Mason-Dixon Arrive, January 2008
When I heard that PBS' insanely popular show “Antiques Roadshow” was coming to Baltimore last summer to tape three episodes for the new season, I had to be there. Who hasn't watched this show at some point and been captivated by the interesting items that are appraised and anxiously waited for the appraiser to reveal the true value to the owner? Responses range from “Oh, my goodness, I had no idea it was worth that much” to “That's it? Why have I been hanging onto this piece of junk?” The unscripted responses on the show have become so popular that the television show “Will and Grace” even dedicated an episode spoofing the surprising responses shown on “Antiques Roadshow.”
Many times when I - like many others, I'm sure - have watched the show I've wondered how in the world does this show work. Where do these people come from? And how do the appraisers know so much about every item? So, last June, Vicki Franz, publisher of Mason-Dixon ARRIVE, and I were invited by WGBH Boston, which produces the show for PBS, to come down to the Baltimore Convention Center to watch how the show comes together and take a peek at the filming of the Baltimore episodes, which will air locally on Maryland Public Television on Jan. 7, 14 and 21 to kick-off the 12th season of “Antiques Roadshow.” Better, yet, we were told that each one of us could bring two items to be appraised so that we could experience first-hand how it works. We were thrilled.
For those not familiar with the show, “Antiques Roadshow” is described by its producers as “part adventure, part history lesson, and part treasure hunt.” The variety of objects appraised, the personal stories attendees share and the drama when the value is revealed contribute to the show's popularity. Since Season Two aired in 1998, the show has been the top-rated show on PBS.
Each summer, the show travels across the country and chooses six or so cities to showcase, carefully choosing locations that can not only accommodate the large crowds - about 30,000 participants attended the 2006 summer tour - and production needs, but also represent different geographic parts of America. Members of the local public television station submit their names via postcards or online, and 3,400 lucky attendees are selected by a random drawing for each location. Each winner is given two tickets with a timed entry and allowed to bring two items to be appraised free of charge. Incredibly, every person who attends has their items verbally appraised, and the show's appraisers and producers select 50 or so items to be broadcast on the show.
We arrived early on a Saturday morning in downtown Baltimore, anxiously awaiting our chance to have our stuff appraised. As I pulled into the parking deck near the Convention Center, two ladies from Pennsylvania carting their treasured possessions waved and screamed at me in excitement. It was if they were heading to a football game. Vicki, my partner Paul and I were greeted by the media relations staff of WGBH and instructed to head to the generalist table. Along the way, we were told that Baltimore was chosen because of the great variety of items they expected people to bring, its East Coast location, as well as the fact that as a port town, a great number of antiques came through Baltimore, many of which stayed here. Also enticing was the fact that Baltimore is not a very transient city, in that people stay here and pass down family items to other local relatives.
Every attendee goes first to the generalist table; that is, after waiting in a rather large line. I was amazed at the number of people and how quickly they were directed onto the set. At the generalist table, an appraiser reviews your items to decide which appraiser you should see. The exhibition hall was broken into about 20 different categories - everything from Textiles to Art, Furniture, Books & Manuscripts, Jewelry, Tools & Implements, Silver, Clocks & Watches, Sports Memorabilia and Toys & Games.
Appraisers are situated at each area. At each taping, 70 to 80 appraisers from the show's pool of 150 appraisers are present. Each appraiser sees an astounding 700 people and 1,400 objects per hour. What viewers don't see is that each appraiser looks at an item carefully for identifying marks, signatures, brands, quality, condition, apparent age, the material of which it was crafted and other characteristics. Appraisers then confer with colleagues and conduct research on the Web and with library books onsite to determine the origin, artist or manufacturer, period of the piece and current market value. This research can take hours, and the information is given to attendees to educate them more on their possessions.
Our first stop was the Textiles area, as Vicki had brought along a rug she had bought in Connecticut. Here we met appraiser Peter Pap, owner of Peter Pap Oriental Rugs, Inc., with galleries in Dublin, N.H., and San Francisco. Vicki told Peter that she had bought the rug in an antiques shop in Connecticut about 15 years ago. When she purchased it for about $350, she was told that it was a good example of an 1800s rug. As Vicki eagerly awaited her fate, Peter gently looked the rug over and determined it was a rag-style rug. “The colors suggest that the rug was made sometime around the turn of the 19th century,” he said. “The rug's value has not depreciated since you bought it, and while hook rugs have taken off in value, rag-style rugs have remained the same, so this rug would go for the same price today.” While this was not the answer Vicki was looking for, Peter did tell her that the rug makes a great display and urged her not to try to remove the small stains present. “Just use the side without the stains,” he suggested.
Somewhat despondent, we next headed to the Paintings & Drawings section to see about a piece of artwork Vicki had brought along that was a gift to her husband's grandparents when they visited Chicago in the 1960s. At the Paintings & Drawings table, we met Debra Force, owner of Debra Force Fine Art, Inc., which provides appraisal and consulting services in American paintings and drawings who has done for research and valuations for appraisers, museums, the Justice Department and major collectors. Vicki explained to her that her husband's grandparents were “very big in the local Baltimore opera scene and close friends of Rosa Ponselle (the 20th century opera diva). Their speculation was that it was a drawing of an opera set.” Debra quickly went online to “Ask Art,” a Web site used by appraisers for research. Here she found that the painting was done by Julian F. Dove. “He was born in 1871 in Hamburg, Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1905. In 1933, he moved to the San Francisco area and settled in Berkeley. He commuted by ferry every day to San Francisco where he created stage sets for the opera there. He died in 1945 in Sacramento.” Buoyed by the confirmation of the family tale of the artist's opera connections, Vicki inquired about the value. “I'm really responding to this piece because of its quality and size,” Debra said. “Also, the medium is unique and very difficult to do.” Debra explained that the medium involved watercolor and a medium similar to it called gouache, which is heavier and more opaque than watercolor as a gum substance is added to the paint mixture. “Also, the mat is acidic, so I'd encourage you to get an acid-free backing or get a new mat,” she urged. “As for value, it's a nice piece of art, and I'd put a value of $2,500 to $3,500.” Yippee!
Our next stop was the Furniture area, a large area to accommodate the extremely large pieces that some people bring (for those looking to bring large pieces that they cannot transport themselves, photos are submitted months in advance and those selected have their pieces transported to and from the site by “Antiques Roadshow” by a bonded carrier). Paul had decided to bring a desk that had been passed down through his family in central New York State. Family lore stated that the desk was owned by Arthur H. Norton, Paul's great-grandfather, who utilized the desk as a traveling reporter in the Civil War. Paul brought along some antique photographs of Norton, which rest on the desk at home. Appraiser Andrew Brunk, who recently left his position as Head of the American Decorative Arts Department at Christie's, New York to return to his native North Carolina, where he rejoined his father's firm, Brunk Auctions, noted that the interiors of the desk were original. However, he concluded that the desk would have been situated on top of another piece of furniture and would not have been used as a traveling desk. Although it is from New York, he said, it was made in the 1870s, too late for the Civil War. “It has clear circular saw marks, dictating a period where furniture was made in mass production,” Andrew said. “There is not much wear on the bottom of the desk, so there was definitely something beneath it. It has a very New York appearance and a walnut top that has had a stain applied to it. It's not especially rare and since it's missing the bottom piece, the value is a few hundred dollars.” Ugh. Although disappointed, that is what makes this show so special - you get to find out something you never knew about your possessions. Andrew added that the sentimental value of having a family piece, especially with the photos of the original owner, is significant. He's very kind.
The last stop on our personal “Antiques Roadshow” tour was the Books & Manuscripts area where we would find out more about an original autograph of President William McKinley Paul had purchased that appeared to be the bottom portion of a document. Appraiser Chris Coover, vice president and senior specialist in manuscripts for Christie's, said, “It's beautifully engraved with amazing detail and quality, especially the decorative flourishes and scripts.” Chris confirmed that it was “definitely McKinley's signature. He was very proud of his signature. Although there are not a lot of collectors looking for McKinley's signature - the big ones are Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington - the fact that he was assassinated in office makes it interesting. If you had the whole document, it would be worth $800; this portion is worth $250.” Not bad for a piece that hangs on a dark hallway at home.
While none of our items were selected to air on the show - items are chosen after an appraiser pitches an item to a producer, who decides whether the appraisal should be taped for broadcast consideration - I did bump into one gentleman whose painting was selected. Dan (we're not allowed to print his name for privacy's sake) came to Baltimore from Alexandria, Va., to get a painting by W.L. Metcalf appraised. “I was looking around my late wife's grandfather's attic and almost stepped on it. I've heard that Metcalf was a second-tier Hudson Valley landscape painter. The Cleveland Museum looked at it in 1965 and at that time, I think it was worth about $3,000. I think he painted it in Central Park in New York. I grew up in Connecticut, so the colors reminded me of Connecticut,” Dan said.
Wonder what Dan's painting will appraise for … will it be a disappointment or will he find out that he found a hidden treasure in the attic? Well, we - along with the rest of America - will get to see his reaction as it happened that day, which is what makes this show so much fun.