Much as I love the concept of Antiques Roadshow, there’s something very reductive about a complete stranger telling you that your treasured heirloom is worth about $200, even though you thought (and hoped) it was worth thousands. We all know that the value of an object is more than its price tag.
For example, Steve Shanesy, senior editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine, recently asked on the magazine’s blog whether he should “cut up” a Thos. Moser dining table. He is downsizing and now has no place in his new home for a table bought many years ago from a very highly-regarded furniture maker. His plan is to cut off each end of the table and create a drop-leaf table that will fit into his house. As you would guess, the comments on his plan are about evenly split between “heck no! you’ll destroy its value!” and “it’s your table, so do whatever the heck you want with it!” Somehow, neither of these answers gets at the real question of the table’s value.
It’s not merely a question of sentimental value, either. “Sentimental” value is the measure of emotional attachment we have to an object regardless of its other features. Of course Shanesy has an emotional attachment to this table or he wouldn’t have asked the question in the first place. His children have grown up eating around this table, so his family’s history and identity is wrapped up with it. However, he also knows that as a well-made piece of furniture, the table has intrinsic value. It is sturdy, attractive, and perfectly suited for eating on, except that it does not fit into his current living space. If he were to modify the table so that it again becomes a useful and used object, then he has enhanced its value as a table. A piece of furniture is most honored in being well used for its intended purpose.
This distinction between monetary value, sentimental value, and intrinsic value came home to me this week when my young daughter dropped and broke a large chunk off of a soft Arkansas sharpening stone that I inherited from my late grandfather. I was annoyed at having to go buy a new stone, but I was saddened too. The stone had both intrinsic and sentimental value for me, and by using it carefully over the last few years, I felt that I was honoring both the stone and my grandfather. Now that the stone is broken, it has much less intrinsic value, but I’ll keep it around anyway because it’s still somewhat usable in its condition.
I have inherited only two other tools from my grandfather, a Stanley 110 block plane and a 1 1/4” paring chisel. The chisel is one of my favorite tools. The edges are perfectly shaped, and the handle is hooped, so I can either push it or pound on it. It holds an edge beautifully. It doesn’t look especially attractive, but it has great intrinsic value as a tool. I will continue to use it until I have sharpened it into a short butt chisel. Then I will hang it up on the wall as a reminder of what a good tool should be.
The block plane, on the other hand, is a piece of garbage. It has no adjustment mechanism, and the sole is so out of flat that it can’t take a shaving. At all. The only reason I haven’t thrown it into the nearest trash can is that it has sentimental value. It belonged to my grandfather (and likely caused him some frustration too), so it sits in a box with a few spare tool parts waiting for the day that I finally get up the gumption to toss it. As a tool, it has no intrinsic value whatsoever.
None of these three tools has significant monetary value. I can buy a functional replacement for any one of them for $25. Each of the tools has similar sentimental value, but I don’t value them equally at all. The difference is in their intrinsic value: how well each tool functions for its intended purpose, and not coincidentally, how much I am able to enjoy it as a tool in use.
So should Steve Shanesy modify his Moser dining table, even if he destroys its resale value by doing so? Yes, he should. A table is honored in being eaten on, and it is dishonored by being made to stand in the garage, no matter what price it will fetch on the vintage market. So long as he makes the modifications very carefully so as not to destroy its aesthetic value, he will restore the intrinsic value that the table has had for him.