The other day, my uncle called and told me he’d been cleaning out his basement and was going to toss out a few things. But first, he wanted to know if I might want any of them to sell on eBay.
Past experience had taught me that first of all, because my uncle worked construction for so many years, he’d amassed a collection of interesting finds from old buildings he’d torn down, and secondly, people will buy just about anything on eBay. So I said, “Sure, bring all of it over!”
He arrived with an assortment of interesting items, the most interesting being a cast-iron fireplace grate from the late 1800s. It was rusted and sooty, but I could make out some interesting raised designs on it. One looked like a flying lion, another like an angel paddling a canoe, and another like a horse on steroids.
He put it out in the garage for me before he left. The next day, I studied it, wondering if the symbols on it represented a family crest or maybe some secret society. I went inside, grabbed my camera and headed back out to photograph the grate for eBay.
The rakes, shovels, trash cans, cardboard boxes and cobwebs in the garage didn’t exactly make a great background for the photo, so I decided I’d take the grate out to the driveway and photograph it there, enhanced by the splendor of nature (a.k.a poison ivy and dandelions). I bent to lift it. The only thing that moved was my sacroiliac. That’s when I learned that the grate, because it was made of cast iron, weighed about as much as my refrigerator.
I noticed it had little wheels on it, so I tried to push it out to the driveway. Inch by inch, I managed to get it to the doorway, then gave it a mighty shove outside. Because our driveway is dirt and there had been a recent downpour, it was muddy. The weight of the grate made it sink up to the tops of its wheels.
I took a few photos, including close-ups of the symbols, then went inside to put it up for auction on eBay. The problem was, I had no clue how to describe the grate or estimate what it might be worth. I searched the Internet for something similar, but found nothing. So I listed it for an opening bid of $25. I also stipulated that the person who won it would have to pick it up in person because there was no way I could ship it myself. In fact, I was pretty certain it was going to stay in the mud out in the driveway until someone arrived to lift it out.
Immediately, there was some local interest in the grate. Questions about its dimensions, weight and origin came from people in Goffstown, Concord and Massachusetts. A few people from other states wrote to ask me how much it would cost to ship the grate if they won.
“I have no idea,” I wrote back, “because I can’t even move it to weigh it.”
The grate finally sold for $27…to a woman in Michigan. She paid for it immediately, using Paypal.
“I’m so excited we won this!” her e-mail said. “We’re going to use it in our outdoor barbecue. We’ll come pick it up. I’ll be in touch with the details.”
I said to my husband, “They have to be crazy! They’re going to spend about a thousand dollars on gas and tolls to come get a $27 grate?”
He looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “Hmmm…you think they know something about that grate we don’t? Maybe it’s like one of those items on Antiques Roadshow, where something that looks old and rusty turns out to be worth a hundred thousand dollars!”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I mean, she said they’re going to put it in their barbecue. They wouldn’t be grilling hot dogs on a valuable antique, would they?”
The woman called the next morning and told me that two of her friends were heading up to Maine on vacation, so they would pick up the grate for her. She said they would call me when they arrived in New Hampshire.
A couple mornings later, I awoke to find a message on the answering machine.
“Hi!” the voice said. “We’re on 495 in Massachusetts and should be arriving at your house within an hour or so to pick up the grate. See you then!”
The problem was, the message had been left on the machine over three hours earlier. Although I was still in my pajamas and my hair was in curlers, I rushed out to the driveway, hoping I wouldn’t find the people still sitting there waiting for me. And if they were there, I also hoped my appearance wouldn’t scare them away.
There was no sign of them…or the grate.
“Well, I guess they found our house OK and picked up the grate in the driveway,” I said to my husband when I came back inside.
“Either that, or some antique dealer who’s an expert on old grates saw it and took it,” he said.
I’m still curious about what the grate actually was worth. With my luck, I’ll see it on the Antiques Roadshow in a few months and the appraiser will be telling some guy it’s a one-of-a-kind grate that was made especially for a fireplace in Buckingham Palace and it’s worth $1 million…and maybe even more, if he scrapes off the hot-dog and hamburger grease.