,000, usually made of French walnut, except for the ones from Provence, which are oak.
Dough boxes in America were made of pine or poplar, or a combination of the two, and sometimes pine and oak. An early (1801) Pennsylvania pine box was usually painted with “Dutch” designs on a uniformly tinted background. Expect the good American boxes to bear traces of paint pigment such as slate gray, milk paint light blue, or red. The boxes that were stripped in the 20th century (and many were, because not many people realized almost everything was painted in the early 19th century) were stripped, ironically, to make them appear “primitive.” American Primitive furniture was a hot style in the 1980’s.
American dough boxes sometimes lift off the legged base, and at auction today sell for $200-400 without the stand. With the stand, a good American painted dough box will sell for $400-600, much less than its French Provincial counterpart. In either parts of the world, the dough box was never washed – soap could flavor the bread and water could absorb into the wood. Whatever the country, kneading dough meant bending over the dough box for hours, with the gooey dough up around your elbows. No French manicure needed.
The value of LS’s dough box is $450 today. American Rustic is not desirable. And so far, I have not discovered any fine cabinetry wooden mid-century modern dough boxes. I say this because anything mid-century is beloved in today’s market. Wonder if Charles and Ray Eames ever considered designing one?
Speaking of midcentury, the first bread maker machine comes out of mid-1980’s Japan, the Raku Raku Pan Da from the Fumai Electric Company, sold in the US as the Pak Auto Bakery model FAB-100-1. Today fast-bake bread making machines push out loaves in less than one hour without breaking your back and without dough encasing hands and arms. Packaged bread mixes are purchased with pre-measured flour and yeast, flavorings and dough conditioners: all you do is add water…what a change, but the flavor no doubt suffers.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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