By Mark Brown
Suppose a distant relative who retired to Florida passed away and left you a family home that had been closed up for years. Since you already have your own home, it's an easy decision to just go ahead and sell it after a quick cleaning and a fresh coat of paint. Your next decision (and probably the worst one in your life!) is to hire a couple of teenagers in the neighborhood to clean it out. Remember that old expression about throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Most people just don't realize that what they consider junk is someone else's treasure - and quite often a valuable treasure. Okay, so what do you do?
Since there's always a golden rule in these kind of stories, let me lay it out to start with. Don't throw ANYTHING away. At least, not yet anyway.
The first thing to do is start at the top. Older homes generally have an attic or overhead storage space with a stairway or a ceiling trap door often found in a bedroom closet. I remember once thinking there wasn't one in an old Victorian in Murfreesboro, Tenn., until I stepped outside and noticed windows under the eaves. Back inside, a search soon uncovered a doorway hidden behind a hallway wardrobe and an attic with several boxes of American brilliant cut glass.
Attics were the storage lockers of yesteryear that every family used to hide away things of value. This is where you'll find old trunks filled with vintage clothing; toys that have been outgrown by the children; grandpa's military uniform; ephemera (paper items such as newspapers, old correspondence and photos, etc.). In other words, if it was worth keeping, it ended up in the attic waiting until it was needed again or finally forgotten.
Next, start searching through the bedrooms and closets. Again, you'll find many of the same things that you found in the attic. Unusual locations can bring the greatest rewards. In a country log home that had been abandoned and ransacked over the years, we recovered six turn-of-the-century quilts stored laying flat between the bed springs and the mattress. In a derelict antebellum mansion in southern Georgia that had rain poring through what remained of the roof, a 22- karat gold pin with a 10-point diamond was discovered in the hidden compartment of a smashed suitcase.
While vintage furniture can of course be valuable, closely examine the other items in the bedroom as well. Here you'll find jewelry (don't forget costume jewelry which has a strong market value), jars of loose change with Indian head pennies, buffalo nickels, etc, pocket knives, overhead light fixtures and lamps, dresser sets and perfume bottles. Just think of what you keep in your bedroom and go from there.
Be careful lifting mattresses as knives, razors and even pistols were often placed there to be quickly at hand. Residents who had lived through the Depression and experienced bank failures also made a habit of hiding paper money inside the mattress, under the carpet, in hollow bed frames, under loose floor boards, in books and in ceiling lights. While cleaning an older home, some friends of ours discovered envelopes filled with money tacked to the inside trim of a bathroom linen closet and behind a window curtain!
Don't forget to pull furniture away from the walls as well as look behind dresser drawers to make sure valuables haven't been hidden there. More hiding places to check are the pockets of clothes hanging in closets, inside old purses and even shoes and boots.
Once you reach the ground floor, start the same systematic search as before. If there are books, take them and fan them to find hidden money, documents and photos.
Now move on to the basement, cold cellar and crawl spaces. Besides what's in plain view, reach up along the top of walls and examine the spaces between the floor joists and behind loose stones or bricks.
The last areas to check are the outbuildings - garden sheds, barns, garages, smoke houses, out houses, etc. Take a flash light and look up. I once discovered an entire buckboard attached to the ceiling of a barn! Again, check along the top of walls.
Before you congratulate yourself on a job well done, take a few moments and walk around the property. Before landfills were common, the back fence line or convenient gully was used to dispose of items no longer wanted. You'll be surprised at what you'll find.
So, what are you going to do with all this "stuff"? Once you've got a good idea of what's there, you can either sell it off piecemeal or contact a local auction house to do it for you.
The auction staff also will help you in identifying items you may have missed. Remember, it is your responsibility to prepare a detailed inventory of what you have.
In 2009, an individual in Shenandoah County handed over a box of old scrap books which went on to sell for $1. The 13 old albums actually contained hundreds of photos and memorabilia of Confederate veteran reunions, as well as 12 unpublished photos of a 1912 Mosby Raiders Reunion which later realized over $4,000!
Mark Brown and his wife June Lingwood-Brown own Why Not Antiques located at 7994 Main St., Middletown, Va. For more information or to contact him, visit whynotantiques.com or call 540-868-1141.