County fair organizers try to create a hometown version of the popular TV program Antiques Roadshow.
R. VanGorden Stedman could tell right away the rough wooden frame around the painting was probably about 100 years old.
The painting, of Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca, was done in the style of the 17th century Dutch Masters. It could only be authentic _ and really valuable _ if it was considerably older than the frame.
He pried away two nails in back of the frame and opened it up while its owner, Liselotte Garrett, stared intently.
"This is what we were looking for," Stedman said, examining the edge of the canvas. "You can see it had been laid down and stretched."
That meant it was re-framed. The irregular weave of the canvas meant the painting dated from before 1840. Though only an expert on that period's art could say with certainty whether the painting was a real treasure, Stedman said it seemed to be the work of a capable professional artist.
Garrett then asked the question that had been on her mind for years, one that had brought her to the tent at the Hernando County Fair, where Stedman was appraising antiques Tuesday afternoon.
"You think, then, that it's worth something," said Garrett, 76, of Masaryktown.
"Oh sure," Stedman replied, "probably at least $2,000 or $3,000."
The tent on the midway was full of people who wanted to know the answer to the same question Garrett had _ about costume jewelry, about fragments of the petticoat worn by Daniel Boone's wife, about a cast iron lawn jockey.
Becky Wing, the Hernando County Fair Association's secretary, suggested having the appraisals for the first time this year, after witnessing the popularity of the Antiques Roadshow. The PBS television show drew an overflow crowd to the Tampa Convention Center when it visited in June.
The appraisals, held Monday and Tuesday afternoons, were free with the $5 admission to the fair. They did exactly what the association had hoped, drawing crowds during what are usually the fair's slowest periods. About 100 people registered for appraisals Monday, despite the cold and rain, and about 200 registered Tuesday.
The company that performed the appraisals, Jeffrey Burchard & Associates of St. Petersburg, cannot buy the goods because of a potential conflict of interest, said Stedman, an independent consultant working for Burchard.
But it can act as a broker for the goods, and in fact had turned up several valuable items that it might handle. Among the prizes: a bat signed my all the members of the 1934 Detroit Tigers, who lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Some of the signatures were faded, and the bat was slightly chipped in places, but it could still bring about $5,000 to $7,000 from a collector, Stedman said.
Stedman, 34, whose parents and grandparents were antique dealers, has been working as an appraiser since he was 18 years old. He has learned the diplomatic terms to use when examining what is essentially junk.
"We do have certain catch phrases, such as "under $100,' or "under $25', or "of moderate value,' " Stedman said.
He had to use them fairly frequently, even when examining seemingly intriguing items.
The Boone petticoats might be of interest to a museum, he told Marilyn Malinski and Jodie Penne, Hudson twins who are direct descendents of Boone. But since the petticoat pieces had apparently been cut from the original so it could be divided among relatives, they had little market value.
Jim Bowen of Holiday showed Stedman a partially charred chair his relatives claimed was salvaged from the Chicago Fire in 1871.
One problem, Stedman said, was Bowen didn't have any documentation from a direct witness. Also, the chair appeared to be from the late Victorian Era, meaning it was built more than 20 years after the fire. If so, its blackened finish worked against it.
"Under $100," he said.