At the Convention Center in Santa Clara, California, ticket holders waiting to get into “Antiques Roadshow” stand into a long line folded onto itself like a dense square. The hopefuls are toting their most prized possessions—a vase lovingly wrapped in a towel and riding in a laundry basket on a wagon; a carousel deer with real antlers and a chunk missing from its head; a 4-foot-tall painting of a nude woman; a Winchester rifle; a cart filled with antique dolls. At one point, the sound of shattering china echoes through the set; you can hear people gasp, as everyone looks around nervously, clutching their heirlooms a little more tightly.
“When I asked about putting my antique telescope on TV, the appraiser said, ‘No, you know too much about it.'”
Out of the 22,367 Californians who applied for “Roadshow” tickets, less than 50, or about 0.2 percent will make it onto the TV show—you have greater odds of getting into Stanford, which accepted 5 percent of its applicants last admissions season. Of these “Roadshow” applicants, 3,000 were randomly selected by a computer to receive tickets for two people to bring two items or collections apiece to the Santa Clara “Roadshow” set, and an arrival time between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on a Saturday. They will wait nearly two hours to have these treasures assessed by a professional appraiser for free.
The first line is simply intended to sort the ticket holders into 20 more lines in the next room, based on which appraisal category best suits their stuff. After another wait, they’re sent into the artificial square room that serves as the “Roadshow” set, where they get in line to briefly meet one of 70 appraisers sitting at tables lining the walls. If an appraiser thinks a participant has something special—an unusual object worth big money, or a disappointing fake that still has a compelling story—he or she won’t tell the owner anything about it right away. Instead, the appraiser will flag one of three producers roaming the set.
Of course, the producers of “Roadshow,” a series put together by WGBH Boston for PBS under license from the BBC, select the best stuff to film for about 90 TV segments—and even then half of those segments will end up on the cutting-room floor. But the objects that arrive on set that don’t get shown on the program are often as fascinating as the ones that do. Take for example, Steve, who’s rolled in a 7-foot-tall brass-trimmed wooden Victorian device. It’s one of those Jules Verne-type objects that makes passers-by stop, gawk, and exclaim, “What is that??”
Steve, however, knows exactly what his treasure is and what it’s worth. The 1850s telescope, which still works and is usually displayed in his living room, had been appraised for $6,000 in the 1980s. So when the “Roadshow” appraiser tells Steve the telescope would be worth $25,000 now, he doesn’t appear blown away. Hence, Steve will not be appearing TV.
“They want the surprise,” he says with a shrug. “Say you’ve got something you’ve uncovered in your attic, and when they tell you, you say, ‘Oh my goodness, I never knew that!’ When I asked about putting it on TV, the appraiser said, ‘No, you know too much about it, so it’s not like you’re dumbfounded.’”
Steve’s wife chimes in, “You could act surprised, though!” I could, he concedes, with laughter.
Every once and a while, a participant has so much knowledge they end up educating the “Roadshow” appraiser. In the furniture area of the appraisal room, we can’t stop staring at a double music stand decorated with purple undulate snakes slashed with a stroke of lime-green paint. Turns out, it was made in the 1980s by late Modernist furniture designer Art Carpenter, and a woman had brought in three of his pieces, which she had commissioned from him directly.
“Yes, she met him,” says Karen Keane, the CEO of Skinner Auctions. “He was a quirky, curmudgeonly character. She would ask him for specific things and then he would just do what he wanted to do. With this music stand, she said, ‘Green? Why did you put green?’ And he said, ‘Oh I had some green paint.’
“It’s funny because when we do this show, often the appraiser is supposed to be the knowledgeable one and inform the person who brought the material,” she continues. “This woman knew so much more about Art Carpenter than I do, having met him and worked with him over decades. So she was telling me about him, which was cool.”
Keane points to another Carpenter piece, a small rectangular wood chest with modular drawers of different dimensions. The piece would look almost Arts & Crafts era in its simplicity, if it weren’t for the short pieces of clear Plexiglas slicing the drawers diagonally. “These are Plexi pulls. This one they sometimes call the Mondrian chest, because he saw a show of Mondrian’s work in San Francisco and was inspired made this chest. The owner said that Carpenter couldn’t figure out how to make the pulls look right, and then he went to another art show and saw a Georges Braque painting, which had these slashes, and said, ‘OK, we’re doing Plexi.’”
Others with less personal knowledge find the appraisals useful, if disappointing. Bob has wheeled in a rustic, wooden carousel deer he recovered from the old carousel at the Great America amusement park, which is, incidentally, across the street from the convention center where the show is filming. The deer has real antlers, but a piece of its head is missing, some of the paint is peeling, and one of the legs has obviously been replaced.
Bob explains that the appraiser he met with told him it was from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, which made merry-go-rounds between 1904 and 1941, during the Golden Age of the carousel. But because it had been repainted several times, it is only worth about $1,000; if it had only the original paint, it would have been worth as much as $15,000. The reason carousel animals with their original paint are so valuable is that they’re nearly impossible to find: Most parks repainted their carousel animals on a regular basis to cover wear and tear.
Original paint is precious when it comes to early American furniture, too. Take the Windsor chair. Andrew Holter, a senior specialist at Christie’s, tells us, “The value lies primarily in the painted surface,” he says. “What we see a lot of is Windsors without paint, because at the turn-of-the-century people dipped and stripped their furniture. They wanted to see the natural beauty of the wood and have it clean and shiny. They didn’t want old, crackled paint.
“When something comes to them they’ve been waiting their whole lives to see, their faces just light up, like ‘Oh this is so incredible!’”
“So sadly, in today’s market, that’s what people want to see,” he continues. “It’s like a tomb that’s never been touched or an archaeological site with layers of history.” He points to a two-tone wooden chest a “Roadshow” participant brought in: “It originally had a dark surface and someone removed the finish it so you could see the contrasting woods, which is nice, but it takes away a sense of age. It was made in Massachusetts, probably between 1810 and 1820. Unfortunately, when you take away the surface, it’s like you could buy it from Ethan Allen.”
Holter has been waiting for a producer to discuss a little table with a drawer, which almost looks like a small desk, its narrow top covered in coffee stains and the like. When the producer arrives, they excuse themselves to confer about whether it would make a good segment for the “Roadshow.” The table belongs to Jane, a feisty senior citizen with white hair and bright blue eyes.
“I got it at a rummage sale,” she says cheerfully. “I bought it for its size. I don’t care if it’s worth anything. I just want to know if I can refinish it without hurting the value. Right now, I use a scarf to cover it.”
Holter returns and apologizes for the wait, “So it looks like we won’t be using this for the show. Let me tell you about this table.” The top of the little table actually lifts and folds out, doubling its tabletop width. And underneath the finished-wood table top, you can fold out yet another tabletop with a green felt surface and wood dishes built into the corners and sides.
“It’s what we call a George II-style triple-top card table or game table,” Holter explains. The shallow dishes on the corners are for candles and the deeper dishes are for playing chips. “But it’s a 20th century piece, copying an 18th century piece.” He pulls out the drawer and shows Jane where the makers used plywood and how they painted the interior black to make it look older.
“There might have been a little deception here,” he says. “When we look at the inside, that’s when we know it’s out of period. But I’ll tell you, the piece itself is really nice. When pieces are out of period, they never get the proportion or the design right, but this one is well-balanced, nicely proportioned, and it’s got great design.”
Even though Jane didn’t pick up a priceless museum-worthy treasure at a yard sale, it’s easy to see why Holter flagged her: She would be great on TV, and the piece, a clandestine knockoff of a clandestine gambling table, is still fascinating.
“As an out-of-period table, in today’s market, it’s probably $1,000, maybe a little bit more,” Holter says. “Can you refinish this? I would say yes. But is the cost to refinish greater than the value of the table? If you spend $500, it will probably look better and increase the value of the piece. Sadly, the value of traditional furniture has come down, because of the recession in 2008. But if it were period, I’d think you’d be looking at a $7,500 table.”
“You can sell it!” blurts out Jane’s son, and Jane’s family laughs. “You don’t want it?” Jane teases him. “No, you’ve got three other kids you can give it to.”
Holter says, “You can pass it off to your siblings, by saying, ‘You know, I really love that table. I’ll tell you what, you can have the table, and I’ll take the car. It’s an equal trade.’”
“It’s like a tomb that’s never been touched or an archaeological site with layers of history.”
Had Jane been selected for filming, the producer would have whisked her away to the “green room” for makeup. Then, Holter and maybe another furniture expert or “Roadshow” staffer would go to the research room to fact-check and amplify his knowledge about the table before they shot the segment. (Read more about how “Roadshow” works behind the scenes from our 2009 tour in San Jose here.)
Over the course of the day, 80-90 of these segments will be filmed. About 30 segments are shot with a more-intimate over-the-shoulder camera angle, about 15 shot with a webcam, and 55 or so will take place on the three formal sound stages, with their trademark blue tables, in the center of the appraisal room. Once the cameras are rolling, the appraiser makes the big reveal. Standing in the appraisal room, you can’t hear the voices on the sound stages above the din, but the mics they wear pick it all up for television. “Their reaction is completely authentic,” says DeLinda Mrowka, who’s executive director of communications at PBS’s San Francisco affiliate KQED. “Nobody has any conversations with our appraisers prior to their arrival.”
Of course, most “Roadshow” participants just end up waiting in line for a brief, but illuminating, conversation with an expert. Thompson Paine, the director of business operations of Old School Industries, LLC, the parent company of Collectors Weekly, brings a map of northeast Asia in the German language and one of central Asia in English, both supported by cardboard in protective plastic sheets, to the Prints & Posters table. Paine had a good idea of when the maps were printed (right around the turn of the 20th century) because he’s lived and traveled extensively in both regions and knows the history, including which city were lost, gained, or renamed due to wars and politics. But gallery owner and paper expert Craig Flinner points out a few things he never noticed before.
“They’re atlas maps,” Flinner says. “This one is so wide is because it’s a centerfold of a book, with a hundred or so maps in it. It says Meyers at the bottom, so it’s from a Meyers atlas.” Flinner points to 197 at the bottom of the other map, “that’s 197 pages at least in the atlas. This could be Rand McNally or Cram, one of the big atlas companies of that period. Have you had it out of this bag?”
“Nope, I haven’t,” Paine says.
“If you take it out of the bag, there’s probably a map on the other side,” Flinner says. “There might also be the name of the company on the other side.
“These are battle lines,” Flinner continues, pointing to some red and blue markings on the centerfold. “This must be a battle during the First Sino-Japanese War, so this map was made after that battle, probably within the next five years, in the late 1890s. If they’d be putting on a map and putting it in an atlas, it would probably be a recent battle. You’re not going to put that on there when it’s 20 years old. You’re putting the latest information on it.”
While it’s cool that these maps are old and speak to Paine’s life, they’re only worth about $20-$30 apiece. “They’re not any big deal, because you can buy the whole atlas for $100 to $200,” Flinner says.
Even when our friend Lixian Hantover, who came with the Collectors Weekly team, shows Michael Larsen, director of fine jewelry and watches at Freeman’s, an Art Deco pendant given to her by an old family friend, he emphasizes the importance of leaving old things well alone. “We always say, don’t clean your silver,” he says. “That’s why. It gives it part of that character. You can tell it’s been around for those 89 years.”
Later, while visiting the Pottery table, we ask Nicholas Dawes, vice president of special collections for Heritage Auction Galleries, about the disturbing smashing sound we heard earlier. “Oh, it was just the lid of a cookie jar,” he says. He doesn’t look concerned. “The cookie jar wasn’t anything valuable. I’m sure the owner isn’t happy about it.”
Dawes is examining three mauve vases from the Van Briggle pottery in Colorado; a man named Jim collected these pieces, all of which have dates on the bottom. Dawes singles one out.
“This is a nice one,” he says, estimating its value between $800 and $1,000. “There’s extra ‘oomph’ to it. It’s likely Van Briggle himself might have made it, but it’s still a conventional Van Briggle model. All three of them have some value, they are the kind of Van Briggle that people will pay for and collect, but none of them are the really valuable Van Briggle pieces, the Lorelei vases and the great early pieces that he worked on himself.”
Working the “Roadshow” is a long day for the appraisers, who don’t get any compensation from PBS, but those working for major auction houses are probably getting paid to be there. Even for independent appraisers, it’s worth it to them, particularly for the exposure they get, thanks to “Antiques Roadshow’s” audience, almost 9 million viewers weekly. And also because they get to connect with their favorite things. “When something comes to them they’ve been waiting their whole lives to see,” Mrowka says, “their faces just light up, like ‘Oh this is so incredible!’”
Some of the big treasures unearthed in Santa Clara include 1930s Edward Weston photographs, inherited by a woman whose father was an attorney for Oscar-winning special-effects artist Warren Newcombe. Freeman’s senior specialist Aimee Pflieger appraised the photos between $180,000 and $260,000 at auction. Folk-art expert Allan Katz assessed that a scrimshaw tooth would be worth $150,000-$200,000 in insurance value. Family legend said that the owner’s great-granddad received the tooth as a gift from a hobo he helped. Katz confirmed it was embellished by the great early 1800s American scrimshaw artist Frederick Myrick. Fine-art specialist Betty Krulik appraised an Eanger Irving Couse painting of Native Americans, purchased in 1930, at $75,000 in insurance value.
That’s the irresistible lure of bringing something to the “Roadshow,” the hope that you may have something really special in your attic versus, well, just something. But most participants seeing dollar signs are bound to be disappointed. It’s just unlikely that you’re going to find a million-dollar treasure, or even something worth hundreds of thousands, in your attic or at your neighbor’s garage sale.
“You have all this expertise here,” Mrowka says. “If you really want to learn about something, take advantage of that, rather than trying to figure out what you think the most valuable thing is going to be. Basically, as the ‘Roadshow’ executive producer always says, if you think you have a treasure at home that no one else knows about, you probably don’t. That’s the thing: Treasures are rare.”
(All photos by Lisa Hix. Learn more about “Antiques Roadshow” at the PBS website.)