If you watch the “Antiques Roadshow” on television, you probably love those stories of how someone bought an odd little vase for $5 at a garage sale and discovered it was worth far more than that. For some buyers, it was just sheer good fortune; for others, it was the payoff for years of building up expertise in a specialty.
I’ve been collecting rugs and tribal weavings for 25 years, and I’m still waiting for that moment when I see a great piece lying in a dusty corner at an estate sale. Like all treasure hunters, I am filled with boundless optimism that the next outing will bring success.
But sellers are getting more sophisticated, thanks to television shows and the Internet. Clues to the value of the most esoteric possessions can be found through modest searching on the World Wide Web. Why wouldn’t someone take a little time to do research before deciding what price to ask for such an item? Are they dumb or just lazy?
I’ve been asking myself those questions since I seem to have dodged a bullet at Saturday’s garage sale. In addition to the used submersible pumps and old basketball shoes I put up for sale, I decided to try selling a red and brown woolen cape that a relative had given me a few years ago. She was tired of hanging on to it. Her parents had bought the heavy cape in Berkeley back in the ’60s. She thought it was a Berber tribal weaving from North Africa.
Berkeley in the ’60s, as I recall through the haze, was filled with all kinds of exotica. Hippies were returning from places like Tibet, India and Marrakech with bells, baubles and textiles. Telegraph Avenue, when it wasn’t filled with protesters, cops and tear gas, looked like a Middle Eastern bazaar filled with street vendors peddling whatever they could.
Although I liked the cape, filled with brightly colored embroidered tribal symbols, I assumed it was a relatively inexpensive weaving geared to the tourist trade. I set up an aluminum ladder in the driveway and draped the cape over it. I priced it at $125, high enough to indicate this item was special but low enough to entice an impulsive buyer. The cape drew several compliments, but no one made me an offer.
Rather than ship it off to the Sacramento SPCA thrift shop with the rest of the unsold goods, I decided to try selling it online. But instead of continuing with my laziness, I decided to do some online research to pin down what I had and what it might be worth. I found two items on eBay under the heading “Berber cape,” and one looked vaguely similar in color and designs. It was described as a Moroccan Berber shepherd evil-eye cloak called an afhnik that came from a 1920 estate. The buy-it-now price was $1,080.
Holy-moly — $1,080! An unpleasant internal voice started to berate me for being not only lazy but also an idiot. I retorted that the eBay cape was touted as being close to 100 years old and looked significantly different. In the collectible world, those factors might mean a lot.
At another site, I saw an afhnik quite similar to mine. It was also described as circa 1920 and from the same estate as the eBay cape. The price was $1,200. The site explained that the main red color was supposed to resemble an eye to ward off evil, and a lizard in the center was supposed to puncture evil with its sharp tongue. The cape was made by tribal women in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. Further searching uncovered newer afhniks in the $500 range.
So, I don’t know exactly what I have, what it’s worth or who would be interested in buying it, but I am going to be a careful and patient seller.
And for all you hunters of garage-sale treasures, thank you for overlooking this modest one.