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.