Antiques Roadshow

Festivals, Traditions
on January 16, 2005
George Doane

Sabrina Keil shifts nervously from one foot to the other, anxiously twisting the Navajo bracelet on her right arm. She is one of 5,000 people waiting in line to participate in Antiques Roadshow’s appraisal and show taping in Reno, Nev.

As Keil, 36, inches forward in the long line winding toward the Roadshow entrance at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, she glances at the bracelet occasionally and whispers, "My mom gave this to me. I wear it all the time. I’d never sell it, I just want to know more about it."

Keil, an in-home caregiver, made the 70-mile trip to Reno from Quincy, Calif. (pop. 1,879), to experience Roadshow first-hand and learn more about her treasured memento. "As soon as I heard it was coming, I called my dad and said, ‘Let’s go!’" she says. "I’ve been watching the show for a few years. My husband and I really enjoy it."

After waiting in line for more than an hour, Keil is approached by the appraiser on duty for American Indian artifacts. In just a few moments, he inspects the bracelet with a magnifying glass, closely examining both front and back and the detail around the large turquoise stone centered on the silver bangle. He estimated the bracelet is about 75 years old and values it between $800 and $1,200.

"I thought it was only worth $500," Keil tells the appraiser, exclaiming, "I’m just tickled and thrilled! My mom wouldn’t believe it."

The experience was over in less than two minutes—participants can receive appraisals for only two items each—but for Keil and her family the information was priceless.

People love stories
"People just love this show for a lot of reasons," says Noel Barrett, a toy appraiser in Carversville, Pa., who has become one of the show’s most famous faces. "I’ve always said the reason it was such a success is because it’s a combination of The Gong Show and Strike It Rich. Is it going to be a hit or a miss? Is it real or is it fake? Is it worth $20,000 or 10 bucks? That element is there.

"There’s been a lot of copycats on various cable channels, but none of them have had really any lasting power, primarily because they don’t understand the real dynamic of the show," says Barrett, 64. "It’s not about value, really, although that’s a little something extra. It’s really about the stories. The thing you’ve got to understand is we’ve looked through about 5,000 people, each with two objects, and we shoot about 50 or 60 for the show. There’s a lot of stuff that comes in and doesn’t make it on the air because it’s not a great story. People love stories."

More than 20,000 participants annually flock to the Roadshow’s nationwide tour, hoping to discover if their family heirloom or garage sale find has any value at all. "In Pittsburgh the second year, we had 5,300 people. People were camping out, like a rock concert," says Barrett of the days before the show handed out tickets with specific arrival times to avoid long waits.

People often travel long distances just for a chance to have their belongings evaluated. "We had one woman drive in her camper from Louisville, Ky., to Houston (Texas) with some silver-plated spoons," Barrett says. "The appraiser found out her story and he said they were worth a little more than he thought they were worth, just to make her feel a little better. She was fine with it. She said, ‘Well, I just wanted to know.’ A lot of people just want to be part of the event. You’ve got to realize this is one of the few television shows that almost anybody can get into."

On-the-road show
The 2004 tour, which was taped for broadcast in 2005, also made one-day stops in St. Paul, Minn.; Omaha, Neb.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Portland, Ore. Three episodes are filmed at each stop, each one featuring about 15 different appraisers, which include independent appraisers, dealers and experts from auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonham & Butterfields.

The show has uncovered rare finds such as an 18th-century chair and portrait belonging to the first president of Harvard College, valued at about $100,000, and a Jefferson peace medal carried on the Lewis and Clark expedition that’s worth up to $50,000. Precious discoveries also have included an African-American celebration motif pottery jug, which was valued at $70,000, and a card table bought at a yard sale for $25 that eventually sold for $541,000.

"There was an amazing hand-crafted train model from the 1800s, crafted by a man who worked on the railroad," Barrett says. "I figured it could be worth about $30,000 or $40,000. With folk art, it’s difficult to say.

"My favorite thing that came through the door was a large Speedy Alka-Seltzer figure that had been used in advertising," adds Barrett, who later purchased the piece, which was worth about $3,500. "Christmastime came, and the gentleman wanted some money and he called me up and I got my Christmas present." After restoring it, he placed in his living room with his other collectibles.

Answers about antiques
At the Reno show, Jennifer Manhar, a photographer from Fallon, Nev. (pop. 7,536), discovered her treasured family painting, a portrait of a family friend from about 1800, really was a treasure, while her cherished silver-embossed whiskey and perfume bottles were not.

"I hardly slept all night; I couldn’t wait to come here," says Manhar, 64. Glancing back toward the appraisers wistfully, she adds, "It was over too soon, and I wish I could have brought more. It was a wonderful experience."

Families are part of the experience, too. Tom and Michelle O’Donnell of Reno brought their two children, Kyle, 14, and Reilly, 11, to the event. Kyle found his antique toy tank was worth about $60, while Reilly learned details about her 1930s costume jewelry. Michelle says the entire family enjoyed the experience, especially learning more details about their cherished items.

That’s one of the keys to the Roadshow’s success, according to Marsha Bemko, the show’s executive producer. Most people don’t want to sell their items; they just want to know the history and background of the piece.

Appraisers on the show travel from all over America at their own expense. Some of them have become well-known icons on the show, and all of them eagerly share their knowledge. They are as excited as the guests are when they find a valuable object.

Barrett, as famous to Roadshow viewers for his ponytail and quick wit as he is for his encyclopedic toy knowledge, has some good advice for novice collectors. "They’ll start seeing things that strike a chord with them," he says. "Maybe they won’t—if not, forget about it. People should collect it if it speaks to them, and they want to have it as a part of their life."

Antiques Roadshow, which launched its ninth season this month, originated in England with the BBC more than 25 years ago. Peter McGhee, then the vice president of national programming for WGBH, saw the show overseas, liked what he saw and worked out a deal to start an American version. (WGBH, Boston’s PBS station, produces about a third of PBS’s programming, including Masterpiece Theatre, This Old House and Frontline.) Roadshow is the most-watched primetime series on PBS. The one-hour show, which airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings), is watched by 10 million viewers weekly and has become a recognized part of America’s pop culture, as evidenced by recent mentions on shows such as Will & Grace, Frasier and The Simpsons. This year’s series features 14 new episodes hosted by Lara Spencer, a correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning, America.

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