An Antique Thang
By Barbara Chisholm, Fri., Aug. 21, 1998
It happened, as these things do, innocently enough. It was a Monday, and I was wandering aimlessly through the channels, seeking not so much entertainment as a diversion. The low-tech, almost cable-access look was what first caught my eye. I mean, the Roadshow is so technologically primitive as to make a Ron Popeil infomercial look likeTitanic. The camera set-ups are as plain-jane as they come, in two basic flavors: middle distance, so as to include appraiser, antique, and guest, or closeup on the antique. And the guests! The guests just don't have that blow-dried, puff-blush look of "studio audience members" of most staged participation programs. Clearly, if the producers of Antiques Roadshow were slaves to focus groups, we wouldn't see guests in T-shirts sporting logos of their favorite hometown eateries or color-coordinated jogging suits. These are truly folks on camera just as they arrived at the various convention centers around the country where the show is taped.
But quirky, low-glam natives from assorted U.S. burgs aren't enough to sustain a fascination. There has to be more, a hook. And Antiques Roadshow has one, although a simpler one would be hard to imagine. The premise of the show is that appraisers from reputable auction houses — are Sotheby's and Christie's good enough for you? — travel from city to city, setting up booths where the locals can bring their personal treasures for appraisal. That's it. I mean, that is completely it. Oh, there may be the occasional two-minute lecture on, say, blue-on-white dinnerware through the ages or carriage clocks, but that's only a momentary diversion from the hopefuls getting the lowdown on their goodies. And that's where the hook lies: The array of goodies brought out of these peoples' attics and dens is amazing: pre-World War II Japanese jewelry, a 17th-century English silver pitcher, a first-edition Barbie, a set of pearl-handled dentist's tools from the 1830s, a stainless steel guitar from the Roaring Twenties, a folk art windmill from before the Civil War, an Inuit fishing helmet, a Hogan's Heroes lunchbox. Every show is a parade of incredible objects, souvenirs of history rescued from extinction and lovingly preserved in some hidden corner of our land. You get hooked on the history. This curio is brought in — what the devil could it be? — and you're captivated as its purpose, its past, is revealed to you.
The scenario is always the same: The expert asks the guest to tell as much as he or she knows about the object — where it was made; how it came into their hands; what, if anything, the guest paid for it. The guest gives a brief spiel about the specifics of the item, then the appraiser provides more of a background, usually including information about the era in which it was made, a history of the artist or manufacturer of the item, what materials were used in its making, and the rarity of the piece in the world today. Now, I don't collect. In fact, in my family I'm the anti-collector; my idea of dealing with a cluttered room of keepsakes and souvenirs is to haul 'em all out to the curb. Yet here I was engrossed by the description of the indigenous woods used in Australian boomerangs and the fact that a signature on a vase doesn't mean the piece is a true Lalique. Wow.
When the appraiser has illuminated the pedigree of the item, he or she then poses the Big Question: "Do you have any idea of the value of the piece?" The answer is invariably no, since they wouldn't be there if they did. Then we get our payoff: the Estimated Value at Auction Today and the guest's reaction. Gasps. Squeals. The occasional brave smile when the guest is informed that the treasure isn't worth the basket it was carried there in. The reactions are terrific. This isn't The Price Is Right, where audience members are practically ordered to go into fits of hysterics. This is low-key, no-frills public television, where the reactions are honest-to-god genuine and spontaneous. Which also means for the most part the reactions are barely concealed, somewhat stifled glee when the news is good, and it almost always is.
After a couple of weeks of surreptitiously watching the show on the 5-inch b&w TV in the kitchen (under the guise of washing the dishes), I came clean and confessed to my family. I was in love with this show. I couldn't get through a Monday night without it. I spent the week waiting for the next episode. I anguished over their reaction, but the most extraordinary thing occurred. My husband and 5-year-old daughter sat down and watched it with me, and they got hooked, too! Before long, every Monday was Antiques Roadshow night. We began to tape it, to talk about it with friends. My daughter even started to play Antiques Roadshow! She would take an object of yours, say, a watch, inspect it, and begin her assessment with the very familiar, "This is an interesting piece ... "
As I was explaining the appeal of the show to a friend of mine, I recounted the particularly devastating appraisal of the phony Lalique vase. The woman who had brought it in was clearly under the impression that she possessed a French treasure of considerable value. But, as we learned, a signature is no guarantee of authenticity and she was informed that it was worth relatively little. I thought how difficult it would be to hear such a thing on national television. My friend pointed out that this wasn't exactly national television, it was PBS and the only people watching were probably me and an elderly couple in Ames, Iowa. But here's the thing: There are a bunch of us out here. This nation's living rooms teem with Roadshow fans, glued to our sofas, listening to those gasps of delight while our eyes glance about the house wondering what that dusty old plate from great-grandmother's estate is worth, wondering what we'll bring to the convention center when the Roadshow rolls into our town.
I don't know that Antiques Roadshow is headed to Austin anytime soon, but I do know that next Monday when the bouncy Dixieland theme begins and our affable host Chris Jussel welcomes us to another edition, that couple in Iowa and my family and who knows who else will be tuning in to see what treasures are in store.
Last week saw ABC airing the primetime special Soaps' Most Unforgettable Love Stories. As we all know, the law states that Luke and Laura are the official Best Soap Romance of All Time, so the interest in watching the show had less to do with learning what love stories fans were most enamored of and more the progression of bad haircuts through the years. Here again, Tony Geary — aka General Hospital's Luke — is the clear winner. The over-processed, chemically damaged Brillo pad on his head makes it difficult to hear anything he's saying; you're too dumbstruck by that Seventies ' fro. When it wasn't recycling clips from soap sagas past, the special foisted on us soft-focus, golden-light segments of the soap actors musing on their characters' feelings during these torrid affairs. These bits were hard to stomach, but never more so than when they took to quoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning to illuminate the enduring quality of the lovers in question. Urp! Truly not ready for prime time.