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Antique appraiser is knowledgeable ... and funny

Steve Wesely examines a men's swimsuit that Rose Mielke said her father used to wear in the 1930s while Randy Sarvella looks on. Dana Sanders/Pine Journal1 / 4
Appraiser and auctioneer Steve Wesely has volunteered his services for the antique appraisals in Moose Lake for 16 years.2 / 4
All are welcome to bring up to two items to each Antique Appraisals held at 1 p.m. the first Tuesday of the month, February through November. A donation of $2 per person is always appreciated and there is no charge for Moose Lake Historical Society members. Visit for more.3 / 4
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About 30 people packed the April 2 antique appraisals at the Moose Lake Depot & Fires of 1918 Museum as Rose Mielke laid a one-piece tank swimsuit that looked like a dress on the table up front. The deep red wool swimsuit was the length of a mini-skirt and had built-in shorts underneath.

No, it wasn't an early women's swimsuit. It was the men's swimsuit her dad wore in the 1930s before he was married. Mielke remembered her dad telling her that he went swimming in a creek east of Willow River.

Others at the Antique Appraisals event chuckled as one woman in the audience shared her memory of jumping in to Lake Superior wearing a wool swimsuit. The suit was so heavy it stayed at the bottom of the lake when she stood up.

Appraiser and auctioneer Steve Wesely admired the good condition of the suit and with great pleasure told Mielke that the swimsuit was worth about $250.

"Steve is very good at appraising," Mielke said. "He's had some stories. He's been in the antique business for a long time."

There were a lot of regular attendees there, as well as some new folks who had just learned of the event. People come from about a 50-mile radius.

"It's a very popular thing that has been going on for a long time," said Natalie Frohrip, executive director of the Moose Lake Area Historical Society, which hosts the monthly event.

Wesely has volunteered his services for the antique appraisals for about 16 years. He not only had a familiarity with most of the items that people brought in that day, but with a lot of the people who attended. Wesely laughed and joked with Rose and others in the room throughout the appraisals.

"I like his approach," said another regular, Beth Walters. "He's humorous at the same time [he's appraising items]. He's very easy to talk with and have fun with."

That approach matches Wesely's first rule on collecting in general: "Kind of the dos-and-don'ts of collecting -- collect something that you enjoy, something you can afford, and don't collect for investment."

He also points out the practical constraints to collecting.

"If you live in an apartment, you can't be collecting steamer trunks, but you can be collecting spoons, or thimbles, political ribbons, watches, things like that."

Wesely grew up in St. Charles, Ill., and he thinks that having his first apartment above an antique shop may have gotten him interested in antiques.

"I started collecting when I was 18 -- black and white photographs of World War II," Wesely said.

His interest in Americana (items that relate to the history, geography, folklore and culture of the United States) also began early because of an item he spotted at the house of a girl he dated in high school. It was an early 1950s 10-cent Coca-Cola machine. He told her to let him know if they ever wanted to get rid of it. A few years later, when her parents were going through a divorce, she told Wesely he could have it. It's still one of his prized possessions.

"My interests now are so spread out," said Wesely, "from pottery to clocks, to arts and crafts furniture to Americana."

His wife, Lisa, also collects and knows what to look for at garage sales and second-hand stores. Right now she is decorating a whole room in shabby chic.

"What kicked everything into gear was we bought a house that was built in 1913," Wesely said.

They were the second owners and the previous owner left a lot of interesting things. They lived in the house from 1987 to 1991.

Wesely's increasing passion for antiques led him to open his own shop, Canal Park Antiques, when they moved to Duluth in 1991.He'd also buy and sell at flea markets and attend auctions on the weekends.

"I'd go to auctions to buy for my shop, and I thought: 'Hmmm, I'm a ham, I can do that [be an auctioneer].'"

Auctioneering can be a very difficult business to get into. Wesely remembered that at that time about 92 percent of everyone who went to auctioneering school never conducted an auction. Understandably, not many people would hire an auctioneer who had never done an auction. Wesely believes owning an antiques shop gave him an edge. A woman came into his shop and asked him if he'd conduct an auction for her, and she didn't know it was his first auction.

"It was very successful," said Wesely. "I'll never forget it. From that one, I picked up two auctions and then it snowballed. I did 22 auctions and then I went to auctioneering school."

When the auction business took off, Wesely closed the two-year-old antique store. Now 50 percent of his business, Cresent Auctioneering, is from auctions and 50 percent is from appraisals.

After 20-plus years in the appraisal and auction business, Wesely knows the value of most of the items he comes across and he knows the history behind a lot of the items too.

"He's very knowledgeable, and if he doesn't know something, he'll tell people he doesn't know," said Ross Anderson, organizer of the monthly antique appraisals for the last 12 years. Anderson writes notes about the items brought in and takes photos of them for publishing in the Historical Society's newsletter and website ( He and Frohrip have also compiled descriptions and photos of the "Stars of the Show" from each month in a scrapbook. The scrapbook was very popular with visitors to the Historical Society's booth at the Carlton County Fair.

Anderson remembers a woman who brought in four glass pieces one month and told Wesely that she almost threw one of them in the garbage on her way because she didn't think it looked valuable. However, Steve recognized it as a very special turn-of-the-century glass vase worth $250.

According to Wesely, one to two items per year from the monthly antique appraisals would make it on to the popular PBS "Antiques Roadshow."

"I would say half the time when I do these," said Wesely, "there's always something where I go 'Wow, that's cool,' you know?"

The most valuable item ever brought in was a 3-by-5-inch hand-painted portrait of a man. Wesely had seen similar paintings before and knew that in the 1700s and 1800s -- prior to photography -- artists would travel from town to town and hand-paint portraits for people who could afford them. He could tell that the artist for this painting was exceptional.

"This particular portrait was like 'wow,' it was just really something, really something," Wesely said. He advised the owner to sell it through Christies or Sotheby's, which could bring up to $30,000.

Wesele appreciates the various aspects of each antique from its condition to the craftsmanship or artistic talent represented, but he's also fascinated with the historical significance of each item, which often lends to its interest and value.

"I can tell you incredible stories of things I have found, things that would just blow your mind, good and bad," he said.

The April "Stars of the Show" included a 1930s man's red wool swimsuit worth $250, a pocket watch and a toy washing machine.

"I appreciate seeing what others bring," said Walters, "because it's interesting to see what they found in their homes from their parents and grandparents."

Wesely figures that people sell about 15 percent of the items he appraises. The rest they keep because it belonged to a family member.

Anderson said he became interested in antiquing after an aunt and uncle celebrated a golden anniversary and gave him an American Fostoria glass plate. He now has 250 pieces of the pattern introduced in 1915, most of which he found at antique shops and garage sales. As a result, Anderson has learned a lot about fine glass and Wesely can get his input when appraising


Wesely uses the Internet to do research and buy and sell items, but he sees the downsides of technology, too, when people just go on eBay instead of going to antique shops or flea markets. "People who have collected nowadays, they've taken the hunt out of it, which is sad. To be in the hunt was always the best part. And a lot of the times the hunt was hunting for something you didn't even know you were hunting for ... all of a sudden you see it."

Wesely explained that eBay and similar sites have taken a good portion of antiques that are shippable and lowered their value because there's so much available. As well, there are reproductions at stores like Target people will buy instead.

On the other hand, Wesely advises people to sell certain valuable items through eBay where bidding will get top dollar. He knew someone who was considering selling a train set for $200 but Wesely was able to sell it for the person on eBay for $2,400. He sold a fishing rod on the website for another person and although it sat at $1,600 for a while, it sold for more than $5,000 at the last second.

Smartphones have changed things, too, as people can now research an item on the spot at a flea market or antique store before they purchase it. Again, Wesely thinks that it takes some of the fun out of it, but he also encourages people to educate themselves and buy the best quality they can afford.

Other inexpensive technology today includes gold and diamond testers for $30 each. A gold tester can determine if something is gold or gold plated, but it doesn't provide the number of carats.

Wesely thinks the primary reason to purchase a collector's item is because you like it, not because of its value, and that knowing the true value could change your attitude towards it. For example, a person might find out that a painting they have and like is worth $10,000, and from then on they may think of it as a $10,000 painting instead of just a nice painting.

"The trends are changing so much," Wesely said. "The stuff that is hot nowadays is 1950s, '60s, '70s." He said Melmac dishes are one example: a set of nesting bowls purchased new for about $8.99 then is worth at least $150 now. Also popular from that era are toys, glassware, pottery and dolls.

Antiques may seem old and dull to some people, but crossing paths with Wesely will probably change that. His historical insights, stories, tips and enthusiasm send a person searching through their closets and attics for treasures they thought were junk or may increase an appreciation for something that already sits on display.

Either way, he'll probably make you laugh.