The land of hope and dreams
By J. Chambless
Longtime appraiser Lark E. Mason, Jr., meets a woman at an 'Antiques Roadshow' taping at Winterthur on June 18. (Photo by John Chambless)
Whether they were wheeling a huge blanket box or carrying a tiny piece of their grandmother’s jewelry, the 3,000 or so people who came through Winterthur on June 18 had one thing in common. They were hoping they had a treasure.
The “Antiques Roadshow” phenomenon, now in its 23rd season, came to Delaware for the first time on Tuesday, and the event was just what fans have come to expect since the show debuted in 1996. There were some 70 appraisers under tents outside and inside, greeting visitors who brought heirlooms and curiosities, fine antiques and yard-sale junk, in a process that has been repeated in cities across America. The show is preparing its 500th episode to air this fall, and the formula remains the same – everyone loves a good treasure hunt, and you never know what will arrive at the appraisal booths.
The crew arrived on Sunday with the equipment and tents, Monday was spent building the booths and working out the path visitors would take from the shuttle buses through the appraisal tents, and Tuesday was showtime. Guests arrived as early as 6:30 a.m., and the last appraisal was slated at around 7 p.m. Months ago, timed tickets were randomly given two at a time to 2,000 winners, insuring that the lines would not get too long and the wait wouldn’t be too arduous. Each visitor can bring up to two items for free, verbal appraisals. When all the appraisal booths are humming along, nearly 600 items per hour can be evaluated.
Winterthur could not have been a more spectacular setting, and the Delaware visit wraps up the show’s five-city production tour of historic venues. While the appraisals were constantly going on, about 150 are usually recorded by the “Antiques Roadshow” crew in different ways – formal, over-the-shoulder and “Snapshot” appraisals. In the case of big-value items spotted by the appraisers, the visitor and the appraiser meet in a studio space away from the crowd, and the history and value of the object is revealed only then. That creates the kind of gasping, overwhelmed reaction that the show thrives on.
The appraisers who appear on “Antiques Roadshow” are not paid. They get breakfast and lunch, but must pay their way to the tapings and receive no compensation. They do it for TV exposure and, basically, for fun.
Walking through the crowd just after 8 a.m. was Ken Farmer, an appraiser of decorative arts and silver. “I was trying to find out the value of a coin silver ladle that’s here, but I think I figured it out,” he said. “This woman brought in a ladle from Raleigh, N.C., and her mother had an appraisal done back in like 1970 for $500. Some of them can bring $2,000 or $3,000 now. Overall, that kind of stuff has gone down in value, but this is a very obscure maker. And the Southern pantheon of collectors love stuff that’s obscure.”
Over at the Prints & Posters appraisal table, Nicholas Lowry – who has been with “Antiques Roadshow” for almost 23 years – was unmistakable in his distinctive plaid suit. “A lot of us have been doing this so long, and the best part of it is that we spend all day working together, we go around the country together for more than two decades. I’ve been doing this since I was young, thin and hairless,” he said. “There was a rerun on last night from 2004, and Twitter exploded because it was a young, thin, hairless – and tartan-less – version of myself.
“But the point is that if somebody comes into my gallery, I’m a specialist in works on paper. But they can also have a Civil War sword and some piece of stained glass. Well, I know exactly who they should call,” Lowry said. “We do know each other, and a lot of incredible friendships have developed, both professionally and personally.”
Lowry said the cyclical nature of what’s valuable and what’s not is never predictable. Just after the movie Titanic came out, he said, prices for anything associated with the disaster skyrocketed, but since have normalized. “Cigars were very popular in the 1990s -- cigar memorabilia, posters, spittoons. People were spending a fortune on them for their humidor rooms,” he said. “Then smoking went out of fashion and you couldn’t give the pieces away.
“If you buy what’s hot now, you’re going to eventually be disappointed. The standard mantra is that, when you’re collecting something, buy what you love because you’ll never lose.”
Outside, at the Asian Arts booth, Lark Mason, Jr., was greeting guests with a handshake and a sincere request to share the story of the items they brought. A woman with a case full of Asian dolls in elaborate costumes detailed how her father would buy them for her mother after he had served in Asia in World War II.
Mason nodded, explaining how dolls like the ones in the case were made to be bought by soldiers and visitors who were helping Japan restore its economy after the war. “They brought back mementoes like these,” he said. “But millions of these dolls came back with soldiers, and now the dolls are repositories of all those emotions. There’s very little monetary value to them. They are all about the emotions they carry.”
Which was a nice way of telling someone that while their items are not valuable, they are obviously special to the owner. That speech gets repeated, in various ways, all day long at an “Antiques Roadshow” event.
At the Photographs table, Daile Kaplan of Swann Auction Galleries looked at a sepia-toned photo of Civil War General Hooker and his staff taken in the winter of 1863 and announced that it was a 20th-century print from the original glass negative, made distinctive by the amount of detail captured in the image. But the photo was not rare and worth no more than $25, she said. “It’s a gelatin silver print. There are some condition issues, so it’s more of a historical artifact.”
One woman was pulled aside by a camera crew as she waited in line before the event. She had a 1930s guitar, and she answered a few quick questions about it before getting an appraisal. Larry Cavalieri and Frederick Oster examined the guitar carefully, peering inside the hollow body with a light, and pronounced it “a very nice guitar. It was at the low end of the high-end models made by this company.”
The woman was planning to give it to her 12-year-old son when he was ready to play guitar, and both appraisers approved of that idea.
One of the highlights of “Antiques Roadshow” is the Feedback Booth, when people who have been through the appraisals give their thoughts. Admitting that their item was worthless can be as amusing as finding out it’s worth something, and the unguarded comments continued at Winterthur, with a long line of visitors waiting to share their thoughts.
“My $5 handbag turned out to be worth $300, so that’s good,” one woman was telling a man in the line outside the booth. “And it was fun.”
The 24th season of “Antiques Roadshow” will be aired beginning in January 2020. The Winterthur episode has not yet been scheduled. For updates, visit www.pbs.org/antiques.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.