THE BLOG

Behind The Scenes: Antiques Roadshow

08/02/2013 02:03 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2013
  • Bonnie McCarthy Style Anthropologist and freelance writer for home, design and lifestyle media.

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Nana lied.

Vintage clothing and textile appraiser for the 11-time Emmy nominated PBS series, Antiques Roadshow, Steven Porterfield, broke it to me gently. The vintage Burberry tote was not purchased in London in 1959 as I had been told...but instead picked up on a shopping spree sometime in the 1970s. An innocent fib, he assured. Happens all the time.

"I've had people who have brought me shoes they said their grandmother danced with George Washington in," recalls Porterfield, "and they were from the 1860s..." History fail. Maybe she didn't mean that George?

A veteran on Roadshow, the Midland, Texas based appraiser says, "I love the people. I love the stories they tell me... but sometimes you have to be really diplomatic... Everybody's item is a treasure to them, I always keep that in mind. It doesn't matter the value, it doesn't matter the condition, it actually matters that you can tell them about [what they have] and what they want to know."

So much for oral history.

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The Few, The Proud, The Ticket Holders

It was one of many light bulb moments I experienced during a behind-the-scenes look at Antiques Roadshow as it travels across America on the series' most extensive tour ever. Part history lesson, part treasure hunt the 17-year-old production has become so popular coveted tickets are now awarded through a random selection that would make Willy Wonka jealous.

In fact, 24,278 people applied for the free tickets to the Anaheim, California taping I attended -- but only 3,000 pairs were randomly assigned.

Sadly, I was not among the recipients. However, as luck and life would have it, there are perks to toiling away as a freelance writer and scoring access to one of my all-time-favorite shows appears to be one of them. Who needs a summer home on the Vineyard anyway? But I digress.

Clutching my tickets, a few inherited Japanese prints and what I now recognize as my 1970s-something Burberry tote I joined the lucky throngs.

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Antiques Roadshow appraiser Steven Porterfield and a colleague check out my tote.

Tickets are stamped with designated arrival times to ease the inevitable waiting and each visitor is encouraged to bring two items for appraisal. I discovered it was surprisingly hard to decide what to schlep to the show.

"It's like choosing who's your favorite child," said Roadshow fans Connie and Melinda (last names are required to be withheld for security reasons), "So we kind of didn't...I needed a chair to sit on, so this chair is a family piece," she explained pointing to a brown, patio chair. "It's classic Orange County." The ladies also carted a prize-winning quilt from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, an antique sampler, and a hand-stitched carpetbag with working lock and key that Melinda guessed, "could be something from the Civil War, or maybe the Middle East...I have no idea."

Connie's approach was different. "I wanted to bring the oldest thing I had in my home..." (Insert husband jokes here.)"...And since I inherited some crystal glasses over the years...and now have more than 40 pieces...I wanted to find out if the Roadshow could tell me the era, the manufacturer or the country of origin."

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The Line Starts Here

To begin the process, attendees line up according to arrival times stamped on their tickets to wait for their turn in the "triage area." This is where antiques and collectible generalists categorize the treasures into one of 20 different appraisal specialties. At this point the Antiques Roadshow experience echoes those of the folks waiting in similar lines at nearby Disneyland -- only without the animated characters, theme music or cotton candy.

Once you are handed a ticket for the appropriate appraisal area, a volunteer escorts you to the next step. You say goodbye to the new friends you have bonded with in line, exchange email addresses and promise to get together for lunch.

In theory, at this point, you would head straight to the appraisal table. In reality, you will be finding your place at the end of yet another queue and will commence getting acquainted with new line buddies. Yes, there's a lot of waiting, but remembering how many people would happily thump you over the head with an antique lamp and take your place with their own overflowing wheelie cart or little red wagon helps keep patience in check.

In addition, at this stage, you are close enough to the production area, the lights, the cameras, and the action to enjoy the rush of glamour and excitement that surrounds an exclusive, live set.

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Getting Appraised: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

On this day, inside the Anaheim Convention Center, the production area was formed in a wagon wheel configuration with the appraisers and cameras at the hub, and the lines of waiting attendees radiating out like spokes.

The appraisers, who are not compensated for their work or travel expenses, will cumulatively see up to 6,000 people per day and review approximately 10,000-12,000 items. For these hard working professionals the day begins before doors open at 8 a.m., and ends when the last of the treasures have been appraised. Ticket holders who enter the event within their scheduled time slot (up to 5:00 p.m.) will not be turned away. Asian art expert, Frank Castle, who reviewed my own prints said the recent taping in Jacksonville didn't finish until 8pm. "It's part of what we do," says Castle, "Do we enjoy it? Sure -- you couldn't do it if you didn't enjoy it."

Once attendees have reached the hub of the temporary studio, it becomes apparent, that like so many things in Hollywood the set seems smaller up close. Sound boom mikes hover and thick electrical cords are taped to the floor; people toting headsets and clips boards stride purposefully while darkly-clad camera operators work in practiced unison. You've made it.

Getting your own item in front of those cameras, however, is not as easy as it seems. It's up to each appraiser to spot camera worthy items and stories out of the thousands available. Once they feel they have made a discovery, producers are notified and the decision whether or not to film the appraisal is decided. Only about 90 appraisals will be taped live, whether it is for a "formal" appraisal, a more casual "over-the-shoulder" segment, or a web-only appraisal that will air on the Roadshow website. Producers will create three separate one-hour shows for the 2014 season from the Anaheim footage.

If you are plucked from the crowd for an on-camera appraisal, you will be swept into the Green Room (really!) plied with water and snacks, asked to sign a taping release, and given a quick powder by a makeup artist for your potential on-screen appearance. In the meantime, expert appraisers will convene to discuss and review your noteworthy item in a closed, on-set research area stocked with books and computers.

At this point, the folks in the Green Room cannot be sure if the news they will be receiving means bonanza or bust. They cannot hear or see any of the prior research or discussion in regard to their items until they are on camera -- (and potentially) in front of nearly 10 million viewers a week. If it is any comfort for the camera shy, however, not all on-camera appraisals will make it to broadcast.

The big ticket winners at the Anaheim show included a Frederic Church oil painting, appraised by Aaron Bastian and valued between $100,000 and $150,000 at auction; A Joseph Cornell shadow box (discovered in the trash!) appraised by Leigh Keno (Yes! The Keno Brothers were in the house!) and valued between $100,000 and $150,000 if authenticated; and two pair of the late Buddy Ebsen's shoes brought in by his wife (specifically, his first dancing shoes, and a pair he wore in The Beverly Hillbillies) estimated for insurance value by appraiser Phillip Weiss for $20,000 dollars. That's $5,000 per used shoe. Manolo Blahnik, eat your heart out.

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It was amazing to watch Asian art expert Frank Castle in action.


Heart, History & Humanity

However, as true fans of the Roadshow know, although big paydays from unexpected items are exciting they are only a part of the show's charm and success.

I met mother and daughter attendees Stephanie and Sandra while they waited in line with a life-size, antique porcelain doll from Germany that had been appraised for $1,200. "She was my great grandmother's," said Sandra, "who got her as a Christmas gift in 1904." The women explained the doll was handed down to them because the granddaughter who was supposed to inherit the heirloom refused. As a child, the first granddaughter-in-line had been playing in the attic when she lifted the lid on a coffin-like box and discovered the golden haired doll inside. Enough said.

Another couple, Bruce and Annie said they believe the eye-catching, 150-pound metal ferris wheel they carted in on a wagon was created as a tribute to the late actor/entertainer, Joseph Cotton but admit, "It's a mystery."

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As it stands, the Keno brothers appraised the piece with a value ranging from $500 to $1,000 dollars. "They said if we knew the artist though," explained Bruce, "it could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars...so we're going to find the artist."

For many, myself included, a trip to see Roadshow in person is part of a long held dream. The stuff of bucket lists. Some folks climb mountains, some go to Antiques Roadshow. In fact, in the case of one attendee it was not only the treasure, but also the quest she inherited. "My grandmother had been putting in for tickets for years," said Caroline gently holding a slightly tattered, antique bear, "and she never got them. She was waiting for them when she died." After she passed, however, Caroline and her mother won the ticket lottery. "This was my grandmother's bear," she explained with some emotion, "my mom and I came and brought all her stuff." Coincidence? I think not.

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Revelations From the Road

At the end of the day, attendees exit past the famed Feedback Booth, the sponsor's latest Subaru vehicles, and a row of folding tables holding business cards belonging to Antiques Roadshow's appraisers. Although the professionals are not allowed to conduct personal business (like offering to purchase or auction the items) during the event, they are allowed to work with clients who call them after the show. If it were my trash-picked shadow box, I might be gathering up a few cards...

Personally, I'll be hanging on to my smudged, designer tote bag appraised between $30 and $65 dollars because it's worth way more than that to me. It now also represents a memory of a red-letter day in my own life story: the time I got to peek behind the curtains at Antiques Roadshow.

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All photography by Bonnie McCarthy c.2013.