Book and art appraiser Willis Van Devanter seemed to appreciate the family treasures laid before him in a meeting room of the Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg, some wrapped in bath towels and others covered by black trash bags. His voice was soft, and he found something nice to say about the worn items.
But when it came to appraising their value, he was all business.
"That's worth about $5," he said, holding up a novel that was not a first edition. He said that a hand-carved wooden frame should be insured for $750 but that the religious print inside was worthless.
Van Devanter devoted three hours Sunday afternoon to the "Appraisal Road Show," a service offered for library patrons at $5 an item. He donated the $365 in proceeds to the library.
Van Devanter looked more like an eccentric college professor with his blue jean shirt, geometric-patterned tie and tweed jacket than a well respected appraiser who was chief buyer for the Paul Mellon Collection between 1957 and 1973. He also has testified in court as an expert witness.
He began the session with a disclaimer.
"Let me assure you this is not 'Antique Road Show,' " he said. "That is rehearsed. This is absolutely live. We will find out what we will find out."
He and the audience found out that art books that looked valuable weren't and that a tiny, leather-bound book on Cicero was worth $250.
As he studied a book, letter or piece of art, his wife, Carter, searched the Internet for a comparable sale listing. Most times, he gave his estimate before she announced her findings. The figures were often close.
"This is very nice," he said of a 1950 edition of "Little Men" that had illustrated end papers and a dust jacket in good condition.
Library volunteer Kathy Stolldorf of Chantilly leaned forward as he turned the pages of her Louisa May Alcott book.
"Is it valuable?" she asked. "I'm not going to sell it, but I want to know."
In this case, Carter Van Devanter couldn't find anything similar. Her husband pronounced its value as $25 to $30. Stolldorf said she was satisfied.
Another woman brought in artwork of three European cities.
"I haven't a clue what the cities are," she said. "What does it say?"
Van Devanter leaned close to the glass, using his finger as a guide to help decipher the labels. All three were French, he told her.
"It's a print, isn't it?" she asked.
"No, it's an original," Van Devanter said, never taking his eyes off the images.
His wife found information on the artist and called him to the computer.
"We pulled it up," he told the woman who later declined to give her name, citing security concerns. "The date is 1597. It's worth $800 to $900."
Lyn Ganschinietz, director of government affairs for Cox Communications Inc., brought in a stack of letters written by a Civil War relative, Pvt. John Smith of an Illinois volunteer group, Van Devanter read aloud from one letter about the routine of camp life.
"If they were Southern, they'd be worth a lot more," he said, as the audience chuckled. "Yankee letters are not worth as much."
He explained that Northern war documents were far more common than those of the Confederacy because humidity common to the South destroyed many paper records.
"A war-era copy of the New York Times would be worth $10, but [a newspaper] from Norfolk or Vicksburg would go for $150," he said.
"We did have some Confederates in the family," Ganschinietz said, flashing a tintype of three men in Southern uniforms. Van Devanter was amused, and when she held out the photograph, he pretended to study it closely.
"They look a little gray to me," he joked as the audience laughed. By gray, he meant the gray uniforms of the Confederacy, but because the print was a muddled black and white, any soldier of the North or South would appear to be wearing gray.
He told her that the shorter letters were worth $75 to $125 and that a four- to five-page letter would be valued at $125. Then Ganschinietz pulled out a diary that was made of odd pieces of paper and had been written in the Confederate prison in Andersonville, Ga., where thousands of prisoners of war died from starvation and exposure.
"Oh my," the appraiser said, reaching for a magnifying glass. "This is quite nice, isn't it?"
After careful examination, he said it was worth "several hundred dollars."
Ganschinietz, who lives in Herndon, said she was pleased with the information even though she had no intention of selling anything.
"It will stay in our family forever," she said.