Based on the BBC television series of the same name, Antiques Roadshow is to history buffs what CNN is to news junkies. It's televised candy. The premise: average Americans bring their 'buried' treasures for a qualified expert to examine. The item - depending on its provenance, age or quality - is given a value based on current auction prices or historical worth. But that doesn't even hint at the pure joy of the programme. Antiques Roadshow and its companion series for children, Antiques Roadshow Jr., offer the best of television viewing: a game show, a history lesson, a mystery and a drama - all in the same show.
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) brought the Antiques Roadshow to US shores after the BBC version established an extremely devoted following. However, you won't find grannies bringing their Staffordshire china down to the town hall in Milton Keynes in the American version; instead, it features Texans bringing chairs made of longhorn cattle horns and San Franciscans showing off their Inuit battle helmets in convention centres around the United States. Each week features a different city1, wherein a revolving series of experts join the host - formerly Chris Jussel, now Dan Elias - in greeting the guests, examining the objects and discovering historical sites, interesting museums or outstanding architecture in the featured area. The experts are usually owners of antique shops, auction house employees or just outstanding specialists in their particular field, which may be jewellery, weaponry, Civil War memorabilia, early-American furniture, Art Deco kitsch, Afro-American pottery... The list goes on.
How to Get on TV
The fun begins when Americans bring their stuff up to the table. Each convention centre is segmented into areas based upon the type of item in question. Queues form behind banners reading, for instance, 'painting', 'books' or 'mechanical toys'. People from all over the region wait patiently, holding a mysterious object draped in a quilt or proudly towing a desk in their child's Radio Flyer wagon. Once at the head of the line the experts and the television crew set aside those of unusual or educational interest to be televised. People can be chosen because either they've brought something really interesting or they have an outrageous fake that needs to be used as an example of what not to spend precious money on. Apparently in the US, many valuable antiques can be found at yard sales for ridiculously low prices. A common story shared by owners is that while out on a weekend morning they just happened to stop at a garage sale in the next town and accidentally bought a Chippendale sideboard. On the other hand, some doting husband may have attended an estate sale in a wealthy area of a big city and inadvertently payed thousands of dollars for a cheap item made in China during the 1960s. Viewers can usually tell when the latter will prove to be true, as the owner provides a huge amount of back story, such as:
My father brought it back from Czechoslovakia after World War II. He bought it from a lady who said she was a countess and got it as a present from the emperor of China when she was first married. I think he said it was from the Ming Dynasty...
Sure enough, it will be worth about $1.99. Conversely, people have been known to faint or run screaming off camera into a loved one's arms after finding out they actually own a Van Gogh.
While examining the antique or fake, the expert takes the time to give the owner and the viewer a little history lesson, discussing the region which made the antique, how it was made, historical events behind its construction and also the different kinds of collectors that would be interested in it. One such object, found on a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, was a child's toy: a series of pictures depicting African-American minstrels designed to scroll across a cardboard stage. Made in the 1880s it had stayed in one family for the last 120 years. Collectors of Americana, children's toys, Victoriana, and Afro-American memorabilia would all dearly want what was once a Christmas gift costing about two dollars.
So You've Got a Lakota War Bonnet...
Each item's value is based upon its rarity, interest to collectors, relative auction value and historical worth. Antiques Roadshow does not offer any of the items featured for sale, but the owner can choose to offer their antique to an auction house (and they may be contacted by parties that wish to acquire it). Or they can keep it and pass it on to the next generation.