A Show About Antiques? Musty TV, It’s Not
It’s the unlikeliest premise for a television show: People haul out their grandmother’s vase, an old, dusty cabinet, a trinket from Japan or a worn teddy bear, take it to a local hotel, and have it discussed and appraised by auctioneers and antique dealers. That’s it. No car chases, no bloody shootouts, no steamy bedroom scenes, no laugh tracks.
It’s “Chubb’s Antiques Roadshow,” better known as just “The Antiques Roadshow,” and it is, in the public television sphere at least, a hit.
There’s the young man who brought in a well-worn family scrapbook--unremarkable except for the fact that it contained the original letter his great-grandmother wrote to the New York Sun asking whether there was a Santa Claus. The famous “Yes, Virginia” letter was valued at $20,000 to $30,000.
A woman was curious about a spice chest that had been in her family for generations. She was told it was a rare and valuable example of Americana from the 18th century and was valued at about $50,000.
A couple came with a vase that the husband had bought at an antique store. He believed it to be a signed Tiffany worth much more than the $400 he paid for it but was told it was a fake worth considerably less.
These and other stories make up an hourlong program that airs weekly on PBS, produced by WGBH in Boston and sponsored by the Chubb Group of Insurance Cos. It’s a knockoff of a BBC production that’s been popular for years in Britain, where antiques are a way of life. The American version is going into its third season as the highest-rated prime-time TV series airing nationally on PBS.
It’s done for antiques and collectibles what Julia Child did for French cooking--shaken off the mystery and intimidation, and made them accessible to middle America. There are Aunt Dot and Uncle Ned with that banged-up doohickey that’s been in the attic for years--wonder what it’s worth?
Sometimes a lot--a lot--as in five to six figures. Or maybe nothing at all if the piece is a fake or reproduction. It’s the dropped-jaw amazement, the drama, the buildup, the expectation of what something could be worth that keeps viewers’ fingers off the remote.
The premise is simple: The production team comes to a fairly sizable city--24 so far and due in Los Angeles on Aug. 1--and sets up in a large hotel or convention center. Reputable auction-house appraisers (from Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Butterfield & Butterfield) and antique dealers from around the country show up, and the public shows up with alleged valuables (the maximum is two per person). A free one-on-one meeting with an appraiser results in a little history about the piece and an approximate value. The most interesting of the lot appear on the show.
If there’s a secret to the show’s success, says executive producer Aida Moreno it’s the stories that people relate about how objects were acquired, how they were used and what significance they held in someone’s life. On one show, a woman related to two appraisers that antique hunting had gotten her through a bout with cancer.
“The value for me in the show is the story,” says the energetic Moreno, whose previous PBS credits include “Championship Ballroom Dancing” and “Let the Good Times Roll.”
“When we did the show in Nashville, a woman brought in some old school [composition] books that belonged to an Indian boy from the 1800s who sketched,” she says. “They depicted the daily life of this boy on the reservation. Talk about getting a chill.”
The book was appraised at $60,000 to $80,000.
Moreno also touts the show’s mini-history lessons, as objects are frequently put into a cultural and historical context. She also believes there is a great appreciation for “these artists, these great craftspeople of the past.”
Moreno was recruited for “Roadshow” by a WGBH executive who caught the British version while overseas years ago. Some time later, he asked her to check it out, which she did, quickly becoming a convert despite a dearth of knowledge about antiques.
“I knew that I could translate what was going on there to America,” she recalls. But first she had a little persuading to do. A show about antiques didn’t exactly set pulses racing.
“This is PBS, not CBS,” Moreno says. “We had to go out and convince people that it would be worthy of their sponsorship. I had to find appraisers and convince them that this would be worth their time. People have a right to be skeptical when you’re a little crazy. But I just knew this could be done.”
Not only did she have to make everyone believe this wasn’t going to be a televised version of paint drying, she had to ask the appraisers to work for free. (They also are not allowed to solicit business while working on the show.)
In its first season, the show went on the road minus the usual buzz and hype that accompany a new program. Only local advertising alerted the public. (The show tapes during the summer and begins airing in the fall.) Moreno recalls she would “pace, sweat and pray--anything to make sure there would be people at the door.”
A few hundred would show up in the beginning; but as word of mouth grew, so did the crowds.
By the second season, hundreds of people had turned into thousands, and Moreno knew she had her following. Now that crowds number 10,000 and more, “I worry in reverse--how do I take care of these people who can’t get in?”
Hosting the show is Chris Jussel, somewhat of an anti-host because he oozes none of the schmoozy insincerity that audiences have come to expect from TV spokesmen. Jussel, formerly the owner of the respected Vernay & Jussel antique dealership in New York, has an affable folksiness that complements the T-shirt and shorts crowd “The Roadshow” draws.
Jussel wasn’t even sure he wanted the job when he was asked to audition and, after one reading for a producer, promptly “chucked the script in the garbage. I approached it with a great degree of detachment. I was never a television person before and not sure I am yet. But the show seems to have found its niche.”
His theory on why the show has a rabid following has to do with its lack of pretension and slickness.
“This is real life,” he says. “These are the faces of America, these are American stories. This is not a scripted production. And all the appraisers and dealers are pros, and they have that enthusiasm and interest which I think comes across.”
Nowhere does that come across better than when Leigh and Leslie Keno are front and center. The twin brothers--Leigh owns Leigh Keno American Antiques in New York and Leslie is senior vice president at Sotheby’s in New York--appear often, talking about furniture. Their trademark is not only their extensive knowledge about antiques, but also their palpable and contagious glee when they find a true treasure.
“I learn a lot,” says Leigh Keno about what keeps him coming back. “Even though the majority of what we see is 19th century and mass-produced, just from seeing such a large number of objects, you can’t help but learn. We also see some fakes, and you can learn from seeing a faker’s method. You can even get excited about a poorly designed object, if it makes a statement about the period in which it was made. It speaks of our past and the people who made it, lived with it. The wear patterns can be beautiful in and of themselves. An object is really a tape recorder of the life that revolved around it.”
Whether the objects are fake or authentic, the most dramatic stories are the ones that make it to television. Those represent only a fraction of the thousands of pieces brought to “The Roadshow.”
“The vast majority of things that are viewed by us don’t make the grade to be on television,” says August Uribe, senior vice president and director of fine arts for Sotheby’s West Coast and who has been one of “The Roadshow’s” appraisers. “People will stand in line for eight hours and find out what they have is worth $20. But they’re usually pretty good sports.”
Yet not always. Uribe has had to lower a few people’s expectations.
“This one man had a pre-Columbian stone sculpture that he thought was an ancient relic, and he thought it was priceless. It was actually a copy of a very famous piece that’s at the British Museum in London, probably made in the 1940s by a notorious faker of pre-Columbian art. A lot of people bought these things in good faith, and their kids inherited them thinking they had masterpieces. The man was livid, to the point where he was shaking. I said, ‘Sir, I’m not trying to buy this piece for $5 and then resell it for $1 million.’ But they do sort of get emotionally involved.”
And just how do the appraisers decide on a piece’s value? Experience, of course, is their No. 1 resource. “The Roadshow” also travels with a 280-book library and has access to a computer database. Appraisers also often huddle with one another to determine a value.
Says Uribe, “We have about three people at each station, and there is a fairly decent chance one of us will know. The dealers know from similar pieces they’ve sold.”
If there has been any criticism of “The Roadshow” it’s that some antique experts feel some of the values given don’t accurately reflect a piece’s worth.
Bruce Graney of Bruce Graney & Co. antiques in Pasadena admits he’s only seen the show twice but feels some of the values were “inaccurate. But that’s television, and they want to get a reaction from the person they’re talking to. The general concept is a great idea, and it raises the awareness of what things are, and it gets people interested in finding out what they have.”
But, Graney notes, appraising can be a tricky business.
“The antique market is a notoriously inefficient market. Everybody knows what IBM stock sold for yesterday, but the antique world is very imprecise. And when they throw out these high values, the public gets misled. You can be told something is worth $4,000, but I can say I’ll offer you $1,000 for it.”
Others have pointed out that auction prices are subject to a number of variables. Just because an armoire sold for $50,000 one day doesn’t mean a similar piece will sell for the same price the next day.
Producer Moreno is familiar with these criticisms and admits, “This is a very subjective business. Something is worth what I am willing to pay for it.”
But she defends the appraisers’ work.
“Between them and their numerous years of experience, I will venture to say that you won’t find too many errors coming out on our side of things,” she says. “The appraisers are sometimes on the phone for two hours [getting information]. They don’t want to be wrong--this is their reputation. I’ve also heard that shop dealers are complaining that every time the show airs, they have people saying, ‘You know that sword that was on the show last night? I have its double! Now give me $35,000!’ ”
There will be some changes to the show this season, Moreno says. An occasional follow-up will tell whether a highly valued piece was kept, sold or donated, and a mailbag segment will answer viewers’ questions.
Moreno confesses she had no idea the show would be such a hit.
“Come on, I’d be lying if I said that. I’d have needed a crystal ball. I just hoped that it would grow well and gain an audience. And I’m just enjoying the ride while it lasts.”
* “Chubb’s Antiques Roadshow” is coming to the Los Angeles Convention Center on Aug. 1. For more information, contact the Web site at https://www.pbs.org/antiques.