Hired to assess the value of broken and missing antiques following a suspicious burglary at a Virginia manor house, intrepid appraiser and amateur sleuth Sterling Glass finds that her job is more complicated than she’d anticipated. The antiques, she realizes, are not always what they seem: some are worth tens of thousands, others are well-done replicas.
Whether the well-traveled and well-heeled couple who once owned Wynderly could have been trafficking in fakes is what Sterling must unravel from the secret rooms, hidden treasures, uncovered diaries, and convoluted trail of paperwork and provenance. As our sharp-witted heroine sifts through details doled out by the museum's curators, board members, and the town's local residents, she discovers that objects, unlike people, do not lie.
The Big Steal is a delightful mystery that enhances readers' antiques acumen and provides an easy guide to identifying the most popular styles and periods in an illustrated appendix.
About the Author
Emyl Jenkins is a longtime antiques appraiser. She has worked at two auction houses and has written numerous books and articles on antiques, as well as a syndicated column. She is the author of Emyl Jenkins’ Appraisal Book, Emyl Jenkins’ Southern Christmas, The Book of American Traditions, and From Storebought to Homemade, among others. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
The Big StealA STERLING GLASS MYSTERY
By Emyl Jenkins
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2008 Emyl Jenkins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDear Antiques Expert: My family has always prized a green and yellow pottery Tang horse given to our grandfather by an official of the Indonesian government in the 1950s. Could it really be valuable, or is its worth just a family myth? Ever since grave robbers and archaeologists began unearthing the colorful pottery horses buried in the tombs of imperial rulers and wealthy Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), collectors have coveted them. But reproduction Tang horses have also been around for generations. Though an expert will have to determine your horse's age and origin, if it is authentic and in good condition, then its value could be many thousands of dollars. In 2003, a pair of extraordinarily rare Tang horses sold for $1.57 million.
There I was, shivering from head to toe, searching for family pictures and records left behind by Mazie and Hoyt Wyndfield. They hadn't had any children of their own to sort through their things after their deaths several years ago, which partly explains why, in the dead of winter, I was up in the attic of this place called Wynderly, digging through their lives. Once Wynderly had been a gracious home. Now it was a museum teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
Unlike the stately eighteenth-century Georgian plantations Virginia is known for, Wynderly was a sprawling place, reminiscent of a French chateau crossed with an English manor house. Rooms and wings jutted out here and there, as if some tipsy architect had thrown his plans up in the air and built rooms wherever the blueprints had landed. With its peaked turrets and slanting gables, soaring towers and stone ledges, Wynderly's message was loud and clear: Look at me. This is how rich we are; how rich are you?
Its vast attic, so large it could house three families with room to spare, mirrored the helter-skelter, multilayered house beneath. Every inch was filled with furniture, garden ornaments, boxes, books, paintings, trunks. I had begun with the boxes and trunks.
The first two I opened were filled with beautiful vintage clothing, which brought to mind the question about a 1950s Christian Dior evening dress I'd recently answered in my syndicated antiques column. But there was no time to think about that now, or to finger the lace negligees and slinky satin gowns. I was searching for papers, receipts, diaries - anything that would tell me more about the opulent objects in the house below.
It had started when Matt Yardley asked if I was available to take on an appraisal in Orange County. My brain had zipped into overdrive. Orange County, California, in the middle of February? Who wouldn't jump at the chance? With my son Ketch and daughter Lily now grown, and without a husband to tend to, I could close the door and walk out with a clear conscience.
Anyway I liked being able to say yes to Matt. Ever since I'd met him when working for Babson and Michael, the New York insurance company, I had hoped he'd send another job my way. It was only after I said yes that I bothered to ask questions. That's when I learned he was speaking of Orange County, Virginia, a three-plus-hour drive down lonely back roads, instead of a five- or six-hour flight from my home in Leemont, Virginia. But it was too late. I had given my word.
There had been an unsolved burglary at Wynderly, and some items left behind had been broken during the theft. But because there were no signs of a break-in, and the police had no obvious suspects, a serious cloud hung over the whole situation. In addition, the most recent appraisal of the items at Wynderly was over twenty years old and totally out of date.
"The question is whether or not we should pay the full amount they're asking for the damaged and missing items," Matt had said. He was right to be cautious. As with stocks and bonds, the value of antiques fluctuates over time. Matt wanted me to assess the current value of the broken pieces and then to see what I could find out about the stolen objects. But it wasn't until my second day at Wynderly that I was able to escape the clutches of the museum's curator, Michelle Hendrix, for time alone in the attic.
I put the boxes of clothing aside and reached for a trunk. I was lifting out a photograph album when a picture fell from between its pages. Picking it up, I noticed faint writing on the back: "Mazie and Hoyt. Wynderly. Spring 1924."
Mazie's jet-black hair was pulled straight back at the nape of her long, pearl-white neck, which appeared even paler in the black and white picture. Hoyt Wyndfield wore a crisp linen jacket, white shoes, and fully pleated pants held up high by a shiny dark belt. Wynderly, towering behind them, had finally been completed. Hoyt and Mazie held hands, yet stood apart, as if to give the camera a wider, clearer shot of their home. Though scaffolding was still in place and muddy earth was mounded high around its foundation, I could almost feel their love for the place.
Matt Yardley had told me the Wyndfields named the house Wynderly after themselves and the windblown hills at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia where it was built. The name seemed perfect; it made me think of Biltmore, Stan Hewett, and San Simeon - other houses built by that rarified generation with the money, style, and taste to erect monuments to themselves. Their owners had traveled the world over and returned home with treasures to fill every high-ceilinged room.
Wynderly and its objects had survived the ravages of time, but Hoyt and Mazie's fortune had not. With the fate of the house and its objects in doubt, Matt Yardley knew to be suspicious of the validity of the insurance claim. I had been at Wynderly for only a day and a half, and I was beginning to have a few questions of my own.
Good appraisers are, by nature, detectives. I've always said it's because we see so many fakes and frauds - both the inanimate and the two-legged variety - that we never take anything, or anyone, at face value. Once upon a time I was as innocent as the next person. I loved antiques for all the right reasons - beauty, craftsmanship, and especially the memories our treasures hold.
Then I learned how some corrupt silversmith had fused eighteenth-century English hallmarks on the bottoms of Colonial Williamsburg reproduction silver pitchers, and how Granny's beautiful eighteenth-century console table had really been made by a sly forger in the 1920s, not Mr. Chippendale himself. It had forever changed the way I looked at everything.
During my first tour of Wynderly, a couple of pieces sent up red flags, like when I saw the Tang horses. Something about them wasn't right.
Authentic seventh- or eighth-century pottery horses made in China as tomb accessories are rare indeed, as is the pocketbook that can afford one. And over the years I'd been shown two or three dozen Tang horses thought by their owners to be the real thing worth tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. But instead of being several centuries old, their horses were no more than fifty or a hundred years old, and seldom worth more than a couple hundred dollars.
Wynderly's deep green horses, their heads bowed and their tails arched, had instantly given me pause. It didn't make sense. Wynderly had been open to the public for years. Every publication from Art & Antiques to Southern Accents was constantly looking for fresh material for their pages, so why was it that, outside of Virginia, few people had even heard of Wynderly?
I was beginning to suspect that those horses, along with other pieces, might teeter between truth and myth, honesty and deception. I could hardly wait to start my own investigations. Trouble was, Michelle Hendrix had been dogging my every step. And like the Tang horses, she, too, was proving to be perplexing.
I had thought that since we'd be working together, we would be helpful to each other. Instead, though Michelle never left my side, she seemed to purposely avoid answering my questions about Wynderly's antiques. I had begun to think I could learn more on my own.
I shivered, partly from the biting cold, and partly from my unexplainable, but very real, queasy feelings about the whole situation. I tried telling myself that damp, creepy old houses, especially those set back in dark country woods, can give off eerie vibes. I thought of Hansel and Gretel. Remembering my childish fright I chuckled. Why, it was nothing more than Wynderly itself that was giving me the sense that something was amiss.
Feeling better, I stared hard at the photograph of Mazie and Hoyt as if hoping it would speak to me.
We can never go back again, that much is certain, Mother had told me the day we closed up her home, some months after my father died.
Trying to make light of the heartbreaking moment, I had said, "I think Daphne du Maurier said it first, Mother. In Rebecca."
I tried to imagine Hoyt and Mazie's lives during that time when ladies wore picture hats to tea parties and gentlemen dressed for dinner. What dreams they must have dreamed as they watched their house rise from its stone foundation to its magnificent completion. And all the stuff in it? Chances were the Wyndfields, like scores of my clients, had simply met up with a few fast-talking antiques wheeler-dealers and fallen for their spiels.
I kept thinking about those Tang horses. Add in Michelle Hendrix's puzzling demeanor and the eerie aura surrounding the house ... In no time, uneasy feelings had crept back into my head. What I needed was a delete button in my brain like the one on my computer.
Get a grip, Sterling, I told myself. This isn't one of those novels about art theft or jewelry heists; this is life. Real life.
I'd been bent over so long, I needed to get my circulation going again - to clear my mind, if nothing else. I stood, only to stumble over a raised beam that blended into the pine floor's shadowy grain. I lurched forward and instinctively reached out to grab something before I hit the wall in front of me. A tower of boxes moved under my momentum, and together we landed in a heap on the floor.
The plank beneath my feet had moved, or at least that's the way it felt. Instead of falling forward, my body twisted and first my hip, then my shoulder, took the impact of the fall.
The faint lightbulb dangling from the attic ceiling had flickered, then gone out when I fell. A small casement window was nearby, but afternoon clouds had settled in. Crawling forward, I mentally kicked myself for not bringing in the flashlight I kept in my car for just such situations.
No question about it. One of the wide floorboards had sunk at least half, maybe even three-quarters of an inch below the boards on each side of it. I patted the floor around me. My hand hit an obstruction. The beam I had stumbled over was definitely jutting up through the floor. It was probably part of a high-vaulted ceiling I'd seen on my tour of the house.
I pushed on the sunken board in hopes it might pop back in place. When I did, the wall I had barely avoided hitting head-on creaked ever so slightly. My hands went wet and my throat dry. I swallowed hard and pressed the board again, harder this time. There was no mistaking the connection between the movement of the displaced piece of flooring and the low creaking coming from what looked like just another wall - except it was paneled, not unfinished the way other parts of the attic were. Maybe the plan had been to build a closet or a maid's room, but they never got around to doing it.
As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I set about restacking the fallen boxes, one of which had broken open. Strewn across the floor were sheets of dry onionskin paper held together by rusty paper clips and straight pins. Official-looking ledger pages were mixed in with handwritten receipts, as were several small books.
Enough late afternoon light was trickling through the windows so I could make out the larger lettering on some of the receipts. I gathered a handful and began sifting through them. "Société anonyme au capital de 250.000 Francs. Invoice. Nürnberg. American Consulate. Hong Kong. Customs Broker. Saaz."
That one caught my attention. Saaz? I moved the paper back and forth until I could make out the words written long ago in purple ink, but that now had faded to a light lavender.
1 sugar box, jeweled, 2200. 1 silver vessel, 600. 12 spoons. 2 little tea spoons.
I was musing over the quaint description "little," when I noticed no prices were cited for the spoons. I looked back at the stationery's letterhead. July 1927 was scribbled at the top right hand corner. Embossed on the center of the page was a red coat of arms and, beneath that, in royal blue letters, the name Franz Bauer. A third line ran across the width of the page. Saaz - New York - Rio de Janeiro. But where was Saaz? Germany, perhaps? Poland?
Again I shifted the paper to get it in a better light when a straight pin holding a handwritten note attached to the back pricked my finger. I turned the page over and read: "To whom it may concern, these spoons are genuine antiquities and over a hundred years old and the work of Saaz handicraft and passed on in possession of families of this region of Bohemia and sold privately."
Well, that answered one question. Saaz, Bohemia, now Saaz, Czech Republic, I surmised. But the handwritten explanation struck me as peculiar. Why would a merchant have included the spoons on his list? To get them past customs was all I could think of. But no price? I came up empty.
Still, something about these papers stored - or had they been hidden? - in the attic, rather than being on file in the curator's office, seemed strange. Then again, in a house as large as this one and with so much in it, the chances were great that things would be scattered all about. I had had a gut feeling about the attic, and Michelle had been surprisingly agreeable. "Who knows what's up there," she'd said offhandedly. "Just see what you can find."
Many an attic has held great treasures. Why every four or five months there's breaking news that a heretofore unknown composition by Beethoven, a manuscript by Goethe, a long lost old master painting, or some such discovery has turned up hidden beneath often walked-by shadows. In Virginia the original eighteenth-century plans for Francis Lightfoot Lee's Menokin plantation were found in the attic of a house several miles away. I was wondering how much more might be up here.
"It's almost three thirty."
My heart leapt.
Michelle Hendrix loomed above me. She looked no different in the gloomy shadows of the attic than she had in the daylight when I had arrived at Wynderly. A tall woman probably in her mid-thirties, she had no sparkle.
"I had no idea," I said, attempting to recover, while also trying to slip the papers onto the floor without her noticing. "I didn't hear you."
"Dr. Houseman expects board meetings to start on time." Michelle crossed her arms in front of her and stepped closer. "Finding anything?" she asked.
"Board meeting?" I replied.
"Oh, did I forget to tell you yesterday? Alfred Houseman, you know, the chairman of the Wynderly Foundation board ... anyway, he's called a meeting for this afternoon."
I struggled to my feet. Michelle Hendrix didn't budge.
"So, finding anything?" she asked again.
"Too early to be sure." I said offhandedly.
Too many questions were swimming around in my head for me to share my findings. I gave her a noncommittal shrug. "What about you? Have you had a productive afternoon?"
"Not after Houseman blew in earlier than I had expected. He has a way of doing that." She rolled her eyes. "I was back in my office when he showed up, a full half an hour early. Didn't bother to call ahead either." She made a low growling sound. "That man thinks he owns this place."
Michelle pointed to her watch. "You'd better hurry. Houseman doesn't allow for lateness."
What to do? I swooped up the papers with every intention of putting them in the open box. Michelle had started toward the steps. With her back turned, did I dare slip some of them in the zip-up binder I had with me so I could take notes? Just one or two, maybe.
Opportunity makes the thief, Mother scolded. One thief in this place is enough.
I hesitated, but only momentarily. What's an appraiser to do?
Excerpted from The Big Steal by Emyl Jenkins Copyright © 2008 by Emyl Jenkins. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"Emyl Jenkins does it again! Both entertaining and enlightening, The Big Steal introduces us to the fascinating world of antiques and the people who collect them, forge them, and use them for nefarious purposes. Throw in a dash of danger, a hint of romance, and a pinch of international intrigue, and you have the perfect book to settle down with on a lazy afternoon." —Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants
"Emyl Jenkins does it again! Both entertaining and enlightening, The Big Steal introduces us to the fascinating world of antiques and the people who collect them, forge them, and use them for nefarious purposes. Throw in a dash of danger, a hint of romance, and a pinch of international intrigue, and you have the perfect book to settle down with on a lazy afternoon."-Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Well-written mystery with fascinating details about the antiques business. Jenkins, who is in real life an antiques expert, begins each chapter with a newspaper column about unusual antiques from her protagonist, Sterling Glass. Readers will have fun seeing how she then works that same type of antique into the chapter that follows. The mystery was well-crafted and this is the second installment in a series. Unfortunately at the time of this review, the first book was not available as a Nook book. Since I hadn't read the first book, I had to work around some of the details dropped about Sterling's relationships that were not fully explained, but it wasn't so bothersome that I couldn't enjoy the book. It's been almost three years since The Big Steal was published, so here's hoping there is another installment coming one of these days.
"Good appraisers are, by nature, detectives," explains Sterling Glass in her second appearance as a sleuth and crime solver in THE BIG STEAL (Algonquin 2009). "I've always said it's because we see so many fakes and frauds-both the inanimate and the two-legged variety-that we never take anything, or anyone, at face value." With that mindset, Sterling starts her investigation in the attic of Wynderly, a historic Virginia house museum that has been robbed and vandalized. Hired by an insurance company to assess the current value of the broken objects and to see what she could find out about the stolen ones, she almost immediately discovers that many of the antiques in the mansion are forgeries. Inevitably, she is drawn into the suspicious behavior of the museum's curator who knows nothing about antiques and a Board with its own agenda. Had the wealthy Wyndfields who built the mansion a century earlier been taken advantage of by unscrupulous dealers? Or were the fakes a more recent substitution by a curator or board member? When Sterling literally stumbles into a secret room in the attic, she finds a curious stash of identical antique porcelain dogs. And wasn't "dogs" the last word spoken on the deathbed of Mazie Wyndfield, the mansion's original mistress who hated dogs? In the course of her investigation, Sterling manages to solve a historic mystery as well as the present-day robbery. Author Emyl Jenkins was an appraiser and as such, published a number of best-selling nonfiction books on antiques and home decorating in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2007 she turned her talents to fiction with her first Sterling Glass mystery, STEALING WITH STYLE. Each chapter starts with a short, seemingly random Q&A on antiques that quickly ties into the plot. Both books are fun to read, with stories set in rural Virginia. They are not what I call "cozies" but there is little violence. Rather the mystery is the focus . . . and the antiques.
Did you enjoy Nancy Drew when you were young? Then you will enjoy reading the Big Steal. And, you will learn about antiques at the same time.
This is the second book in the Sterling Glass series by antique expert Emyl Jenkins. (I missed the first one.) Sterling is an antiques appraiser who is called to check out the losses from a theft at a Virginia house museum called Wynderly. Naturally, things don't quite add up when she gets there, and she must make them tally. Jenkins includes a question/answer format about an antique at the beginning of each chapter, and then that antique will appear in the chapter. A short guide to antiques is included at the end of the book. This is a nice change from the recipes that seem to appear at the end of almost every mystery these days. I don't think the series has quite hit its stride yet, but it certainly shows great potential. If you want a pleasant read that's just a little different from the ordinary, I would recommend this book.
I haven¿t read the first Sterling Glass novel, but it wasn¿t necessary. You miss a little of the background between Sterling and her two love interests, but it doesn¿t take much to catch on. She gets a lot more than she bargained for when she accepts a job appraising the value of some antiques following a robbery. In fact, she does very little appraising, becoming more caught up in the politics of the foundation that owns the home and the intricacies of the unusual home itself. Sterling also writes a column where she answers questions about antiques, and there¿s a question and answer at the start of each column. I felt like I learned quite a bit about antiques just by reading those questions. The mystery itself is almost unnecessarily complex, and there¿s a twist of sort at the end that I didn¿t real understand the purpose of. Regardless, I liked the story, and I would definitely read the first book (and any subsequent). But I have to confess... I found the name 'Sterling Glass' *way* too kitschy.
I normally enjoy a nice cozy, but this one just did not appeal. I expected to enjoy it, because I also like antiques, but it just didn't flow well. I don't think I'll be reading any more of this series.