The brass and glass ornamentation was worthless. The smile on its owner’s face was priceless.
“It’s a legacy that’s been passed down in our family for over 200 years,” said Martha of Colchester, brandishing a showy brooch, “and I’ve learned it’s really worth nothing. But I don’t care. record. I had a great time!”
She was talking about her review by “Antiques Roadshow”. On July 12, the tectonic plates appeared to be shifting beneath the Shelburne Museum as the monstrous public television reality show arrived at its 47th filming location, the last of its five shoots this year. Nearly 3,000 lucky lottery winners – having answered the clarion call of “What’s in your attic?” – invaded the museum’s sprawling campus. They brought precious and childish artifacts, family heirlooms, and the wonders of yard, pocket, and U-Haul sales, all hoping to extract gold from the dross. Or from the less experience the thrill of the hunt.
A record 17,000 contestants competed for the free tickets, according to show staff, beating the previous record held by California of about 1,000. As the big day approached, tickets went on sale on Front Porch Forum. (Scaling free tickets? They must have been second-home owners.) By 8 a.m., the museum parking lot was nearly full.
Unless you’re a regular viewer of “Antiques Roadshow,” it can be hard to fathom the loyalty of its fans, who rival Deadheads in their devotion. But the legions know.
“It’s the surprise, the story, the hidden excitement,” said Laurie of Milton. (The show prohibits publication of participants’ surnames to avoid potential harassment.) Reggie, who traveled from North Westminster, explained: “You see unexpected items that have been passed down from generation to generation and tell us about it. long in our history.”
The show’s lead producer, Sam Farrell, is a 22-year veteran of the program. It has a two-word summary of its appeal: “American identity.”
Farrell added, “These are things, but people relate to them and they feel… not just nostalgia but a connection with the objects.”
For many “Roadshow” enthusiasts, the draw is the traveling troupe of experts who practice the art of detection, adept at discerning counterfeits from originals and gems from trinkets. Some are flamboyant, like the prints and posters of scholar Nicholas Lowry, whose tailored tartan suits could light up a coal mine. Then there’s pop culture and sports memorabilia scholar Leila Dunbar, a “Roadshow” lifer, whose superpower is hidden under unassuming street clothes. Asian art maven Lark Mason Jr., his signature bow tie glistening in the sun, commands rock star level groupies.
Objects are your ticket to ride, but if you want to be filmed for inclusion in the series, it all depends on the story. As Farrell noted, you can have something worth a million dollars, but a 10-cent story gets you nothing more than a pat on the back. Media types covering the event were allowed to bring in stories for review; I decided to test the theory with an engraving by artist James McNeill Whistler and what I thought was one hell of a (nearly true) story.
Ticket holders were invited to bring up to two items for evaluation. Once inside, they were directed to one of 15 sparkling white tents to be sorted. The Whistler, for example, fell into “Prints and Posters”. Once a treasure has been tagged, the owner has taken it to the appropriate appraisal station. The expert examined the object, inquired about its provenance and how it came into the possession of the owner, and – ka-ching — pronounced its approximate resale value and auction potential.
When value and history mixed together like fissile material, the “Roadshow” staff entered their version of DEFCON 4. The item’s owner was made a “guest” of the show and taken to a waiting room to await judgment under klieg lights. The price of near fame: waiting times of up to two hours.
Some attendees enjoyed so-called “snapshots,” or impromptu film shoots by a traveling crew with no sets or lights, just camera and action. Nancy de Danby stole the show with a Lucite coated baseball. When her late brother attended the 1995 USA Amateur Golf Championship in Newport, RI, she explained, he asked a young man named Eldrick “Tiger” Woods to sign a baseball bearing the named after cereal hero Tony the Tiger. When her family held an auction to raise money for a sick relative, Nancy bought the baseball for $450.
“Tony and Tiger’s combination is unique,” Dunbar said, adding that the ball would likely fetch $2,500 to $3,000 at auction. Nancy was happy. “I keep it, no matter what,” she said. “That’s what my brother would have wanted.”
Reggie of North Westminster offered a four-foot-long solid wooden stick from Africa which turned out to be a type of cold-grained pestle of little market value. His wife, Crystal, brought family jewels and modest expectations, but got a nearly five-figure valuation.
Nancy of Colchester, descendant of author Pearl S. Buck, brought in an expensive 18th-century Chinese artwork and won the cinematic treatment with the highly personalized stonemason. But even an elaborate 45-minute shoot isn’t guaranteed to make the cut for one of the three hour-long shows produced from Shelburne.
Senior “Roadshow” executives seemed thrilled with the location of the Shelburne Museum, itself a repository of antiquity. In an interview, museum director Tom Denenberg said talks to host the show began several years ago.
“It just struck everyone…if you’re talking about antiques and Americana, to have [not] been to Vermont was something they had to rectify. And that’s what they did,” he said.
The museum typically charges rental fees for special events, but payment for the show was “negligible,” Denenberg noted. “There are times when we do things where we rent the museum, but in this case…it’s the most-watched TV show on public broadcasting. You can’t buy that level of exposure.”
The Shelburne event will air when “Antiques Roadshow” begins its 27th season in January. Consider its longevity: the show debuted the same year a young man named Steve Jobs returned to take over Apple.
Back to personal history. After appraiser Robin Starr turned his trained eye to my etching of Whistler, I turned on my experience story. This is true: the artwork came into my wife’s family through her paternal grandfather’s second wife, a woman often referred to as WOSM for Wicked Old Stepmother. Seems like a perfect match for a guy known for painting his mother.
Starr liked the story, but she identified the work as a “second state”—essentially a reworking of Whistler—but not as valuable as her first attempt because there are fewer copies of the original. Rarity trumps quality. Go figure.
Was I disappointed? Nah, I had a great time!