Antiques Roadshow

It was the thrill of the treasure hunt that first attracted me to Antiques Roadshow more than a decade ago—the notion that someone could acquire a priceless trinket from a yard sale or a neighbor’s attic with nothing more than a “good eye” for antiques. And that hidden-riches aspect is still fun.

But the lasting appeal of the show is its storytelling. Antiques Roadshow is, at its heart, a storytelling hour, using the various baubles carted in by Viewers Like You to launch three-minute excursions into American history and beyond. The program’s best appraisers know how to dramatize the intrigue that surrounded the first laugh-track machine, or to sketch a vignette of a Civil War general mulling troop movements in his journal.

These are stories that ought to be shared, and they’re delightful to hear, but they’re modest dramas, too minor for most of TV to bother with. The bite-sized segments and polymath sensibility of Roadshow, though, provide an ideal fit for such ephemeral narratives.

1953 John Kenneth Ralston Painting: $15,000

The stories on tonight’s episode, the first of three from Billings, Mont., are subpar. (In fact, I'm a little disappointed that this is the night that we chose to check in on the show for T.V. Club.) The premiere of a three-episode run tends to be the weakest, and I can only hope that proves true here. With all due respect to the good people of Montana, squeezing three quality hours out of Billings was probably a tall order anyway.

While there are highlights, too much of tonight’s show is given over to limp fare like the opening piece, a J.K. Ralston painting of a horse rancher on the trail. The rancher in question is the grandfather of the woman who brought in the painting. The appraiser struggles to weave a compelling yarn from this premise. Ralston had his studio out in the midwest, which was common among painters in the midwest, the appraiser notes. The man in the picture has a handlebar moustache—did your grandfather have a handlebar moustache? Why, yes, he did. OK, super. Your painting is worth $15,000. Go away.

The appraiser’s number here is an “insurance value” because it’s “a family painting—not something you would ever part with.” On Antiques Roadshow, “insurance value” means “more than you could ever sell it for.” I like that a little insurance fraud is baked right into the conventions of the show.

Goodwin Commode & Tuchfarber Lithograph: $2,600-$3,800

Another of Antiques Roadshow’s charms is that most of the appraisers have little to no ability to maintain fakery for the camera. The appraiser of this bedroom furniture, Brian Witherell, cannot hide his boredom at the beginning of the appraisal. This commode is dull, an anonymous one of probably thousands of commodes that have crossed the Roadshow transom. Brian Witherell hates this stupid commode. He can’t wait to stop talking about it. It’s worth like $600, but sweet lord, who cares? Not Brian Witherell, that is for damn sure.

Once they take the top off that awful, no-good commode, though, Witherell lights up. Because he’s found something inside! An old lithographic ad for shoes, printed on tin, that was hidden within the frame of the furniture. The elderly woman who brought in the commode isn’t in such rapture. She’s a member of that common variety of Antiques Roadshow owner who simply stands there and repeats the last word out of the appraiser’s mouth, in a vague facsimile of attention and understanding.

“This is what’s called a commode.”

“A commode! OK.”

“This ad is a lithograph.”

“Lith-o-graph!”

But Brian Witherell is simply tickled at his find, because Tuchfarber tin lithograph shoe ads are among the most coveted tin lithograph shoe ads. As everyone knows!

The cute old woman is pretty psyched, too, once she finds out that the ad is worth a few thousand bucks, putting that dumb jerkbutt commode to shame.

20th Century Diamond Jewelry: $14,000-$20,000

There are certain wares that I would be happy never to see again on the Roadshow. Enough with the Tiffany lamps already. They can keep the guitars, too, and the beaded Native American dolls. These are all beautiful objects, sure, but the stories are always the same. The appraiser gushes over how well-crafted the thing is and slaps a value on it. Oh, and vases, too. Vases are just death.

Jewelry is usually a winner. Thanks to the sheer variety of materials and shapes that the art form employs, the producers often get to select some unusual items to put on air, giving the appraiser something fresh to talk about. Tonight’s jewelry—a couple of fairly unremarkable rings and a diamond pin—is dull, which serves as an early sign that the episode will be patchy. I would have rather heard that prim lamp appraiser talk about “intricate metal work” for the billionth time.

Rowlandson Caricature Portfolio: $35,000

There’s some good people-watching to be had on Roadshow. Because the guests are screened not by personality but rather by the novelty of their items, there’s usually a few people in every episode who are a little “off.”

“I’m a book collector,” declares the owner of the latest item. “I look at books every day for the last 50 years. I think this is a book.”

This might be my favorite appraisal of the night. Because it’s not a book; it’s a collector’s portfolio of old British caricatures. And once the book collector learns this, he pretty much checks out. The caricatures themselves are kind of neat, but the real joy of the segment is every shot of the man’s sour, tight face, as he fumes over the fact that it’s NOT A BOOK. I don’t know why he cares so much about the semantics of the thing, but he does. He is a book collector who only wants to look at books.

Still, it’s worth $35,000! The man is unmoved. “Pretty expensive,” he mutters, the same way you would look at pictures of your coworker’s nephew in his Halloween costume and remark, “Pretty cute.”

1906 Roald Amundsen Artifacts: $5,000-$7,000

“I’ll take it back home and hang it on the wall,” shrugs the mopey owner of these items after her appraisal. In fact, she says so immediately after hearing their value. It’s a telling tic of many Antiques Roadshow visitors: They need to make perfectly clear that they will NOT be selling this item. They appear offended that the appraiser would put a monetary value on their priceless treasures, as if they were unaware of the show’s premise.

This is the unspoken value system of Roadshow. Once in a while, you’ll see someone who pops off and yelps that they’re to sell their stuff to the highest bidder. The appraisers inevitably squirm at this breach of couth. You’re allowed to call something a “good investment” or even to say that you “did really well”! Yet an explicit mention of capital gains violates the unspoken assumption that history, not cash, is the ultimate value of a thing on Roadshow.

Still, I wonder, is history truly best served by having this woman hang her Roald Amundsen banquet menu in the kitchen hallway of her suburban McMansion craphole? 

Silver & Glass Decanter Set: $5,000-$7,000
Art Deco Bronze & Ivory Sculpture, ca. 1930: $6,000-$7,000

Here’s a half-sentence that can lead to nothing but lies: “Now, the FUN part of this decanter set is…”

Two mundane items bring us into the mid-show history break, where host Mark L. Walberg and one of the regular appraisers head to a local landmark to look at some cool, expensive old stuff and maybe talk about history a little.

Walberg is the fourth and longest-tenured person to host Roadshow, and he is the best. I’ve been a fan of Walberg since his deft emceeing work on the GSN game show Russian Roulette, but he’s even better on Roadshow.

I admire Walberg’s ability to overcome the format’s inherent class tension, with little apparent effort. The eggheads of Roadshow’s elite appraisers can come off as snobbish, and the show has to be careful to manage the perceived distance between the experts and the masses. It’s no fun anymore if the experts are talking down to the guests.

Walberg eases the tension by carrying himself with equal comfort whether he’s chatting up an expert in Civil War weaponry or hobnobbing with the hoi polloi waiting in line. The first two hosts, Chris Jussel and Dan Elias, were too stuffy to pass as regular folk. Entertainment reporter Lara Spencer had the opposite problem: She always felt a bit too middlebrow. Walberg has managed to maintain the right balance—not even his star turn in Fox’s execrable lie-detector game show, The Moment Of Truth, has tarnished his dignity.

Grenfell Missionary Rug: $4,000-$6,000
19th Century Chinese Jade Brush Washer: $5,000-$7,000

Parents and grandparents like to tell stories about the antiques that they pass down to future generations. Antiques Roadshow teaches us that those stories are almost always bunk.

The owner of the rug, woven by natives in northern Newfoundland, retells a story from her mother that discarded stockings were used in the making of the rug. In the next segment we learn that the ancestors of the lady with the jade brush-washer claimed that it was given to Douglas MacArthur by Chiang Kai-Shek.

In a rare turn, the stocking story turns out to be true. But the next appraiser essentially laughs off the MacArthur claim and, for good measure, also points out that the date on the bottom of the jade piece is fraudulent. The thing is still worth a tidy sum, but no amount of money can buy away the shame that Jade-Brush-Washer Lady must feel after turning the Roadshow into a DEN OF LIES.

1897 Utah Semi-Centennial Cups & Tiffany Pin: $3,500-$6,000
Shoshone Painted Elk Hide, ca. 1895: $12,000-$20,000
1882 Folk-Art Birdcage: $4,000-$6,000

There may not be a more minor breed of celebrity than a “star” appraiser on Antiques Roadshow nonetheless, but they are celebrities nonetheless. My favorite is Nicholas “Nicho” Lowry, the poster expert whose garish taste in menswear must earn him some eye rolls from the more strait-laced members of the show’s appraising team. Lowry’s fashion sense, hulking frame, goofy visage, and cartoonishly precise enunciation make him a character, but it’s his passion for his field that makes him so likable. The man flat-out loves to talk about posters, and as such his appraisals are almost always fascinating.

Lowry isn’t on this episode, alas, but in this stretch of the evening we see the appearance of a few longtime Roadshow regulars. Bruce Shackelford is a cheery round Texan whose expertise lies in Native American art; he evaluates the Shoshone hide. Leigh Keno, who with his twin brother, Leslie, is probably the most popular appraiser on the show, looks at an ornate birdcage.

Keno’s segment is shot with a handheld camera and is free of on-screen graphics. The unspoken implication is that this is a candid look at the action on the show floor. That’s nonsense, of course—the handheld segments are just as carefully produced as the standard appraisals—but it breaks up the visual feel of the show, so it’s an acceptable artifice.

Keno refers to the birdcage as “folk art.” Because crass language is not allowed on PBS, “folk art” is used as a euphemism for “crap.” As in, “That’s an interesting piece of folk art you’ve got there,” or “Believe it or not, this folk art you brought in is worth $5,000.”

The appraisal of the Utah Semi-Centennial items by the show’s leading jewelry expert, Barry Weber, is the most significant of the night in terms of understanding the ethos of Antiques Roadshow. Weber gives a brief overview of the history behind the cups and the pins: They were created to commemorate the creation of Pioneer Day on the 50th anniversary of settler’s arrival in Utah. The holiday is still celebrated in Utah every July 24. 

The historical background is interesting. But Weber’s voice picks up as he notes something REALLY special: The box that holds the pin says “Tiffany & Co.” on the inside! The owner of the pins is unfazed, yet Weber hits the point again. “We know it’s Tiffany…the pin is marked Tiffany on the other side.” And so on.

The storytelling element of Roadshow always gives way to the final valuations. That’s the rhythm of the thing. These valuations are not about money so much as status. The fact that it says “Tiffany” on the box seems relatively inconsequential compared to the items' overall charm as pieces of Americana. So why is Weber more excited by Tiffany? Because, of course, that label imparts status. In its weird, ham-fisted way, “Tiffany” places this item in a higher class.

When someone has a painting of their grandfather appraised on Antiques Roadshow, it’s probably true that they aren’t looking to sell it, and they probably don’t care much about the insurance value either. The real reward is having a person of education and expertise say that their thing is valuable. To have it admired by a respectable sort, on public television, no less! The valuation isn’t a “rags to riches” thing; it’s an aspirational narrative that transforms junk into a status symbol.

(A sad side note: This is one of Weber’s last appraisals on the show, as he died late last year.)

German All-Bisque “French Wrestler”: $4,000-$5,000

I think that the producers of Roadshow like to play a little game. They compete with each other to find the ugliest doll on the show floor, and then they put it in front of a doll appraiser who inevitably explains, with complete earnestness, how exquisite it is.

This is the creepiest goddamn thing I’ve ever seen on this program, which is saying something, given the wretched parade of misshapen porcelain monstrosities that have marched their glass-eyed faces across the Roadshow screen in the past decade. The dolls on this show are simultaneously terrifying and hilarious.

Our little “French Wrester” is buck-toothed and naked except for a painted-on pair of cowboy boots and calf-high socks. (?????) Her twisted arms pole out of her torso at an anatomically impossible angle, and tatters of human hair cling half-matted to her scalp.

And yet there sits appraiser Floyd Jones of Chicago, Ill. He’s not associated with a particular firm like most of the appraisers, so maybe he’s just a guy who’s really into dolls. He’s really into this doll, at least, asking us to savor “the contrast between the flushness on the cheeks, the whiteness on the bisque.” I look forward to chatting more with Floyd about the whiteness of the bisque during my terrible nightmares tonight.

There’s no way that the people behind the camera aren’t in on this joke.

26th Dynasty Ushabti Figure, ca. 550 B.C.: $6,000-$8,000
English Silver Hunting Trophy: $3,000-$5,000

How is that a sacred talisman from a civilization more than 25 centuries old is worth just a bit more than a 250-year-old trophy given to Englishmen for shooting rabbits? I’d like to see a feature along those lines on Roadshow: Juxtapose two appraisals and then tell us why they make sense.

Of course, it doesn’t make sense. Collectors are insane, and therefore so are the prices they set. You see it all the time, when the appraisers talk about what “affects the value.” On one item, you’ll hear them say something like, “Well, the statue’s entire head is broken off, but that really doesn’t affect the value.” But then there will be a glass vase with a tiny bubble in it, and as far as collectors are concerned, you might as well throw it in the trash.

I love it when the appraisers taunt the owners with this capricious reality. “It’s worth about $200. But if it didn’t have this hairline crack here, it would be worth at least $5,000.” That’s so cruel, and they do it all the time.

1883 Arthur Brown “Yellowstone” Watercolor: $75,000-$125,000

The final appraisal of the night has become Roadshow’s unspoken big-money moment. When it’s getting toward the end of the show and you see a painting appear on screen, you can safely assume it’s going to be in the high five figures, and probably six.

This watercolor certainly ticks the big-dollar-figure checkbox, but the story is even better. English artist Arthur Brown painted 20 watercolors at Yellowstone in 1883. He took the works back to England to exhibit them, and then brought them back to the United States and sold them to Northern Pacific Railroad. The trouble is, according to appraiser Colleene Fesko, Northern Pacific has no record of buying the paintings, so nobody knew where they went.

This painting was one of the 20. “It’s a rediscovered masterwork,” she tells the owner, who’s floored. It’s a moment when Antiques Roadshow is at its peak, giving the impression that the program isn’t just relating the historical record, but also adding to it.