Ever wonder how Antiques Roadshow really works? How they pick who gets on TV? Whether the people on the show have fun? Whether the appraisers really know what they’re talking about?
As longtime fans, we’d always been curious about Roadshow. So when we were offered backstage passes for the show’s August 2009 taping in San Jose, and free rein to wander the set and talk to whomever we wanted, we jumped at the chance!
A total of 3,200 pairs of free tickets were issued for the 2009 San Jose Antiques Roadshow taping on August 15th (almost 30,000 applied). And during the course of the day some 75 appraisers evaluated almost 12,000 items. About 90 segments were filmed, of which only about half would later appear on-air.
Below is our in-depth coverage. Contributors to this report included Collectors Weekly staff members Ben Marks, Jessica Lewis, Maribeth Keane, and Dave Margulius. Thanks to the entire WGBH crew including Erika Denn and executive producer Marsha Bemko for giving us unfettered access to the set, both the day of and day before the event!
Also, don’t miss our interviews with Antiques Roadshow Executive Producer Marsha Bemko and with Roadshow Appraisers Riley Humler, Daile Kaplan, Wes Cowan, Reyne Haines, Rudy Franchi, and Christie Romero.
Friday: We Survey The Scene
By the time we arrive a little after 1PM, Exhibit Hall 1 has been divided into long, wide rows for the crowds that will descend in less than 24 hours. Guests (ticket holders) are instructed to bring their items to Antiques Roadshow during one of 10 different time slots throughout the day. Roadshow is not only the number-one program on PBS, with a weekly audience of 10-million viewers, it’s also an exercise in logistics and crowd control. The goal is to prevent a crush of humanity first thing in the morning.
Erika Denn from WGBH shows us around. We walk over to Exhibit Hall 2, where each guest will get a ticket for one of 25 collecting categories like Books & Manuscripts, Clocks & Watches, Collectibles and Jewelry. Paintings & Drawings, Denn tells us, is typically the most popular category.
We also get a look at the director’s truck, a high-def studio on wheels that’s been rolled right into the convention center so the show’s two directors can capture and organize the input of the numerous cameras that will be shooting. Next to the truck is a backstage area for the production crew, a rolling library of reference books to aid the appraisers, and a “Green Room,” where guests whose items have been selected for taping get make-up applied. Some 90 segments will be taped on Saturday, creating content for three episodes. Only about half of them will actually appear on TV.
In the center of Hall 3, false walls have been set up to create a brilliantly lit circular set. This is the Roadshow we’ve all seen on television, where the appraisers work, sitting at tables around the perimeter. The dimensions of the set are deliberately tight so the activity captured on film feels bustling, but not so cramped that guests can’t move through the set at a steady pace. It works because of the volunteers, 110 of them in all, who are on hand to guide guests to the right appraiser and keep the lines orderly.
As we walk around the set, a crew member places several high-intensity lamps on each table, one in front of each chair. Illuminating whatever a guest has brought in for appraisal is extremely important, but these lamps have an added feature—very low profiles so they won’t be in the way in case one of the show’s producers decides to stop by with a camera for what’s called an “over-the-shoulder” shot of an appraiser in action.
At the center of the open-ceilinged set, the show’s main cameras stand nobly like thoroughbred racehorses in the paddock. They’ll be operated by people like WGBH’s Bob Martin — he shot the first episode in 1997 and has been with the show for about a decade. There’s no hysteria, no one’s freaking out and yelling last-minute instructions to harried production assistants. These people are pros. They know just what to do to make sure all the show’s cameras, including the one with the 87-1 zoom that’s used for Roadshow close-up shots, are working perfectly.
The cameras sit in the middle of the set shooting out, so when one interview has concluded, the camera crew has only to turn its attention to the right or left to film the next segment, which will be waiting and ready to go.
The interview stations are where guests go to have a chat on camera with an appraiser. Only then will they learn what the appraiser believes their treasure is worth. Here’s the tough fact about that moment of truth: “We break a lot of hearts,” says WGBH’s Erika Denn. But given the high expectations that most guests bring with them to a taping, preventing disappointment is probably impossible.
Who decides what goes on TV? After getting a ticket for a specific category from a screener in Exhibit Hall 2, guests wait in another line to meet an appraiser. If that appraiser feels an item is worthy of taping, they must get a fellow appraiser to corroborate the initial assessment. Having secured a colleague’s backing, the appraiser must then flag down a roving producer to make their case.
In some respects the appraisers are competing with each other for air time. They, too, are looking for exposure. What many viewers may not appreciate is that appraisers on Antiques Roadshow are not paid for their time and trouble, not even transportation or hotel expenses. Participating in the Roadshow represents an investment for the appraisers, so the only way to recoup that investment is to get the publicity that comes with being seen by 10-million people on TV. However, if the number of bear hugs and warm handshakes we saw between appraisers is any indication, you get the sense there’s more collegiality on display than competition.
Meeting Marsha Bemko
Next we sit down for a chat with executive producer Marsha Bemko, who’s been with Antiques Roadshow since 1999. The author of Antiques Roadshow Behind the Scenes, due out in December of 2009, Bemko is as passionate about Roadshow as the appraisers are about their areas of expertise.
Naturally Bemko gets excited about the big-ticket items that the show happens upon — for example, the half-dozen six-figure items that were appraised earlier this year in Palm Springs. But for Bemko, Antiques Roadshow is not just a celebration of stuff. The best objects and guests are the ones that “tell a story,” as she puts it, whether it’s about a family’s history or a nation’s. “We’re smart reality television” she says. “If you watched a whole show and didn’t learn something, you must have had the audio turned off.”
A journalist by training (she was a producer for six years on Frontline), Bemko is a stickler for getting it right (“every sentence is fact-checked,” she says proudly, “we have a responsibility”). Her radar goes off, for example, when she hears an appraiser describe an attribute of an object with the word “always” rather than “usually” (when it comes to antiques and vintage objects, “always” is rarely the most accurate choice of words).
She also appears to love being surrounded by experts who really know their stuff. “The furniture appraisers can decide what they want to feature from across the room,” she says. Experience is the key. “There are no shortcuts to developing your eye,” says Bemko. “You have to look at a lot of objects.”
And boy, do the Roadshow appraisers look at objects. In fact, a lot of them have been doing it their whole lives. “Many of our appraisers are the children of dealers and collectors. They are people who have learned how to make a living at their passions.”
In the end, though, for Bemko, events like San Jose are mostly about the guest. Of her multiple goals for Saturday, “informing the guest” is the first. In the course of teaching a guest about the history of that chipped piece of Vaseline glass (what gives it its color, who made it, who used it, when this type of glass was popular, etc.), she also wants to be respectful of and sensitive to her guests’ high expectations, which she’s well aware her show cannot help but create.
“You can feel the hope our guests bring with them. It’s palpable. The look in their eye, it’s sweet. It’s a vulnerable moment for them.” Treating a guest like that with respect so that they feel like they have gained something, even if their family heirloom is not as valuable as they had hoped, just so happens to be the definition of great TV.
Meeting the appraisers
Antiques Roadshow appraisers typically arrive the day before the event, so we got to shoot the breeze with a few on Friday afternoon.
Ken Farmer, owner of Virginia-based auction house KFAuctions, talked about the value of appearing on Antiques Roadshow (he’s been on board from season one). “It took about four or five years for it to kick in for me,” he says of the early days. Then people started consigning objects to him and buying, partly based on his reputation as a Roadshow appraiser. “It gives you that PBS stamp of approval,” he says. “Everyone here is squeaky clean in their business dealings.”
But Farmer adds that the Roadshow’s sense of community with other appraisers is just as important to him. “I’ve made some very good friendships here,” he says, “like the kind you make when you are in college.” Plus, if you’re stumped about the provenance of a piece a guest has brought in, he says, another appraiser can often provide the answer. “If you can’t figure it out with all the minds in this room, I don’t know how you will ever figure it out.”
Tomorrow Farmer will be appraising Furniture, but sometimes they put him in Folk Art. “Everything goes to Folk Art,” he laughs. When he works at the Folk Art table, he sees things that aren’t folk art at all, but didn’t necessarily have another easily defined category.
Mike Gutierrez of Heritage Auction Galleries also arrives Friday. He tells us that earlier this season in Palm Springs, he got to interview the son of the president of the Rickenbacker guitar company. Rickenbacker became famous in the early 1960s when John Lennon of the Beatles made it his guitar of choice.
Gutierrez appraised a copy of a Meet the Beatles album that had been signed by all four Beatles in 1965, when the band was in Los Angeles for a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. The son had gone with his father to meet the band and deliver a Rickenbacker bass to Paul McCartney. Gutierrez appraised that signed album at $130,000 to $150,000. Would he find anything as amazing tomorrow? Like us, he’d have to wait to find out (hint: see photo at right).
Kathleen Bailey of Issaquah, Washington is the last appraiser we speak with on Friday. She’s been with the show almost from the beginning, and like Bemko, she’s extremely fond of the guests.
“Our hearts are with the people who are not necessarily collectors,” she says. “It brings us back to the feeling we all had when we started to collect.” Bailey has seen more than her share of Tiffany, Steuben, and Lalique, and she’s done well in her appraisal and estate-sale business. But for her, being around these objects, like being on the Roadshow, is more than dollars and cents. “It’s a passion for the appraisers, too,” she says. “It isn’t just a living.”
Saturday: Its Showtime!
The crowds have arrived, and the experience begins before the Collectors Weekly team even sets foot in the convention center. At 10am, in the parking lot, Ben is handed a free parking ticket by a man who was in the 8am Roadshow group and is already on his way home. Although his item wasn’t as valuable as he thought, he’s still in a generous mood.
Waiting in line to pay for parking, Jessica is surrounded by people holding their items close. She can sense their anticipation. One woman is gushing on her phone about how much she loves the show and how she went through all her stuff before deciding to bring a framed set of Woodstock tickets (this weekend is the 40th anniversary of the festival). “Maybe they’ll be worth something, or maybe they’re fake,” she says into her cell, “but at least I’ll know!”
On the street, people are unloading SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks. Some are muscling furniture and other large items onto dollies, others are carrying boxes of all sizes and descriptions. It’s a pilgrimage of possessions. In a few short hours, the owners of these unsigned paintings, antique lamps, and obscure decorative objects will know a little bit more about their things.
At the press table, we meet volunteer Lyn Johnson from KTEH, the San Jose public TV station. She’ll be our guide, and help us navigate the various lines, and also help us get the antique and vintage items we brought with us appraised.
Our first stop is to “get sorted,” which means getting a ticket to a specific appraiser table. The first person to screen our items is Ramona Hillier-O’Hara. Jessica holds up an Elks Club fob. “Jewelry,” says Hillier-O’Hara, handing Jessica a bookmark-shaped card. Ben has a Pogo animation cel. “Cel, that’s Collectibles,” she says, producing another card. Dave is lugging a heavy cardboard box filled with glass slides used at movie houses. Hillier-O’Hara pauses, but only for a second. “Okay, I’m going to send you to Collectibles, too.”
Inside Exhibit Hall 3, which had been virtually silent the day before, the din is a presence all its own. Around the circular set, people are standing in line (many have brought camping chairs) clutching their items. Some have rewrapped their pieces after sorting, but most have readied their pieces for the appraiser.
Inside the set, the energy is exhilarating. The appraisers are laughing, fiercely examining items, calling out to one another: “Hey, you gotta take a look at this!” The excitement is contagious and we quickly become wrapped up in the psychology of television, people with dreams, and family secrets being revealed.
The Jewelry table
Johnson leads us to Jewelry to see what we can learn about the Elks piece. As we wait, an appraiser named Barry Weber is talking to a colleague about a guest’s item. The conversation is mostly about what the guest may already know about the item, and whether they should pitch it to go on camera.
As Bemko told us the day before, the show’s dual goals include informing a guest about his or her item, as well as documenting the guest during what she called a “vulnerable” moment. If the guest knows too much, it doesn’t make for great TV. Weber knows this, and they want to be sure not to waste anyone’s time with a pitch that might get shot down.
Now it’s Jessica’s turn. She’s directed to Adam Patrick of A La Vieille Russie, Inc. The table he shares with Weber and three other jewelry appraisers is strewn with calculators, the occasional laptop, magnifying lights, and iPhones—the tools of the modern high-end antiques trade. There’s also a book, World Hallmarks, Volume One.
Patrick holds the Elks piece under a jeweler’s loupe as Jessica looks on. He starts to speak but then excuses himself to consult with a colleague, who is also in the middle of an appraisal. Is this the corroboration we’ve been hearing so much about? Is Jessica going to get on TV?
Returning to his seat, Patrick gets down to business. “We see these from time to time,” he says nonchalantly. “They’re fairly common.” The only way to get something like this would have been to be a fraternal member of the Elk’s. This is a nice one, he adds, so it was probably given to someone fairly high up in the organization. It’s an elk’s tooth, set in 14k yellow gold (they’re often made in silver). Yes, that’s a blue sapphire and yes, that’s a small diamond in the elk’s eye. When is it from? Jessica asks. Early 20th century, he replies. And then, without prompting, he appraises its value at “$750 to $800.” Next!
Patrick thanks us and we thank him, but it’s pretty clear that Jessica will not be going on television. On to the Collectibles table.
The Collectibles table
We look across the room, and Wow! There’s Rudy Franchi, the movie poster and ephemera guy. And next to him, in the white ponytail and brilliantly colored shirt is, Gary Sohmers, who gets all the great pop culture stuff.
Dave unpacks his loot and places it before Franchi. He knew they were glass movie theatre slides when he picked up the whole box a few years ago at an antique show for 80 bucks. They’re neat old color slides from San Francisco theatres, the kind they’d put up on the screen in the 1920’s to introduce the main event, coming attractions, ads, or local news item.
In person, Franchi looks just like he does on TV. He’s a little gruff, but in a kind, grandfatherly sort of way. He starts picking through the slides, disinterested at first, and then something seems to click. Dave’s hopes rise. “Well, these are old movie theatre slides,” Franchi says. “Nice colors, but some are just title slides. The most valuable ones are the coming attraction slides. Got any of those?”
There are probably 200 slides in the box, so Dave can’t remember. But Franchi keeps looking until finds a few nice ones. “Some of these will be worth $5, some $15, some $18.” Franchi says that slides depicting movie scenes usually go for $20 to $50, and that he once sold one for $1,000. He tells Dave that he had a big set once, but it took his auction house six years to sell them all because they had to do the research on each (what movie they were from, time period, etc.) and individually catalog them. “You’ve got a couple hundred here,” he says, “so you’re looking at around $2,500 for the set. But you’ve got to sell them one by one on eBay, which takes time.”
Now Dave reveals that we’re from Collectors Weekly. Franchi recalls trading emails with Dave several months ago. “I really like your site,” he says, “a lot of great information there.” In fact, Franchi’s site already has a link to us, along with a very complimentary description. Good to finally meet him in person!
Now it’s Ben’s turn. Johnson directs him and his framed Pogo animation cel to Gary Sohmers. Ben explains that his wife bought it for him as a gift in the 1970s, but that she cut the registration holes that were on the sides to make the piece fit in the frame. Sohmers groans. “You should smack her,” he says, and then realizing the political incorrectness of his statement quickly adds “in a good way. You’re never supposed to alter the original product.”
Ben says he’d guessed that, and asks what the holes were for. Sohmers launches into a detailed description of Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo, and multi-cel animation techniques. The holes, Sohmers says, were there to make sure the cels lined up the same way each time they were shot by a camera. Ben’s cel depicts Porky Pine sitting in what Sohmers imagines must have been a log or small boat (the characters lived in a swamp). The boat is not on Ben’s cel—it was painted on a different cel, hence the phrase multi-cel animation. The registration holes allowed the animators to, say, change the expressions on Porky Pine’s face without having to repaint the boat over and over again.
The piece is from 1967 or 1968, Sohmers concludes. It’s worth about $100 to $150 as is. If it had not been cut, he adds, it would be worth anywhere from $300 to $500. Victorious in his summation, Sohmers proclaims to the crowd that has assembled around us, “The King of Pop might be dead, but I’m the King of Pop Culture!”
Meeting The Kenos
Our own appraisals complete, we cross the set, past the cameras shooting interviews, to the Furniture section, where Leigh and Leslie Keno, the famous appraiser twins, are holding court.
Collecting geek that he is, Dave read the Kenos’ book (Hidden Treasures, Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture) almost in one sitting. He makes a beeline to the brothers, who look as suave and sophisticated in person as they do on TV. He can’t tell them apart, but we soon figure out that Leslie is the one wearing glasses today and Leigh isn’t. Anyway, Leigh is the one who seems to want to talk. What does he like best about Antiques Roadshow? “It’s the people” he says. “I’m just hugging people all day, hearing their stories, I learn so much.”
But what if a Duncan Phyfe piece doesn’t walk in the door, Dave asks him, or you don’t get something from a famous Newport or Philadelphia shop? Is that a letdown?
“Not at all,” says Leigh. “I love to see anything 18th century, Chippendale, Queen Anne, or even early painted furniture.” Leigh also keeps an eye on the folk art coming in, he says, having headed the Folk Art department at Christies.
Finally, Dave asks Leigh why his voice is so hoarse. “I was racing all day yesterday at Laguna Seca,” Leigh says. “A Ferrari 512 BBLM.” Dave, scribbling all of this down, leaves out one of the Bs on his notepad. Leigh notices and corrects him. “No, BBLM,” he says. “You’ve gotta get that right. It makes a difference to the car guys.” It turns out Leigh himself is a vintage car guy. His Ferrari is a 1980.
“It’s like driving an artifact,” he says. “It’s a 12-cylinder. I’m trying to preserve it while making it go really fast.” Leigh has been racing vintage cars for about 15 years, but it sounds like he and Leslie grew up around vintage vehicles. They also judge the Prewar and Postwar Preservation categories at the Concours d’Elegance each year in Pebble Beach, California.
Great-Grampa’s Five-Figure “Find”
Next Leigh introduces Dave to a woman everyone’s buzzing about. Her 15-year-old granddaughter, Kayla, is being taped for a segment on a box of Alaskan Eskimo ivory items they’ve brought in. We’re told they were appraised in the mid-five figures (you’ll have to wait until the show airs for the final price), and the woman is beaming.
Maureen Brown is her name. She was born in San Francisco (“of the Hallinans of San Francisco,” she says) and now lives in San Jose. Her great-grandfather was on a “schooner ship” that sailed through the South Pacific and came back with the carvings.
Anthony Slayter-Ralph, the fine art specialist who did the appraisal, walks up to congratulate her. “Ivory that age just glows” he tells Dave. Eskimo jewelry from that era is stunning for its artistic quality, he adds, but it was always functional. Intriguingly, three of the ivory pieces are not Alaskan. Slayter-Ralph thinks great-grandfather must have picked them up in the Marquesas Islands. One is a pendant with a bound slave figure. He’s not sure what its function was, but he thinks that “if they were going to do a raid or do battle, they’d put it on to send out power.”
What will happen to the ivory figures? “We’ll keep them,” says Brown. “They’ve been in the family for many years.” But granddaughter Kayla is clearly thinking about the money. “I had no idea,” she says. “I thought they were just little ivory tusks!”
Meanwhile, Leslie Keno is chatting with Jessica, Maribeth, and Ben in front of an Avery & Co. jockey scale, which, as it’s name suggests, was used to weigh horse jockeys. The walnut and original leather-upholstered piece dates from about 1895, and a few moments earlier Leslie had taped a segment on it with the owner, who said he paid $1,500 for it.
“I call this the chair of life or death,” says Leslie, “because back then, if you were overweight you wouldn’t get a job and you couldn’t put food on the table for your family.” Leslie says jockeys would purge before being weighed so they’d be under the required weight, and that he’d never seen one before. “It’s incredible that it has the weights surviving with it.” Leslie put its value at between $10,000 and $15,000.
Leslie had been able to spend about an hour studying up on the piece before going on camera. But as we talk about the weights, he realizes he may not have explained things completely during the shoot. “I think I need to explain counterbalance more clearly on the tape,” he says, looking around for a producer. “I need to talk to the crew.” And then he disappears.
The Folk Art and Vintage Glass Tables
Now we’re on to Folk Art, where we meet Mike Flanigan of J.M. Flanigan American Antiques and Allan Katz of Allan Katz Americana. Have they seen anything interesting today?
“We got a nice over-the-shoulder on an 1813 watercolor,” says Flanigan. It was by Reverend Young, adds Katz, a “really cool marriage certificate from Columbus Country, Pennsylvania. It had been in this woman’s family forever. She said they could never read it because it was in German.” Or so the family thought. “But when we looked, it was actually all in English. Strange and wonderful.”
Over in Glass, appraiser Kathleen Bailey is in her element, giving appraisals one right after the other, no more than one or two minutes for each. In one exchange with a guest who has brought in three glass boxes (one large, two small), Bailey takes the time to give some personalized purchasing advice. “You’re doing much better when you buy small,” she smiles, “so stay with the small.”
Next comes a woman with a beautiful kerosene lamp. It doesn’t have a shade and has been delicately painted with light pinks and greens. She places it on the table and, in an almost apologetic tone, explains that it has been altered. “It’s okay,” Bailey assures her. “Everyone wires them now so that they can use them.” Bailey says the lamp would have had a clear glass ball as a shade. The woman seems to care much more about this practical information than the lamp’s value. We must, too, because we don’t even bother to write the price down.
What’s Waiting in Line?
Having thoroughly surveyed the scene on the main set, we head back out to where the bulk of folks are waiting in line for their turn. En Route, Ben stops in his tracks at a framed print by one of his favorite 1960s poster artists, Victor Moscoso. Unlike the Avalon Ballroom posters that Moscoso is so famous for, this piece is wide (perhaps four feet) and narrow (maybe only 12 inches tall). It’s in a frame, but the back of the matte has been cut to reveal the artist’s signature on the back, along with his P.O. Box in Woodacre, California.
A guest named Bill, who owns the piece, tells Ben that Moscoso created it for use in a San Francisco cable car in 1969. That’s where a guy he knows got it, and it came into Bill’s possession via a complicated trade that involved a Triumph motorcycle. It’s a long story, but Ben remains focused on the piece, drinking in every detail on its black-and-white surface as he tells Bill how lucky he is to own such a unique piece by one of the so-called big-five artists of the 1960s San Francisco music scene.
“You know more about it than they did,” says Bill, who’s clearly disappointed with the $2,000 to $3,000 appraisal he had received. As we continue on our way, though, Ben confides that $2,000 to $3,000 sounds about right to him, too — in this case, our Collectors Weekly amateur has served as an unofficial corroborator for the Roadshow appraiser!
We also talk with a man who’s just been through the Painting line. He’s holding his piece as a friend runs up. “So? What did they say?” The friend is very excited. “They said it’s a really nice reproduction,” laughs the man.
Out in the main line, we pass a young couple, Claire and Josh, who are wheeling an early 1900s slot machine. They know nothing about the machine, but have a pretty good story about where it came from. “My grandfather knew this cop,” Claire says, “who knew this guy, who knew this other guy who’d been keeping this machine illegally for decades. I think he paid him $50 for it. It still works.” Claire remembers playing with it as a kid. She honestly doesn’t care what it’s worth—she just wants to know its story.
Elsewhere, people are carrying bronze sculptures, rifles, and swords. One person has brought in an upright piano. Over here is a couple with a hatbox. The woman says her mom sent her two hats to see what they’re worth. They’re beautiful hats, probably from the 1920s, with feathers and “I. Magnin & Co.” labels.
Three other people catch our eye. There’s Adam, who bought his cast-iron lawn jockey at a flea market for $50. He’s read they were originally given as gifts to people who supported the Underground Railroad. He’s here mostly to find out if that story is true. Susan is nearby. She has a child’s record player called the Bing Crosby Junior Juke. It plays 78s and lights up. She’d like to know what it’s worth.
Then there’s Carmine, who’s brought in a Vinaccia mandolin that his father bought in Naples, Italy 101 years ago. He shows us a photo of his dad as a younger man playing the instrument. Is he here to gets its value, to learn the history of this lovely instrument, or both? The answer is both, as well as to share his own story of this storied instrument with someone who will truly appreciate it. And that someone, in about one hour’s time, is going to be one of the endlessly patient appraisers at Antiques Roadshow.
Epilogue: It’s All True!
So that’s it. If you’ve watched Antiques Roadshow for years, and wondered what it would be like to be there in person, its pretty exciting, but no huge surprises. The appraisers are super friendly, and really do know their stuff and care about getting it right.
The people who’ve brought in family treasures are having fun, filling in mysteries, smiling if they’ve got a bonanza but okay even if they don’t. The show crew is a well-oiled machine, working hard to put on a class act.
And the items—wow, great stuff! Next time Antiques Roadshow comes to your town, try to get a ticket and go. It’s a great way to spend a day!