The appraisers on Antiques Roadshow—now airing its 18th season—need to be more than experts in their field. They also have to be storytellers who can build a narrative around, say, a detail on a jade statue or the telltale notches inside an antique dresser drawer. Because when people bring in their heirlooms and flea-market finds to this PBS institution, they don’t just want to know what their stuff is worth. Okay, they mostly want to know what it’s worth. But they also want to hear the story behind their supposed treasure.
Auctioneer Nicholas D. “Nicho” Lowry has been a Roadshow mainstay for a decade and a half because his specialty, poster art, inspires him to weave a good yarn. Lowry’s friendly baritone and his fashion sense—graph-paper chic—make him a distinctive character in the show’s stable of experts. The A.V. Club spoke to Lowry by phone, with Antiques Roadshow marketing executive Hannah Auerbach joining the call to fill in further details about the production (and to chime in with the company line once in a while—she noted, for instance, that the show is still accepting applications for tickets to the 2014 Roadshow tour if any A.V. Club readers are interested in attending). Lowry talked about the careful off-camera prelude to an on-air appraisal, his “bedside manner” for desperate jackpot-seekers, and the zinger that almost got him killed in Wichita.
The A.V. Club: Because it’s a relatively unusual profession, how do you get into a career as an auctioneer? Do you study something in particular in school?
Nicholas Lowry: I can’t speak for everybody else, but the answer for me is very simple. I was born into it. I’m third generation. Rather than being born in a silver spoon in my mouth, I may have had a gavel in my mouth. Or somewhere else.
AVC: Did the previous generations all specialize in graphic art?
NL: No, the previous generations were auction-house owners, beginning with Benjamin Swann. The company I own and run is called Swann Galleries. The name Benjamin Swann was my grandfather’s nephew. And then my father took over in 1969, and I took over in the year 2000.
AVC: So what drew you to posters?
NL: What drew me to posters is—I’ve attributed it previously to sort of like falling in love. You don’t really know what’s happening, and all of a sudden you find yourself captivated by a certain field. In my family—because my entire family is in the business—my mother is a specialist in modern first editions. My aunt is a specialist in maps. My other aunt is a specialist in autographs. My grandfather was in the business, my grandmother, my father, so I think I wanted to find an area of my own that nobody else had laid a claim to already. And there was the fact that posters, when done properly, appeal to people in a very primal sense, and I think I got bitten.
AVC: How specialized is your knowledge, really? If you switched places with Noel Barrett over on the antique toy table for a day, would it be a debacle, or could you hold your own?
NL: It really depends on how you define “debacle.” If it was non-debacle-ish for me to give an appraisal on a toy that sounded really good but had absolutely no substance, then it would be fine! But truly—I know a little bit about toys, but there is really no sense at all in going on national television and speaking with authority on something you know nothing about. It moves us all to really follow our passions because I’ve got no problem standing up in front of the nation and saying, “Listen, this is a poster, and here’s the story.” I could probably mutter my way through a toy appraisal, but at the end of the day it would be professionally embarrassing, I think.
AVC: Do you often have to confer with people in other specialties when you’re appraising an item?
NL: We often have to confer with other people. We are also asked to confer with other people simply because it’s always better to have a second opinion. Or a third opinion. Sometimes we confer just for the sake of conferring, even if we don’t need that second opinion, simply because it sounds better.
AVC: You often say, “My colleagues and I looked this over.” When you say “my colleagues,” are you referring to people who don’t appear on camera? Do you have a team there with you?
NL: No, no, no, no. That’s very sweet. My entourage stays behind when I travel. [Laughs.] The main member of my entourage is Mr. Google. I’ve also said something to the effect of, “I’ve conferred with my colleagues at the furniture table, and they agree with me that this is a poster.” Sometimes it’s very difficult. I’m the only poster specialist on the show. Certainly if it’s a sports image, I confer with the sports people. If it is a pop-cultural image, I’ll refer to the pop-culture people. But generally speaking, if it’s a travel poster, which I know backwards and forwards, I’m not sure who’s there that can give a second opinion.
AVC: The show gets three hours of programming from each city. How much time on the show floor does that represent for you?
NL: The outline of a day on the road begins at 7:30 in the morning and ends probably at 7:30 or 8 at night. That’s not just for me, by the way, that’s for everybody. That’s the timeline of the show.
AVC: How do you spend the off-camera time in a day?
NL: Mostly playing video games. [Laughs.] Why talk to the people who have waited years to come in when you could be playing Asteroids? No, the way it works is people come in, they walk in the front door, and they are sent to “triage.” And triage says, “Oh, look, you have a poster. Here’s a ticket for the poster table.” “You have a diamond ring, here’s a ticket to the jewelry table.” Then they come in, and they line up in front of whichever table they choose to go to first. I’m on the “prints, drawings, maps, and posters” table, so anything paper comes to us. And that line is endless. It never, ever ends. In fact, there is nothing for us to do during the day except talk to the next person.
Hannah Auerbach, Roadshow marketing executive: The actual Roadshow day he’s talking about, we’re only in the city for one day. So the entire three hours come from that one day of work.
NL: Exactly. It’s a Saturday in another city, basically a 12- to 13-hour day.
AVC: Do you see a lot of the same things over and over again?
NL: The very short answer is yes. Everybody has certain—and you know, one of the things that I’ve always thought interesting is that each table is like an island. So my experience is going to be very different from somebody who spends all day at the porcelain table or somebody who spends all day at the silver table. I imagine there are certain common themes, but I think every table really has unique experiences. And certainly everybody in America has one or two things in their family on paper that are identical. Pictures of Jesus. Turn-of-the-century pictures of Jesus. So here you have something that’s legitimately a hundred years old or more, but every single family had one. Because it was the dawn of a new printing era where high-quality color prints could be made inexpensively, so everybody could buy them. All of a sudden, you had a chance for a color Jesus or a color Mary on your wall, and people went nuts. And they bought them, saved them because they were meaningful, and now everybody’s bringing them in.
Hannah’s going to hate this, which is why I’m going to say it. One of my favorite lines is when someone comes in with a turn-of-the-century religious picture and puts it down on the table, I say very loudly, “Jesus Christ!” [Laughs.] And every single time but one, it got a laugh. It always gets a laugh, except when we were in Wichita, Kansas, and I actually thought I was going to be killed. Every single other time, people giggle.
So, Jesus is one thing. Another thing that we see truly ad nauseam is 1880s, 1890s landscape etchings. Sort of sepia-colored, brown-and-white-colored etchings, all in original wooden frames. And again, these were decorative graphics that were produced and sold inexpensively. They were gorgeous. They looked like a million bucks, so everybody bought them, and everybody kept them. We see a ton of those.
AVC: Do people bring these in thinking that they’re quite valuable?
NL: You never know, and obviously, you can’t take too many liberties because some people either think that it’s valuable, or some people actually need their things to be valuable because they need money. During the past couple of years with the recession and the downturn, more and more, we saw that people actually needed their goods to be worth something. It wasn’t just like, “Hey, a fun day on TV.” More and more, there were people who are like, “We need this.”
AVC: That must be difficult for you, too.
NL: Well, you have to develop a kind of bedside manner. Even under good circumstances, you are dealing with something that probably is a family heirloom, that was left to them by somebody near and dear to them. And no matter how trite or how inexpensive it is, you can’t just say, “Hey, grandmother didn’t have good taste. Next!”
We try to engage people a little bit because at some point, some of these people have been waiting on line for hours. And you don’t want to make it just “Thank you, that’s worth $20, next.” We tend to say, “So, what did you bring us today? Where did you get it?” One of the most consistently heard answers to “Where did you get this?” is “You’ll never guess! You’ll never believe it! I bought it at a flea market for a dollar.” To which my answer is, “Oh, no, I believe it.” But that’s actually really nice because when somebody says that, that means it wasn’t left to them by a loved one. It means they have a decent sense of humor, and it means you can say, “Wow! Well, it’s probably worth about $10, which is 10 times what you paid for it, so you did well.”
AVC: How does the show decide which items “graduate” to the on-camera appraisal?
NL: Right. So people line up at the individual tables with their tickets from triage. By the time they get to the front of the line, there’s usually a handful of different appraisers at the table. We’ll take a look at it, and if we think—if it’s not a turn-of-the-century Jesus, if it’s not an etching from the 1880s—we think, hmm, this is actually something that has value, a story. Without telling the guest anything, we just say, “Listen, I’d like to send for a producer and talk to them about it.”
Now, at this point, the guest knows that the producer is being sent for. But the guest doesn’t know if the producer is being sent because they have a made-in-Mexico reproduction, and they’re going to be embarrassed on national television, or if they’ve struck it rich with the rare, lost Incan treasure. They don’t know. They just know that they’ve been singled out.
The producer shows up—and there are three producers who work the floor. First, the producer will talk to the appraiser, and the appraiser will say, “This is good because X, Y, Z.” And then the producer goes to speak to the guest.
We are supposed to do a little bit of pre-vetting. If the price that [the guest] looked up last week is the current price, then I don’t have to waste the producer’s time. The other thing which we are told is, for legal reasons that are beyond me, a guest cannot bring a piece on air if they don’t own it. If the person comes in, and we’ve done our pre-vetting—we know that they own it, we know that they don’t know that much about it—I will then say to the person, “I know something about these things that you have, and I’d be happy to tell you about them, but I’m wondering if you’d like to try and do it in front of the camera.” Some people actually say no. It’s disappointing. It’s happened to me twice.
I’ve had people show up at our table, put down a work of art, then drop down a notebook two and a half inches thick and say something to the effect of, “I’ve spent the last 13 years researching this piece. What can you tell me about it?” Literally! And it’s like, “Wow, sir, you’re the world expert on this, what can you tell me about it? Because there’s nothing I could possibly add.” If somebody comes in who knows everything, it’s not going to be good. The producers don’t want that on television. It has to be about the reveal.
AVC: So you really do keep them in the dark until that moment we see on TV. That’s genuine?
NL: It is straight and legitimate as far as the reveal goes. It is 100 percent above board. All the guest knows is that they’re going to be on TV. They’re sent to the green room if the producer approves the pitch, but they really don’t know why. It could just be—I love watching episodes of the Roadshow when an appraiser goes, “Oh my God, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! When you walked in, my heart went pitter-patter! I started to palpitate! I started to drool!” And then here’s the song and dance, here’s the story. In its little niche, it’s one of the greatest things ever. “And at auction, it would sell for about a thousand dollars.” Which for us—you know, we love this stuff! So it could in fact be really exciting, but often the excitement doesn’t translate into a hundred thousand dollars. So the guest lined up to get a really nice story and a decent payday but not a superb payday, for example.
HA: We go to far lengths to make sure that moment on the camera is organic and that the guest really isn’t told anything before they meet back with their appraiser in front of the camera. Our green room is closed off. No press, no other guests. We don’t just stick them in a room—they get food, snacks, they watch TV. But basically from the moment they decide to be pitched to a producer to the moment they get in front of the camera, they are kept under lock and key.
NL: I would be happy to tell you otherwise, John, but in fact, that is the way it happens. It is as legitimate as it pretends to be. Things come up that you don’t expect. At one point this past summer, we were in Baton Rouge, in Louisiana. Someone came in with a political poster having to do with Huey Long, the great politician from that part of the world. Ran for president, blah blah blah, was also very corrupt. It was a great piece. I knew I had to do some research on it because I’m not totally up to date on Southern politics. It’s a local piece; we love to do local tie-ins. I say, “Why don’t you go sit down over there? Sit behind the set on the chairs, and when the producer comes, I’ll find you.”
So this person goes to sit down on the chair as he’s told to do and waits for the producer, which takes 30, 40 minutes—during which one of the volunteers, who was a docent at one of the local museums in Baton Rouge, sees him with the poster and says, “Oh my God, that’s a great poster from Huey Long’s 1936 campaign. There’s one hanging in this museum—there’s one in the Smithsonian”—blows the whole story. And by the time the producer came, I’m like, “Sorry! The cat’s out of the bag. I didn’t blow this; the fucking volunteer did!” The volunteer didn’t know they were doing something wrong. They were a pain in the ass, but blameless. And conversely, also in the green room, we try to keep people from talking to each other, because another guest could be like, “I know what that is!” We really, really, really try to keep it all under wraps until the on-air.
HA: And we respect and appreciate all of our volunteers in every city.
NL: Yes! By the way, the volunteers are great and they make the show run. And you know I’d tell you otherwise.
AVC: It’s nice that the show often features items for their historical interest, and the big payday only comes into consideration sometimes.
NL: Right, you sometimes ask the guest, “What do you want to know about this?” And the honest guest will say, “I want to know what it’s worth.” That’s—99.9 percent, that’s what they say. Some people say, “It was left to me by my grandmother. I always thought it was nice, but I don’t know the story.” The story is really part of it, and a great part of it.
AVC: How long does it take from identifying the item to getting the guest on air? And how do you prepare in that time?
NL: The guest comes to your table. You see something that strikes your intellectual or appraiser fancy. You send for a producer. That could take 30 to 40 minutes, sometimes a little bit longer. You never know. It depends what the flow of the day is like. Keep in mind, throughout the course of the day, some 6,500 people show up with two objects apiece. So you’re really looking at 13,000 items. And again, everybody’s trying not to give short shrift to the people who have waited on line. So if you spent a minute with every one of hundreds of people, it backs up.
If somebody walks in at 7:30 a.m. with a piece, the producer will be there right away, and the guest will go on right away. Once the day gets underway, and the producers are running around—they’re all on their walkie-talkies, their headsets. They have lists of the appraisers they need to see. In the afternoon, if we get a pitch approved, it could be three or four hours before the guest is on air.
Now, at this point, there are different modes of handling oneself. And I have heard tell that there are some appraisers who then take two or three hours, walk away from the table and do “research,” in inverted commas. On some tables, that’s fine! But at our table, where there’s such a long line, if I leave for half an hour, I’m basically throwing my tablemates a huge amount of work. So we try to stay away for as little time as possible.
At the same time, sometimes you do have to do research. A lot of these things, we really do know. Price, we have a good idea for. But things likes dates of artists being born and dying, we may not have that committed to memory. Certain parts of the story that need to be put into historical context. There’s sort of a transient office in the back where the show has set up computers. We make some notes and then come back to our table to meet and greet the general public for the next few hours until we’re told to go to makeup and get ready for the taping.
AVC: You mentioned that the person doesn’t know whether they have a treasure or a sophisticated forgery. When it is a fake, how do you approach that? Is it awkward?
NL: I’ve never really had that experience. There is the overhanging concept that if you go on television with a very sweet person who has something that’s not kosher or good, you will be nationally known as the dream-buster. Especially if it’s, like, an old lady. You’re the appraiser who breaks this old lady’s heart on national television. There are certain appraisers and certain fields where there are more forgeries and fakes than others. For example, tribal art and antiquities tend to have more. In our field—I’m trying to think. Hannah, can you think of any time that someone at the paper table has gone on with a fake?
HA: Not in recent memory.
NL: Yeah, it just doesn’t really happen. I guess if someone came in with a perfect fake of a Picasso print that should be worth $200,000, that might be worth it, but usually what people come in with are Xeroxes. And you don’t want to waste four hours of somebody’s day—or your own day—to take somebody on TV with an item that is blatantly no good. I think Goodwill shops across the country sell Manet reproductions, almost paint-by-numbers, and people just buy them. If it’s something that’s so obviously fake, you don’t want to take them on TV and be like, “You just bought a paint-by-numbers.” There’s no joy in that.
HA: A big reason that we film fakes is as a teaching moment. We’re not just trying to crush dreams or make “good TV.” We want to teach the public what to look for. If there’s something that wouldn’t be that teachable moment, we’re not going to take the time.
NL: That goes back to the fact that it really is about the story. I’d be very hard-pressed to think of another show where people can learn as much as they can from the Roadshow. I honestly think it’s the rare time that you can watch TV and be finished and say, “I feel smarter.” The Roadshow makes you feel smarter. It’s a nice feeling. It’s a sexy feeling, if you have that kind of mindset.
AVC: What happens to people after an appraisal of an especially rare item? Here’s this person with this $20,000 poster. And now they’re just walking through the convention hall back to their car?
NL: I’m not sure where the cutoff is, but there is a point where, if an item is really worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the person will be escorted home by the local police. Our head of security, Sean Quinn, arranges that. I don’t know the full machinations of how that works, but yeah, if you show up with an Indian blanket that was draped in front of your fireplace, and you walk out of the show knowing that it’s worth $450,000—I’ve never had something so valuable that people needed to protect it.
HA: I’m not sure that there’s really a monetary cutoff. If it is over $100,000, [offering security] makes sense, but even if it’s a little less and the guest doesn’t feel comfortable leaving the convention center—with tons of people who just learned how much money their item is worth—we’ll just have one of our security members escort to their car.
AVC: Nicho, you’ve appraised a couple of very large artworks, and of course other appraisers work with large pieces of furniture. How do people get these gigantic items in there?
NL: Well, it’s funny. A lot of the furniture is pre-arranged to get there. The very large pieces of furniture, like when you see the furniture that’s the backdrop of the set, that furniture has been chosen in advance. I can’t speak to that, because I’m not that person.
HA: We’ll have a call for furniture. We’ll decide a few items that we’ll transport for you, and then the rest is basically up to the guest. If they feel like bringing it, they can bring it. But there are a few pieces on set, like Nicho said, that we predetermine.
NL: I have seen some people drag in some awfully big frames. It’s really astounding what people will bring in. People make dollies, they make shipping boxes—there could probably be a whole spin-off show on what people do to cart their art. You’ll see people with a little red cart. One of those [Radio] Flyer carts. And they’ll have 18 feet of furniture precariously balanced on it as they try to wheel it through. It’s amazing. American ingenuity at its best.
AVC: The appraisers, I imagine, aren’t allowed to purchase or make any offers for the items themselves—
NL: Not only aren’t we allowed, but we are appropriately and militantly not allowed to do it. That is probably the show’s cardinal sin.
AVC: Is that an ethical thing that extends beyond the TV show?
NL: No, in fact, it’s to keep the show as clean as real as possible and avoid any conflict of interest. It does not extend past the boundaries of the show. Here’s an exchange that would often happen. We’re not even allowed to hand out our business cards. I do an appraisal for you, and it does or does not get on TV, but it’s a $5,000 piece, and you say, “Can you sell it for me? Can I have your business card?” Which would be a normal thing to ask under the circumstances. The answer is, “I actually can’t give you my business card here, but as you’re leaving the convention center, there’s a table by the exit that has all our business cards on it. You’re welcome to take mine and call me during the week, and we can discuss it.” That’s completely legitimate, and it sometimes happens.
AVC: You have a distinctive presence on the show, and there are a number of other recognizable faces. Does the production encourage appraisers to develop an on-air persona, or do they leave you to your devices and let you be yourselves?
NL: Completely left to our own devices. We are neither discouraged nor encouraged either way.
AVC: It’s a pretty interesting group.
NL: It’s a great group. In any field, [if] you get people who are passionate about what they do into one place—for us, these are 13-hour days. This is not easy. Talking nonstop for 13 hours can be exhausting. What’s so nice for us is not only the things that we see but it’s also—in golf, it would be the 19th hole. It’s the time after the show or the night before the show when we’re all in the hotel bar together, or we’re all having dinner. It’s the people you meet, the connections you make. It’s a really nice sense of camaraderie.
AVC: So has being on the show broadened your community, then?
NL: It’s certainly broadened my Rolodex. Now, if someone comes to me professionally at Swann and says, “Hey, I’ve got some posters to sell, and I also have a Japanese 13th-century ornamental sword,” I’m like, “Wow, that’s funny, because I can help you with the posters, and I know just the person you can call about the sword.”
AVC: How were you originally recruited for the show?
NL: It’s ancient history. I don’t actually remember. Two other people from Swann, Todd Weyman and Daile Kaplan, also go out on the show, and they were on it first. I joined, I believe, the last show of the third season. But it was early days of the show, and they were desperate for help. Back then, the show didn’t have a following. It was hardly known. They were really trying to fill seats. So if I started—Hannah, what year are we in now?
HA: We’re airing our 18th season.
NL: Eighteenth. So that would have been 15 years ago. For the first three or four years [of traveling with the show], people just didn’t bring in posters because nobody had seen them before. It was sort of a catch-22. They won’t bring it in unless they see it, and they won’t see it unless someone brings them in. The first three or four years, I basically just went on the road. Had some very nice trips, very nice meals, talked to a lot of people about shitty stuff, and then went home. And then little by little, it began to snowball.
AVC: Since you’ve started appearing on Antiques Roadshow, have you seen more interest in poster collecting? Have you made it more popular?
NL: That’s a very hard thing to codify. Narcissistically, I would love to believe that I have done some great work and had a great effect, but I haven’t actually seen anything to prove or disprove that. I mean, America is a big country. I’ve certainly experienced the effect that being on the Roadshow has had via people coming into the gallery and saying, “Hey, I recognize you from TV.” Or the calls I get—in fact, just this week, on Monday night, they aired the premiere episode from Detroit. I got an email from someone saying, “I saw you on the Roadshow with an Andy Warhol poster. I have an Andy Warhol poster. Do you want to sell it?” So I’m not specifically sure that means that market is bigger, but I feel like somewhat of a proselytizer, and I’m sort of getting the word out there more—with my “cartoonishly precise enunciation,” John, I might point out. [Laughs.]
AVC: When I wrote that, I thought, “I hope if he reads this, he takes it in the spirit I intended.”
NL: No, I’m flattered by that! As you may recall, I did a segment on an Oscar Mayer weiner poster. And I think I started it off by saying, “My colleagues all say I’m a big ham.” So I can take it, I appreciate it, don’t get me wrong!
AVC: How much interaction do you have with the host of the show, Mark Walberg? Do you see him at all aside from the occasional field segments?
NL: During the actual day of shooting [at the convention center], I believe at least half the day, Mark is off-set doing another one of those field shoots. Then he comes in and he does his “Welcome to New Orleans! Here in the Crescent City…” blah blah blah. Then he walks around. He tries very hard to see everybody, say hey, the sort of glad-handing. It’s not a tremendous amount of interaction, but he’s there.
AVC: Where do you buy your suits?
NL: You know what? It’s a bad question to ask at this time—I’ll tell you where—because the company went out of business. It’s a company in England called Bookster. I was buying from them for years, and they folded. Actually, in the middle of one of my orders, they folded.
AVC: What are you going to do?
NL: I’ve found another British vendor. I’ve ordered one suit from them, which should be coming in a couple weeks. Assuming the cut is good, I’ll keep ordering from them. The suits have served me incredibly well. People will sometimes see me on the street wearing a gray suit and say, “Hey, where’s the suit?” So now life begins to imitate art, and I start wearing the suits more often.