Brian Witherell never knows for sure what’s going to come rolling through his Sacramento door.
It could be a 6-foot cigar store Indian, resplendent in its painted finery. It could be cast-iron lampposts that once lit San Francisco’s Market Street. It could be a table and chair fashioned from horn. Or it could be a longhorn steer’s preserved head.
Witherell does know his job as an antiques expert always will be interesting. He helps these unusual items on their journey, first discovering them, then guiding them to new owners.
“The fun thing about this business is you find things in people’s homes,” Witherell said, “and they have no idea what these things are.”
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Sacramento’s most famous antiques expert and history detective, Witherell is known to millions nationwide, thanks to PBS’ long-running “Antiques Roadshow.” He’s still a regular guest appraiser on the popular show, for which he’ll do hundreds of evaluations in one day.
This weekend, Witherell has been hosting some of the West’s top antiques vendors and fielding bids from around the globe during the annual Grass Valley Old West Antiques Show, which wraps up today at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. Brad and Brian Witherell recently took over this event, considered among the best showcases of American West antiques, memorabilia and artifacts. From cowboy chic to beer-making brewiana, patrons will find items at this show they’ve never seen anywhere else.
“My father lectured me against it,” Brian Witherell said of buying and producing the Old West Show, which was on the verge of going out of business. “He said it’s more work than we can take. He was right; it is too much work. But I’m glad we did it.”
Dad Brad started with Old West antiques auctions in the 1960s in the Bay Area. Passionate about early California and Gold Rush-era items, son Brian followed his father into the family business. In 1990, they relocated to Sacramento to take advantage of its centralized Northern California location.
“We made our name in Western Americana,” Brian Witherell said. “I love California history; that’s what gets my blood pumping. This (event) is a great opportunity to curate an important show. If not us, who?”
About 300 items featured at the Grass Valley show are part of a concurrent online auction, which continues though Thursday. Bids have steadily flowed in from buyers in Europe and Asia as well as throughout the United States. Many buyers make the trek to Grass Valley to see items personally.
“This is a destination show,” Witherell said during a private preview at his showroom. “People fly in from around the country.”
In the months leading up to this show, Witherell combed Northern California estates for one-of-a-kind treasures that he knew buyers would love. Everything he will auction passed through the Witherells’ Sacramento warehouses on its way to the gavel. Some items were easier to handle than others.
Take those lampposts, for instance: “The (hand-truck) operator said these are the heaviest things he’s ever delivered,” Witherell said. “If the iron wasn’t enough, the bases are filled with concrete.”
Made of cast iron, the 7-foot-tall lampposts, each about 600 pounds, originally stood in San Francisco in the 1880s, but they are no ordinary streetlights. Covered with gold leaf, they tell the story of early California.
“They’re emblematic of California and the Gold Rush and manifest destiny,” said Witherell, as he rubbed his hand over the raised images. “We have angels and gold miners, cattle and wagon trains, California bears and Indians, cougars and cowboys. They really tell a story.”
They also have their own history. Brad Witherell auctioned off these same lampposts in 1982. At some point, Eppie Johnson purchased them for one of his restaurants. They came to the auction along with other items from Johnson’s estate.
“We sold them once. Then we have this opportunity. Thirty-odd years later, they’re offered to us again,” Brian Witherell said.
Such examples of history seem priceless, but that’s where auctions come in; sale sets value. Although these lampposts would be at home in a museum, they may find their way into somebody’s man cave, or another restaurant.
This auction features other conversation-starters such as the horn-adorned furniture or a massive Wooten desk with more than a hundred drawers. Every item has a backstory and represents its own sliver of Old West history.
Among Witherell’s favorites are the gold quartz jewelry. Distinctively Californian, these pieces made rock-solid Gold Rush mementos into watch chains, tie pins or other wearable art. They’re still attractive to buyers; a heavy watch chain and fob has an estimated auction price of $5,000 to $10,000.
“I don’t know who came up with the concept, but they go way back,” he said. “An 1852 advertisement promised to pay 10 times the price of spot gold for veiny gold quartz. It was very collectible, even back then.”
While getting ready for the Grass Valley event, the Witherells are in the midst of modernizing their Sacramento showroom and work space, located off C Street in midtown. Shelves are full of random items, waiting for their sale and shipment. Duck decoys rest next to bronze statuettes. Lamps and hand-carved furniture stack up near vintage beer trays and racks of antique rifles. Little of it will stay put.
“Personally, I collect California stuff I find interesting that nobody else knows about,” Brian said.
An example is a large walnut-framed mirror in his new office. It was crafted in Sacramento and reflects the city’s history.
“It was made by Whittier Fuller Co.,” Witherall noted. “They were paper hangers and glass manufacturers who became Fuller paints. It’s the only piece I’ve ever seen by them. I paid way too much money for it, so I’ll keep it. It speaks to me about the experience.”
There’s the rub; the collector needs to sell in order to keep buying. “Usually, I collect mistakes,” he added with a smile. “I live with the things nobody else wanted (to buy). But I like them; that’s why I bought them in the first place.”