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The Crying Game

My initiation into the Antiques Roadshow

By Cynthia Adams

I still have an antiques hangover of epic proportions, the aftermath of the PBS Antiques Roadshow event last May at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art, shot for the program’s 27th season. This was only the second time the show has been filmed in Raleigh — and only the fourth time in its history it has come to North Carolina.

In fan parlance, the show is known as AR and first aired in the United States in 1997, now commanding an audience of 6 million viewers.   

A big deal with big drama.

It is based upon the original British premise: Folks bring cherished valuables for on-screen appraisals. Locations vary, but are typically museums or historic sites. Appraisers evaluate and explain whether they’re junk, bunk or treasure.

My fandom began decades ago, but my saga began early this year. 

With only five scheduled cities on the 2023 AR tour, I jumped to enter the online ticket lottery. By April, I was notified I had won tickets — a feat compared to getting into Stanford. 

On average, at least 8,000 applicants vie for 3,500 tickets. Those selected are limited to two objects (more allowed if a collection) for appraisal by the on-site volunteer experts. Fans are legion.

O.Henry colleague Ross Howell Jr. shares insight into just how far-reaching AR is, describing a scene from the former Foggy Rock Eatery & Pub in Blowing Rock. 

“There was a row of flat screen TVs along the length of the bar featuring the usual sports options, but, one night, things were fairly rowdy at the head of the bar, where the cash register was located. I thought maybe it was a football game, but instead it was a group watching Antiques Roadshow.” Fans included “preppies and trust fund babies,” but also “strapping mountain boys” in ball caps.   

“The bartender that night was a bearded, 6-foot-5-inch App State grad who now has his own flower growing business. Somehow, he was keeping a loose record of the valuations proffered by others at the bar as the item was being described by the expert on TV. I never quite gathered what the prize for guessing the valuation closest to the expert’s without going over was, but I think it had to do with who would be responsible for buying the next round of drinks.”

The experts, who gain national celebrity, come from some of the nation’s top auction houses.

At least 6,000 objects are appraised per event, according to the AR website. Raleigh featured 64 appraisers in 23 areas ranging from Ancient Art to Rugs and Textiles.

But, if I’ve learned anything since experiencing AR in person, it’s how I badly want to steal something — nothing I saw hauled in by the show’s many acolytes. Something cerebral, like the sharp and witty descriptions of the participants in Jay Kang’s Liars, Losers and the Lessons of Antiques Roadshow. Now that, I wanted to steal. Because Kang has broken down exactly what it means to, like me, become one with legions of liars and losers. 

The lesson? I, too, was prepared to fake amazement on live television. As if unsure whether baubles I dragged along truly merited the golden AR spotlight — before summarily learning said baubles were unworthy. 

That was the lesson. 

Am I a sore loser? I’m scouring the internet to find fellow liars and losers because . . . well, misery loves company. 

But I digress. Because the reason you’re here is my liar-to-loser exposé.

Learning my ticket admitted two, I gave one to fellow AR fan Larry. [Last name withheld because, well, there’s some shame in our game.] Thereafter, we weighed what items we would take for evaluation. 

On event day, May 16, we left Greensboro for Raleigh at 11 a.m., although our admission time wasn’t until well after lunch. We amused ourselves on the drive by practicing reactions: “Wow! You’re kidding me, right? I had no idea!” and pulling astonished faces.

If you’ve seen the show, you understand. For the rest of you, “Wow” is the conditioned response. It’s Pavlovian. When appraisers tell owners their signed baseball is worth a gazillion, or grandma’s churn is worth thousands, they all mutter the same dazed response: “Wow.”

As if they’ve never heard of Google search.

Nervously excited, we stop off for a slice of pizza and can barely eat for yakking. We have high hopes our treasures might astonish even the most jaded AR appraiser. 

Larry brings some prizes from estate sales: most importantly, a French painting along with some decorative objects, including Bactrian, or “mud,” camels. I have some heirlooms from my husband’s family, small enough to tuck into my purse. 

Pulling into the parking lot, heat radiates on the horizon. Waved through successive lots by the guards, we notice the decidedly older crowd, gesturing and animated. 

Collapsible wagons, the main accessory of the day, are being popped open and filled.

AR flags fly merrily, and navy-blue tents marked the museum grounds — like what exactly? “This looks like a geriatric Taylor Swift concert,” I mumble to Larry, who scored the prize he’s driving at an estate sale. The 2012 350 E Mercedes with only 81,000 miles is a honey of a find. (A great talisman, we had agreed en route.)

“We’ll either come home excited or come home with our tails between our legs,” he predicts. We grow suddenly sober. We had taken time away from work. But clearly, here is a crowd with nothing but time — and suspected valuables — on their hands.

Scores lug boxes or tug arcana and indescribable objects. Confusingly, some enter as others exited, given our staggered ticket times. On his way out, a white-haired man drags a darkly stained and shellacked tree stump festooned with carved stallions, legs pawing and tails flailing.

“What is that?” yells a hard-of-hearing AR fan. 

“A table!” chirps the owner. “It weighs 250–300 pounds.” Two people mouthed the requisite “Wow,” at which the stallion table owner glowed. For him, it’s worth it’s weight in AR gold.

Rather than exit, he suddenly heads for the AR Feedback Booth. Here one could roll the dice again in a last gambit to get on air with a self-effacing joke about how their treasure was mere trash.

We wade through the throngs. A man bearing dodgy looking brass vases howls, “They’re worth $2,000! And I only paid $300 for them!”

“Wows” follow. He bears a triumphant grin on the scale of the stallion stump table.

We trudge with the treasure-laden to Stage 1, called “triage,” to be assigned categories.

The screener in triage, now humorless as it was 1:30 p.m. and she had been on site since 6:30 a.m. — wearily inspects our objects. Her sweat-dampened hair sticks to her forehead.

We are separated for the rest of the day, Larry dispatched inside an air-conditioned museum building, first to Asian Arts then Paintings. (Later reporting that there were few in those lines.) I had no such luck, sent first to the popular Jewelry queue, the longest on the premises, before the even longer Decorative Arts and Silver line. Both are outdoors, where I crowd-watch — and bake.

Walking canes and wheelchairs are not uncommon. Some stagger past bearing weighty relics, curiosities and sundry collectibles.

As of 1:45 p.m., 35 people wait ahead of me. Occasionally, others are escorted by AR crew to the front of the line. Rather than advancing, I steadily lose ground. Standing on tiptoe, I spot natty Doyle Auctions appraiser Kevin Zavian, who wears a suit despite the heat. At the beginning, an electric energy ripples through the line, as we murmur about possibilities.

Yet, the reality goes from manic to depressive as we see stranger things by the hour. 

“Is that man carrying a tapestry on a broom or mop?” a woman asks behind me. Whatever it is, he bears it high like Joan of Arc marching into battle.

As my spirits flag, I spot AR Folk Art appraiser Ken Farmer. Which gives me a brief adrenaline blip. Thereafter, I lose track of time. The air grows stiffer, hotter, as we advance by mere inches, the tapestry bobbing ahead.

“Where did all these people come from?” I hiss in despair. I meet some people who have come all the way from northern Virginia and Charleston, S.C. I despondently imagine somebody driving from Calico Corners, North Dakot, a to break in line with a ukulele. It’s possible. Those of us in the “crowd of liars” are clearly prepared to drag said valuables to hell and back in hopes of newfound wealth, as Kang writes.

Cautionary AR emails warned, it will be a long day, one with lots of standing and waiting. But, somehow, being fabulists ourselves, we don’t quite seem to comprehend the truth of this. However, I brought along a folding chair, which I dutifully lug around all day without actually using it. (More liar madness. If I don’t sit down, hopping along with a chair, perhaps the line will go faster.)

Let’s face it. The odds are against any of us getting on air. There’s a staggering surfeit of quilts, pottery, china, swords, Bakelite jewelry, violins, signage, antique bellows and baskets.

[Fact: Of the most telegenic, rare or intriguing objects appraised at each AR location on the annual tour circuit, only an estimated 90 or so are chosen for recording. Even then, there’s the faintest possibility my precious keepsakes will make the final cut.]

Still, appraisers do their valiant best to winnow out rarities. Occasionally, video crews come through filming “B roll” of the lines of waiting hopefuls lugging everything from well buckets to Grandma’s bloomers. Some deemed “good television” are rare, but not Moon Rocks rare. 

Also curious, even the uber-confident sported shorts, T-shirts, even (gasp!) open-toed shoes. (Expressly forbidden in AR pre-event instructions. And how would that look on TV?) 

But it grows infrequent for AR crew members to randomly tap attendees for filming on set within the museum. The rest of us are left to languish with our sweaty armpits.  Merciful AR volunteers (who also scored admission and appraisals by volunteering) toss out water bottles to the parched crowd. As Larry said in one of our many debriefing conversations the whole day is about as exciting as “watching people bringing junk to a flea market. It wasn’t much better.”

As the line crawls along, Larry calls: “Well . . .” He drawls. “I’m going home with my tail between my legs.” 

The Asian Arts expert (likely Robert Waterhouse) tells him his porcelains are newish or fake. He’s pretty sure he knows who faked them.

“The Bactrians were not the early ones, like I hoped, but still worth $3,000–4,000 for the pair.”

And Larry’s other porcelains? His prized blanc de chine dogs? 

“They were old, but not as old as they were made to look. The reason he knew they weren’t was they both had worked for Sotheby’s. A fellow agent there had them painted. If they had been real, they would have been worth $30–40 grand.” 

And the painting? Appraiser Alan Fausel of Bonhams New York evaluates it matter of factly. Larry is hoping it’s the work of famous French landscape artist Jean Baptiste Camille Corot.

If authentic, it’s invaluable. If it was painted by someone “in the school” of the painter — and it seemed many imitations were attempted — the work might be still worth mere thousands.

Not a complete wash out, but a disconsolate Larry laughs bitterly.

By this time, I had met many other attendees, including Donna and Mike Moore, Judie Mapomo, and Angela Pozeamb — and heard their items’ backstories. A former Macy’s buyer brought two signed Tiffany candy bowls. Another had costume jewelry. Yet another Raleigh woman hauled a garish silver-plated sculpture. “I don’t even like it,” she confesses, as her exasperated husband is suddenly splattered by bird poop.   

By the time I reach appraiser Jill Burgum of Heritage Auctions in Dallas she looks beyond exhausted. 

At her invitation, I produce my treasure: three engraved rose gold studs in an oval antique box.

“Well, these are charming,” she says kindly, lifting one stud, which she promptly drops. Burgum drops underneath the table, too, searching the ground. A fellow appraiser is sympathetic. “Things roll, right?” he commiserates as my heart thrums.

I join her search. Noticing a glint of gold, I find it.

Burgum knows exactly what they are: 18-carat tuxedo studs. We purchased them in a South African antique shop for a pittance — perhaps less than $25. They bore a Birmingham, England, origin mark, dating them precisely to 1899. The original box was called a “coffin” and accounted for a portion of their worth, which was anywhere from $300–500. 

She wonders if it was emblazoned with the name of the actual maker or simply the reseller, guessing it was the later. Not a humiliating outcome, but what, exactly, had I expected?

Two grueling hours later, I summit the second antiques Matterhorn: Decorative Arts and Silver, poised before ARTBnk appraiser Kelly Wright. 

Opening my bag of treasures for the exhausted Wright, I quickly surmise he’s not particularly interested in my husband’s ancestor’s riches-to rags-saga. (A London-made fortune lost to mining in South Africa. Facts in my folder under the heading “Formerly Wealthy But Ruined Ancestors.”)

Wright, having logged hours in the stifling heat, understandably appears close to collapse.

I share what I can in the two minutes allocated. His eyes flicker to mine as he examines my two engraved silver match safes, an ornate glove stretcher, shoe horn and two pairs of grape shears. He reference-checks the hallmarks.

They collectively date to the 1860s, also hallmarked Birmingham, England. “Early Victorian,” Wright determines. The marks concluded they were plated . . . naturally, because the bankrupt ancestor was forced to liquidate the sterling. 

Only the less valuable silverplate was retained.

More bad news: The glove stretchers, etc., belonged to (incomplete) “dresser sets,” Wright explains wearily but patiently. Broken sets held diminished value. 

Wright shoots a pitying look. Given their antique value, they would now be worth only about $60 per item. 

All total, the heirlooms I’d risked heat stroke for were not worth $1,000. I imagine the boys in the bar at Blowing Rock booing me off the stage if I had been filmed.

The AR website suggested, “When your appraisals are complete, please spend time to explore our event venue and enjoy the festival atmosphere.” Rejoining Larry, who’s been waiting in the shade, I announce, “I’ve no desire whatsoever to visit that durn Feedback Booth.”

“Me neither,” Larry agrees. 

“The most valuable thing I got out of today was the free bottled water,” I complain.

“I liked my stuff better when I thought it was valuable,” Larry grouses, packing the trunk. Then we laugh. Irrationally merry.

He carefully threads his real treasure, his Mercedes, through traffic, hitting the Interstate, dissecting every hot minute.

“Do you think it’s kind of a racket?” Larry asks.

It’s, of course, a purely rhetorical question by that point.  OH