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Stories prove priceless at antiques appraisal

Emily McFarlan

Emily McFarlan

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Updated: March 5, 2013 6:18AM

The 1945 Book of Knowledge begins with a photo of “DISCOVERY,” which looks like a small child jabbing a finger attentively at a photo in a previous edition of the children’s encyclopedia.

From there, it’s organized loosely across 20 volumes, each including chapters with titles such as “The Book of the Earth,” “The Book of Literature” and “The Book of Wonder.” Those detail such topics as “The Big Ball We Live On” and answer questions such as, “How does the speedometer of a motor car work?”

I remember flipping through the gilt-edged pages of the 1927 Book of Knowledge in my great-grandmother’s attic, full of all sorts of treasures such as glass perfume bottles shaped like birds. And I remember thinking these books really did contain all the knowledge in the world.

They’re sitting now on the bookshelf in my tiny apartment, along with a 1945 edition my husband and I recently found at a thrift store, still in the wooden crate in which it had shipped nearly 70 years ago to one Mrs. Robert Armstrong of Chicago. We pull them down sometimes when we have company and giggle over their grandiose descriptions, like those of “railway trains” being “one of the greatest triumphs of man.”

I’ve always wondered about these family treasures: Who on Earth decided what knowledge made the cut in these raggle-taggle volumes? And — after one friend found them listed at $800 online and episodes of “Antiques Roadshow” had piqued my curiosity — were they worth any money?

So I brought the crate of scarlet-bound books to be appraised by Mark F. Moran at the recent antiques and collectables event sponsored by the Elgin Historical Society at Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin.

This is the second event Moran has done at Gail Borden; the first was so popular the library has started a monthly antiques interest group, according to Miriam Lytle, division chief of community services and program development at the library.

Moran was featured on the 2010 tour of “Antiques Roadshow” and recently was contacted to be part of the show again this year, he said. He’d worked in newspapers in Wisconsin and Minnesota for 30 years, dabbling in antiques on a part-time basis until he left to author more than 25 books on antiques and collectibles.

What he liked about newspapers and what he likes about antiques is the same, and it’s the same thing I like about both, too: the stories. And that’s what brings a lot of people to his appraisals, he said. They want to know if the family stories handed down with items are true.

“Every program I do, there’s something amazing cool, from the sublime to the ridiculous,” Moran said.

On this Sunday, those stories included the drawing of the Dragon Lady from Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates” rescued from a frat house dumpster, and the autographs collected by one man’s mother and aunt from celebrities at train stations: everybody from Herbert Hoover to Walt Disney to Judy Garland.

And there was my Book of Knowledge, which Moran said he was happy to see.

That’s because the Book of Knowledge company is better known for its series of mechanical coin banks, he said. And a quick Internet search backs that up with images of a cast iron soldier shooting coins into a tree and a buffalo butting a small boy up a tree at the drop of a quarter.

“Most people today have never seen these, but they have seen the banks,” he said.

That said, the books only are worth the $30 I had paid for them, encyclopedias being one of many things the Internet has made outdated, he said.

It’s true. If you really want to know how the speedometer of a motor car works, you can Google it. You can find an answer to any question in seconds on your smartphone, tablet or laptop. But then you’ll miss the questions and answers you might not have thought to ask, such as, “What is the longest word?” (answer: “antidisestablishmentarianism”). You’ll miss the stories.

And that’s priceless.

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