As appraiser Gary Piattoni held up two pieces of stale bread on a small plate, someone in the audience muttered, "Hmm … that's intriguing."
Piattoni peered across the room until the microphone was brought to the bread's owner, Florence Penne, 84, of Lisle. The chattering of seniors stopped when she began to speak.
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"My husband was a prisoner of war," Penne said. "The night before liberation, the Germans gave them pieces of bread, before they locked them all in and left. He figured they were going to be liberated the next morning so he didn't eat it."
Piattoni adjusted his glasses, and read a description that was taped onto the plate. "Lager Bread One Days Ration -- Issued April 16, 1945 Stalag XI B Harold Penne."
"I mean this is cool," Piattoni said. He paused for a moment. "But this is also one of those things where, what do you do (with it)."
Penne leaned forward and smiled as she spoke into the microphone. "You tell the children that when they say they don't want to eat their vegetables."
Piattoni recently hosted two Antiques and Heirlooms appraisal events at Oak Trace, a retirement community in Downers Grove. Nearly 100 Oak Trace residents and local seniors attended, and many attendees brought items to be appraised. Piattoni is an appraiser for "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS, and also owns a fine art and antiques appraisal and consulting company. Even after being in the arts and antiques business for 25 years, Piattoni said he never gets tired of hearing stories associated with the items he appraises.
"There's always something different," Piattoni said. "You never know what's going to come through the door. And oftentimes the story that's associated with it is as interesting as the item that's brought in. It's hard because I do this a lot to be truly surprised, but I'm always interested and touched by the stories that come with the items that are brought in."
Vernon Witt, 85, of Westchester brought a conductor, locomotive and photo of his entire train set to the appraisal event. While examining the locomotive, Piattoni was surprised that it was in such good condition. He valued the locomotive at $500 to $700, and estimated the train set's value at $1,000 to $2,000. Witt plans to give the train set to someone in his family, but will consider selling it if no family member wants it.
Witt said his stepfather bought the Lionel train set in 1935 from Marshall Field's. The trains and other items in the set are in excellent condition because, ironically, Witt was never allowed to touch or play with it as a child.
"I had a domineering stepfather," Witt said. "He would always say, 'You leave that alone.' "
Lillian Brown, 83, of Darien was prepared when Piattoni finally picked up her china head doll off a table of items seniors brought to get appraised. With the microphone in her hand, Brown read from a script she wrote.
"My mother-in-law received this doll on Dec. 31, 1894, when she was 5-years-old and her little brother was born," Brown said. "She used to recite a little poem that said, 'My dolly's name is Gracie, and my kitty's name is Ben.' "
Piattoni appraised the 117-year-old doll at $250 to $350. He pointed out that the doll's dress wasn't original, which did affect its value. Brown admitted the doll's original dress was missing when she inherited the item, but emphasized that the doll's underwear was 100 percent original.
"I'm never going to sell it," Brown said. "When I die I'm going to leave the doll to my oldest granddaughter."
Penne also will never sell the bread she got appraised. Piattoni valued the bread at $100 if information is included about Harold's service, but if Penne grouped the bread with information and other items from her husband's service, like his wooden dog tags, the group of items could sell for up to $1,000. But Penne's not interested in selling the bread, because it has become a conversation piece in her family, and reminds them of how much food they have to eat, she said.
Besides, the bread symbolizes what Penne's late husband Harold went through. He was a prisoner for four months at Stalag 11-B, a World War II German POW camp. The bread was made out of bruised rye grain, sliced sugar beets, tree flour, minced leaves and straw, and sometimes had bits of sand and glass in it. Penne said everybody held at the prison for more than 30 days developed ulcers.
As she held the plate of bread in her hands, Penne looked down at it. "When he came home, his family told me he was like a skeleton and was put in a hospital for six weeks," she said. "There was even an American hospital for POWs because their health was so poor."
Piattoni said Penne's bread is a great example of how an individual's story or connection to an item can sometimes be far more valuable than the object itself.
"Objects on their own can't tell you about themselves," Piattoni said. "But if you have a person who's connected to it and the story associated with it, like the story of the POW piece, that comes to life with that story. Without it you wouldn't even know how to start. So the story can be as important as the object. And sometimes the story is touching and moving, like it might be something that somebody had when they were very young; it might have been their only toy, or it might have been their only connection to a relative who died early."