The Wisconsin bargain hunter brought his $5 yard-sale find to appraiser Mark Moran.
Moran examined it — 1950s pinup girl artwork — in front of a captivated crowd. He turned to his iPad and tapped into an auction database.
A tinge of anticipation surged through the room.
Turns out, it was an original illustration by famous pinup artist Harry Ekman. Moran valued it at upward of $10,000. The crowd gasped and nodded in approval. The work later sold for $16,000 at auction.
This episode in the Prescott, Wis., public library was "appraisal theater" at its most dramatic. Moran, who has written 27 books on antiques, created his one-man traveling appraisal show in 2011.
Historical societies, museums and libraries hire Moran and host the appraisal events. They're wildly popular, often selling out. He has booked more than 400 events in the Midwest in the past three years. He's already booked 111 this year, including three in the Twin Cities in May: on May 3 at the Fridley History Center, May 8 at the St. Paul Public Library's West 7th branch, and May 18 at St. Paul's Hayden Heights branch.
"I think there was a pent-up demand," Moran said. "When I started contacting libraries and historical societies, the response was instantaneous and enthusiastic. Many of my hosts use the program as a fundraiser."
Moran, 61, now living just outside Iola, Wis., worked as a newspaperman for 30 years, including time at the Rochester Post-Bulletin. Fueled by his passion for antiques and collectibles, he started writing books on the subject. It became his full-time career in 2002.
In the meantime, shows including PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" elevated antiques appraisals to entertainment for the masses.
Sensing a demand, Moran created his roadshow. He said "appraisal theater" is similar to writing for newspapers: "Tell a good story. Tell it simply, clearly and honestly and be entertaining."
Moran uses his own knowledge and about a half-dozen online databases to evaluate a wide array of antiques, including paintings, prints, drawings, ceramics, toys, clocks, furniture and more. Moran does not buy items at appraisal events, eliminating any risk of conflict.
It's not the money
Moran said curiosity, not cash, often motivates people to bring in items for appraisals.
"Most people don't honestly care about the value of things," he said. "They just want to know if the story is true that they've heard all their lives about Aunt Martha's table lamp or Uncle Harry's immigrant trunk."
He often sees baby boomers, in the midst of downsizing, trying to figure out what to keep and what to scrap.
There's an element of showmanship to the events, with lots of storytelling, humor and playful back-and-forth between the host, the audience and those seeking appraisals.
There was an overflow crowd at an all-day library appraisal event in Caledonia, Minn., last summer. Moran was so popular that he's been booked for a repeat performance this year.
"He made everyone feel welcomed. Even though something may have been worth absolutely nothing, he still made it special — a good keepsake or memory," said Caledonia Library Director Marla Burns.
Moran appraised more than 80 items that day. Many people came just to watch. A highlight came when a woman's napkin ring was appraised at $700. The crowd erupted in applause.
Moran said the napkin ring and pinup art appraisal episodes are rare, especially as most antiques have declined in value as younger generations take less interest in family heirlooms and antiques.
One area that is still seeing healthy appreciation is folk art, including quilts, carvings and paintings by obscure local artists.
"It was really taking a utilitarian object and giving it an artistic twist," Moran said.
One item where people are usually shocked about plummeting value: grandma's china. With a few exceptions, china values have dropped dramatically.
"They are beautiful. They usually have 50, 60, 80 pieces of china that hardly ever get used. People are stunned with how much they have declined in value," Moran said. "If you can get a buck a piece, that's good."