Treasure: Mystery items are not what they seem

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

The last line in the email from Fred Sawyer was especially intriguing. “The attached was given to my wife by her father,” he wrote. “The item was something he acquired during WWII when he was in the Pacific Theater serving in the U.S. Army. He had no idea what it was or what it might be used for. Can you help us identify this almost 70-year mystery?”

Linda Sawyer’s quandary is common to many grown children with parents who served in World War II, many of whom have inherited things they can’t identify and aren’t sure what to do with. The couple gave independent appraiser Brian Thomczek a little more information at a recent appraisal session in Troy.

“We know what it is made of but not what it is,” Sawyer mentioned as Thomczek examined the items more closely. “I’ve never displayed them. My father never displayed them either, because he thought they were fragile and didn’t want to break them. “

The pair came in a rosewood box, something Thomczek said is a sure sign of quality. “The box is beautiful in its own right, with dovetailing, a linen lining and brass handles – all indicating that the piece is very well-made,” he pointed out. “It’s rosewood, something that the Chinese and Japanese used a lot.”

The box includes storage spaces designed to nestle the two small items into. Thomczek started by listing the items’ attributes. “Both have very nice little rosewood stands,” he told the Sawyers. “One has clear glass and is very cool but is not soapstone, as you may have originally thought. They both appear to be decorative glass.” The second item is a similar green material.

At the appraisal, Thomczek mulled over possible uses for the pair. He thought one was possibly used for pens or brushes, maybe a calligraphy set or some sort of set used for writing. Unfortunately, the fact that they’re not signed doesn’t shed any light on the subject or the maker. “The stands are nice, probably hand-carved, and they’re very decorative,” he told them. “It’s a very pretty set, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The appraiser did a little more digging after the session. Later research and consultation with an expert in Asian antiques revealed that they were not what he originally thought. “These may have been acquired in Japan, but they are actually Chinese,” he said of the pair. “I consulted with an Asian art expert and the two items date to the 18th to early 19th century, older than we think. They’re small vases, not items used for writing. The white one is made out of rock crystal, and the green of agate. The rosewood stands add to their overall value, which is estimated at $1,500-$2.500 for the pair.

The appraiser added that given the strong market for antique Chinese Decorative Art items, they could exceed even that number. He recommended they find a specialist if they want to sell them.

The Sawyers said they were happy to learn more. “We’ve wondered what they are,” said Linda. But knowing more won’t change their ultimate fate, Fred says. “When Linda’s dad gave them to her he made us promise we’d keep them in the family.”

Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.

About this item

Item: Chinese vase set

Owners: Linda and Fred Sawyer

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek, independent appraiser

Estimated value: $1,500-$2,500 and up