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Marsha Bemko Talks Antiques Roadshow, WPA Art, Trends In Collecting

11/28/2011 04:27 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2012

Collectors really are different than everyone else. And by collectors, I don't necessarily mean the kind who regularly go to big-name auctions looking to acquire rarified antiques. I'm referring more to the sort of people who can see the value in things that time has forgotten. It's a quality that you tend to be born with and is frequently inherited across generations.

I count myself in the "collector" category. As I type this, I'm looking at the three vintage typewriters (two that I actually use, one that acts as a bookend) that I found on eBay and on the floor of a Goodwill; a vintage Mikasa teacup (part of an atomic-themed set dating back to the 60s, also acquired at a Goodwill for about $10) and a small treasure trove of sound effect records from the 50s, meant to be used to spice up a slideshow. (My favorite? "Ethereal Space Sounds") And in case you were wondering, my mother collects 30's pottery and my father collects pens.

Really, the differences between collectors and the rest of the population could be made into an ersatz Jeff Foxworthy routine. Such as:

- You know you're a collector when you've narrowly avoided accidents because you saw a pile of stuff at a curb that you had to see.
- You know you're a collector when your friends are always conveniently busy on weekend afternoons.
- You know you're a collector when you can name all the thrift stores in the area--and elaborate on the strengths and weaknesses of each one.

And finally: You know you're a collector when the idea of interviewing Marsha Bemko from Antiques Roadshow is the highlight of your month.

I got to do just that. Since 1999, Bemko has been the executive producer of Roadshow (now in its 14th year). During her career, she's seen million-dollar rhino-horn cups and enough fake Tiffany lamps to fill all the Applebee's, TGIFriday's and Ruby Tuesday chain restaurants in the world. Here's what she had to say about her, well, unconventional career in the collecting world.

BD: Antiques Roadshow has gone from being a niche program to almost a cultural phenomenon. What is it like when the Roadshow comes to town?

MB: What people don't realize is just how many people come to see the Roadshow and get their things appraised. There are 3 episodes filmed in each city and we give out 6,000 tickets. People sign up through the Roadshow website and are then chosen at random. The record number for applicants for tickets, however, was 35,000.

BD: Not everyone will have something that's worth much, though. Or are they a self-selecting group?

MB: It's rare to see a six-figure object [an item worth $100,000 or more], but at least one turns up in every city. There will always be a sprinkling of 5-figure objects and lots of 3- and 4- figure objects. But for many people, it's more about the experience of Roadshow than finding out worth. They want to share the story about the object. One of our experts said it best: "When people come to Roadshow, if their house were on fire, the two objects they'd rescue are the two objects they bring here." So we get great stories all the time----and this makes an item priceless, even if its material worth isn't much.

BD: What was your favorite story?

MB: One of my favorites is the "Sinatra Letter". A woman put together $400 to purchase a...very strongly-worded...letter that Frank Sinatra wrote to Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko in 1976. She bought it as a Mother's Day gift to herself...and it ended up being worth 15k. She was ecstatic. And it's reactions like that that makes this job so rewarding.

To see the reaction yourself, watch this:

Watch Coming Up Monday, November 28th, at 8/7C PM: Madison, Hour 1 on PBS. See more from ANTIQUES ROADSHOW.

BD: With so many people coming into the Roadshow, you've had to have seen some really odd finds too.

MB: Definitely. The weirder items tend to be scientific instruments. I've seen a few amputation kits from the Civil War, which ended up being worth $1500-2000. And also...Vampire kits. Very popular in the late 1800's.

BD: What's your best advice for someone interested in selling their treasured items?

MB: Understand what you own. It's so important that I can't say it enough. When people ask about where they should sell an item, I ask 'what do you know about what you have?' But my rule of thumb tends to be: If it's something worth $100, sell it online. It it's over $2k, think of it like selling a house...talking as many different experts as you can. At least 2 auctioneers and 2 dealers. If it's something really really high-worth and you take a chance at auction, you're also risking the chance that it doesn't sell. And if it doesn't sell, you've eliminated the chance of selling it again for at least 20 years. The high-caliber collector has a very, very long memory.

Whether you have a vampire kit or just a nice old painting, you're probably wondering about determining its worth. Luckily, Marsha also shared a wealth of tips culled from her 12-year-long career with Antiques Roadshow.

- The highest appraisal values come when an object is more or less left untouched. Polishing, laminating or restoring an item to the point where the original finish has disappeared markedly devalues the piece. This is especially true with furniture and pottery.

- Want to get a genuine antique for a steal? Go Victorian. Authentic Victorian pieces are now worth half what they used to be.

- Biggest opportunities for a high-valued collection: Folk art, Jewelry and "anything Asian." Marsha says, of the latter, "The market for Asian objects has exploded, partially because the Asian population is buying back objects. You'll see an item someone picked up for 5-7k going for 300k."

- If you have it, sell it: Midcentury Modern. It's not surprising that the authentic versions of what's being sold at Design Within Reach, Room & Board and other retailers is commanding staggeringly high prices now.

- Watch out for WPA art. Shocking, but true: Art produced under the Works Progress Administration are technically the property of the government. This means that the government can take it back at any time. Collectors, beware.

- Beware of these commonly knocked-off items: Tiffany glass, anything Remington, autographs.

- Don't sell old silverware or objects in a "Cash For Gold/Silver" scheme. In these cases, you're given a price based on the weight of the metal...and most of the time, it's the craftsmanship that really determines the true value of an object.

For more on Antiques Roadshow, along with show listings in your area, visit PBS.