A PBS show that travels to various cities and invites the locals to bring in their antiques for a free appraisal. Interesting pieces are appraised on camera, and the highlights are edited together to make an episode.

The appraiser will usually ask the owner, "Do you have a guess about how much this is worth?" and the owner is usually surprised to learn its true value. Sometimes that means that their silver spoon dates to the 1300s and is fantastically valuable; sometimes it means that they've spent $1000 on a reproduction.

This is all true; one thing my esteemed colleague fails to point out is the amazing entertainment value of this show. It's just so much fun to watch. Really. Seems strange, I know -- can you imagine trying to pitch this to a network exec?

"Okay, so we get a bunch of professional appraisers together, organize live shows in various cities, and tell people to bring their old stuff! The appraisers tell them how much it's worth, and we tape it and air it!"

". . ."

"Yeah, you're right, it's no good. Okay, my other idea is. . ."

You get the idea. Improbably, this show is really entertaining. Both the British and American versions are lots of fun, and occasionally there are incredibly valuable articles displayed. It's like watching people win a gameshow, but without the sick puerility involved therein. What a great show.

The Infamous Antiques Roadshow "Watermelon Sword" Incident

In 1997, during the first season of WGBH Boston Public Television's popular series, Antiques Roadshow, viewers learned the fascinating story of a man and the sword he'd found in his grandparents' attic as a kid. Stephen Stadtler brought the sword he'd had since childhood to the Antiques Roadshow event in Seattle for an appraisal, and was shocked to learn that the old sword he'd played with for all those years was an extraordinarily rare Confederate Officer's Sword, only a few of which had survived since the Civil War. The appraiser, George Juno, valued the sword at some $35,000, and a shocked Stadtler remarked that he'd used the sword to cut up watermelons in his youth. This story was the stuff that Antiques Roadshow was made of--unknown treasures revealed astonishingly to their owners.

The one problem was that the entire segment was a set-up.

Although the sword was genuine, it was not the property of Stadtler. It was not found in his grandparents' attic, it was not used to cut up watermelons, and it was not an unknown relic lying in plain sight. Juno, and his business partner Russ Pritchard, had arranged the entire incident to increase publicity of their appraising firm. The sword was owned by one of their clients, and Stadtler was a personal friend they had talked into playing the role of the astonished "owner".

The story broke in the April 2000 issue of Civil War News and from there was picked up by the Boston Herald and other major media outlets. Fearing a scandal--the notion that some segments of the popular program might be faked would no doubt spell doom for the series--WGBH was quick to decry the incident as an anomalous and inexcusable event, removing Juno and Pritchard from its roster of appraisers. Further, it offered a refund to anyone who had purchased the videocassette of the program containing the offending incident, and edited the segment out of all future releases (broadcasts and videocassettes) of that episode. Since the incident, WGBH has been increasingly vigilant in its fact-checking regarding the authenticity of appraisals.

Despite the scandal regarding this incident, there have been few others of the sort. WGBH seems to have done an admirable job of damage control. Antiques Roadshow appears still to be doing well; it continues to be aired regularly on PBS outlets across the US. Juno and Pritchard, however, have been barred from at least one major antiques convention since the story came out.


Attending the Antiques Roadshow.


In summer 2004 my wife and I won the web-based lottery for tickets to participate in the Antiques Roadshow when it passed through our city. I was surprised in some ways by what I found, and since I had always wondered what it was like to be on the show, perhaps some E2 readers will, too. I own nothing of any value, so I cannot speak to the experience of being singled out for one of those little appraisal interviews which form the meat of the episodes.

One arrives an hour early in the vast civic center. The space is cool and the murmur of voices forms a soft, omnipresent background. Those with firearms (genuine antiques only) are pulled aside and the weapons are inspected and rendered safe. There is then about an hour's wait in a very long Disneyland-style switchbacked line with all of the people who will be entering during your hour (maybe 500 or 1000). This is of course the moment when everyone shows off their treasures to their neighbors, and the feeling of expectation is palpable. It is perhaps a mark of where I live (the midwest) that Civil War memorabilia and farm/rustic furniture were very common (though easily carried ceramics were also a favorite).

But there are oddities. One fellow had a large cart upon which were some belle époque bronzes of wreathed goddesses and chandeliers. Another man was loaded down with Nazi memorabilia and took visible pleasure when asked about the military police gorget he was wearing. The large furniture pieces were not with the people in line; they are brought in a back entrance and put aside until the people arrive at the appraisal area.

Two items per person is the limit. My ticket was repeatedly examined. "No Hummel figurines." "No coins or stamps." After about an hour, when the official entry time was approaching, the line was allowed to snake forward towards the appraisal area.

The appraisal area is bipartite, roughly a bisected circle cordoned off by the tall, dark drapes you see behind the appraisers on TV. In one half are all of the technical appurtinences connected with taping, lighting, and whatever other things have to be done on the spot in a show like this. In the other half is the appraisal area proper.

At the head of the line, one is reminded once again that two items are the limit per person, and directed to a triage table where three besieged preliminary appraisers sit. These sift out the chaff--Hummels, coins, anything the Roadshow does not bother appraising--and on the basis of a preliminary inspection give out two tickets per person which will take the participant-hopeful to the proper appraising table.

The appraising area is much smaller than it looks on TV. Its inner edges are lined with a ring of banquet tables at which the hard-working professional appraisers sit at well-defined stations. Furniture awaiting the arrival of its owner and appraiser sits in a "corner." The center of the space is an octopus (or spider) of cranes, supports, and dolleys which serve to illuminate and film three stations about equally spaced from one another in the ring between the appraisers' tables and the octopus. These stations are where the personal interviews are held.

Those to be interviewed are taken to a "green room" for makeup. I was told that no information about the object is given to them before they are interviewed before the camera. The stations are much closer to the lines of participant hopefuls waiting to get to the appraisers' tables than it looks on TV--the space is deceptively small.

You might expect the pottery line to be the longest, since pots are so easy to carry. And you might expect the tools appraiser to be the least visited. I stood for 20 minutes in the ceramics line and had the opportunity to see the omnipresent Keno brothers and a variety of appraisers I recognized from TV. I did not get to see the face of anyone whose hope for fame and wealth was dashed by a bad appraisal, alas.

The participant-hopefuls wash in waves of about 20 upon the appraisal area, mixing with those still waiting in line. Most of the appraisers are pretty clearly junior people attached to auction houses and galleries, sent into the battle lines to get that mass experience with objects which will train their eye. A few senior people are mixed in to give judgments in ambiguous cases. The chief affect of nearly all of the appraisers I saw was a weary jadedness borne of engaging with hundreds and hundreds of people. They mean well, clearly, but if you go to the Roadshow expecting to be praised for your great-grandmother's astonishing taste in costume jewelry, you'll be disappointed. The average transaction time of an appraisal was well under a minute, especially at the hard-pressed jewelry and ceramics tables.

Except when appraising those happy few items valuable and rare enough to be slated for on-camera interviews (2 to 3 full days of these appraisals boil down into about 2 episodes), the appraisers are largely uninterested in the story behind an object (and manifestly don't want to hear it), and take it at face value. My wife brought an old diamond ring she inherited, and the appraiser simply counted the diamonds, estimated their size, and gave a dollar value obviously calculated at $100 per carat times number of gems. Period. This is OK, because he was overworked; and he still managed to be friendly.

Once your items have been appraised, you are whisked out past tables laden with appraisers' business cards and no few advertisements. I was made to sign up for a home loan (I don't own a house) in order to get a Roadshow t-shirt.

All in all, it was interesting to see how the Roadshow imposes order on the throngs of participant-hopefuls. It was a little disappointing to see that the mechanical aspect of churning people through affected the demeanor of the appraisers, but this is to be expected. It was fun to see the appraisers I recognized, though I was sorry not to have seen the ornery old guy in the wheelchair (Wendell Garrett) who appraises furniture and is one of the great masters of his profession. The hosts were nowhere to be seen.

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