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Mark Moran combines history and fundraising with Antique Appraisal Events
Mark Moran with a weathervane from the late 1800s at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, 2014. Photo by Sharon Cekada.
Mark Moran with a weathervane from the late 1800s at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, 2014. Photo by Sharon Cekada.

When a local church or community organization decides to hold a fundraiser, they often try a bake sale or auction. Thanks to Mark Moran of Iola, Wisconsin, there’s a new way for small organizations like these to raise money and have fun while doing it.

Author of over 29 reference books for antique collectors and dealers, Moran uses his impressive knowledge of fine arts and a wide range of collectables to host a sort of one-man Antiques Roadshow, answering questions about any item you might have in your attic.

An antique collector from a young age (his first find was an early-19th century copper bowl from India), Moran began dealing and appraising antiques in the 1980s while at the same time pursuing a career as a reporter for the Green Bay Press Gazette. Journalism paid the bills (at the time) but his real passion was researching and finding antiques.

Growing up surrounded by the watercolor landscapes and pen-and-ink drawings of his artist father, Moran always had a deep appreciation for the quality and craftsmanship of extraordinary work. Over time, he honed this appreciation into an almost encyclopedic catalog of expertise in fine art, ceramics, toys, glassware, vintage photographs, advertising, metalware, clocks, even costume jewelry.

In the late 1990s, Iola-based Krause Publications—a publisher of magazines and books for hobbyists and collectors—hired him to write books on antiques. His titles were big sellers, and for the next eight years Moran found success at Krause, even appearing on four episodes of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow.

Like many publishers, Krause Publications struggled through the economic downturn of the last few years and in January 2011 had to let Moran go. Moran knew his books weren’t selling like they used to and that increasingly consumers were researching antiques on their own instead of buying books. This, coupled with the improved quality of antique reproductions (been to Pottery Barn lately?) and waning interest in collectables, had greatly diminished the overall antique market and left Moran looking for work.

Contemplating what to do, Moran struck upon a way to turn his reporting skills and his passion for—and vast knowledge of— antiques into a business. In August 2011, he launched Antique Appraisal Events, a fundraising service designed to bring community members together to learn about the history and value of their collectables.

Antique Appraisal Events is unique in that it is engineered to entertain and raise funds for cash-strapped hosting organizations like local libraries and historical societies. After booking an event, the host opens a list for people who have items to be appraised. Signing up for one spot costs $15, one third of which Moran returns to the host. Moran also encourages his hosts to expand the event to raise more money (for example, by including snacks or a refreshments bar). On the day of the event, Moran visits the organization to discuss each item with its respective owner and the assembled group for four minutes, explaining the object’s history, detailing the region and time of origin, noting condition issues, and appraising approximate market worth. If organizations choose to forgo the fundraising option, Moran also offers a fixed presenter‘s fee.

The only one to offer this sort of service in the upper Midwest, Moran thought it would be reasonable to set a goal of booking one hundred programs in one year. He surpassed his goal in five months. At the time of this article’s publication, Moran has held 116 events and has more than eighty booked for 2012, many by repeat customers.

It seems that Moran’s success can be attributed to his antiques expertise as well as his personable nature and good humor. Working with a variety of people, from older generations who share his love for antiques to people in their mid-twenties eager to know the history behind inherited knickknacks, Moran admits that no one has more fun at these events than he does. Too, the range of objects he sees allows Moran to expand his research on antiques and collectables in an entirely new way.

 One of the most valuable things brought to an Antique Appraisal Event was a small apothecary bottle filled with different colored sands arranged into an intricate eagle and flag pattern. Moran instantly identified it as the work of Andrew Clemens, a deaf-mute artist born in the mid-1800s. He conservatively appraised the artwork for $6,000, a sharp mark-up from the $10 for which Clemens likely sold it.

Sometimes attendees’ items don’t garner top dollar. Moran recalls a woman who brought in a chocolate drinking pot along with a family story about President Abraham Lincoln drinking from it. After evaluating the pot, Moran had to tell her that the family legend was just that: a legend. The pot was made some forty years after Lincoln’s assassination.

Some objects are just plain unusual. After unearthing a vase in a dump and emptying its contents, one patron brought his discovery to Moran for appraisal only to find that his “vase” was actually a funeral urn.

Whether the objects attendees bring to his events are classic or unusual, valuable or worthless, Moran finds that most attendees “don’t care about the value. They want to know the history, the use, the design influence, and the origin.” 

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Catherine Teresi is a former intern for Wisconsin People & Ideas currently writing and working in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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