At Large

Area Geek and Mom vs Antiques Roadshow

“Antiques Roadshow” taped an episode Seattle back in August 2012. Writer Jonathan Shipley took a Winslow Homer print (above) and his mom (not for appraising). The episode airs tonight on PBS.

The first thing you do is look at all the crap in your house with a new, clear, discerning eye. Will any of this junk be something that stuns the appraisers of “Antiques Roadshow”? You’re scheduled to be there in an hour. You’re only allowed an item or two. That old pickle crock? Your dead uncle’s rocking chair? That weird painting you bought at Goodwill because you had a feeling it was an original Miro? You must choose wisely.

Over 18,000 applied to be on the show as it made its way to Seattle’s downtown convention center. Only 3,000 got tickets. Only a handful of those ticket holders will be recorded. Only a handful of those will not end up on the cutting room floor. Only a handful of those who do get on the air will learn that their $5 garage sale purchase is worth $50,000. Will it be you with the Asian tapestry you got during your college Buddhism phase? The vintage Pepsi cooler? Your grandma’s ring?

Me? I choose the Winslow Homer print hanging in my hallway. I call my mom. She’s bringing an old demitasse cup shaped like a cucumber. 

“Antiques Roadshow” has become a cultural institution. It’s watched by almost ten million viewers each week and has garnered 10 Emmy Award nominations by scouring the nation’s attics looking for treasures for over 16 seasons. And treasures they have found among the over 1 million items it has had appraised since 1996. In 2010, a Raleigh resident brought in a jade collection worth approximately $800,000. In 2012, someone in Eugene brought in a Norman Rockwell painting worth $500,000. A rhinoceros-horn cup collection in Tulsa topped $1 million. Of course, most items showcased on the program aren’t nearly worth that, financially, but the stories of the families that bring them in are worth as much, sometimes more. Having gone from Myrtle Beach to Rapid City, Boston to Corpus Christi, “Antiques Roadshow” is making Seattle is the last leg of the its 2012 season. What treasures will it unearth?

Meeting at the convention center for the one-day event, my mom and I quickly survey of the items being carried into the hall by hopeful owners: a circus drum, a toy horse, a glass vase, comic books, needlepoint, a cribbage board carved from a tusk, an old steamer trunk, a ship’s wheel, another ship’s wheel, a third ship’s wheel. Seattleites like ship’s wheels.

We stand in line. This is what you do when you hope to get on “Antiques Roadshow”—you stand in line. Then you stand in another line, before you stand in a line to get your item appraised. It’s a good idea to bring a lawn chair and wear comfortable shoes. There goes a giant teddy bear, and there a Chinese scroll. There’s a toy wagon and there’s what looks to be an artillery shell. We overhear someone say, “That’s another person telling me about their cannon.” Wait—more than one person brought a cannon?

About 70 appraisers preside over this taping, experts in a couple dozen categories. Someone from Christie’s appraises furniture. Heritage Auctions is appraising in the sports memorabilia section. Bonham’s is in painting and someone from Skinner, Inc is looking at piece after piece of pottery. The cameras swivel in the middle of all this appraisal madness, taping in three different areas. One man is getting miked, about to be interviewed on-air about his baseball player painting. Across the way is another man getting interviewed on-air about his bobblehead toys.

We get to the front of the line. “What do we have?” the appraiser asks. I pull out my Homer print. “Oh, yes.”

He’s undoubtedly seen 50,000 Homer prints over the years. He tells me a brief history of Winslow Homer’s professional career as an illustrator, his work for Harper’s. The appraiser highlights the woodcut techniques employed in Homer’s day. He called my piece “more rare” than most. My heart skips. “It’s in fine condition.” My heart skips again. “In a retail setting, you’d expect this piece to go for…” My heart is racing. A thousand bucks? Ten thousand?


Eh—not bad.

We head over to get mom’s cup appraised. We pass a giant stone disk thing a man is lugging on a dolly. An old woman has a rifle slung over her shoulder (antique firearms are checked by a contingent of police offers before making their way into the hall). There’s a French horn, a silver tea set, a totem pole, a slot machine, an old surfboard, a torch that was run in the 1996 Olympics (“These, I’m afraid, are fairly common,” the appraiser says, and the holder’s heart is broken).

Items are picked for on-air viewing by either the interesting story connected to the item (e.g. “My granddad played with Babe Ruth and that’s how I got his ball glove”); the price or cultural significance of a particular item (“These are John Wilkes Booth’s pants”); or to instruct people on how to tell if what you own, or are about to own, is a forgery (“This is not a Tiffany lamp. You know why?”). If someone brings an item that excites an appraiser, the appraiser pitches the item and the story to a producer. The producer determines if it’s worthy of airtime. Of the thousands of objects that will appear in this event in Seattle, about 80 are recorded and about 50 of those will appear on the TV show. My mom’s odds are long.

“I’m afraid this is just a decorative piece,” the appraiser says looking at my mom’s cucumber cup. “It’s not really worth anything.” He handles my mom’s cup, something we learn was made in Germany in the 1890s. He shrugs. “Maybe $30.” My mother is forlorn. We trudge out, past the clamoring lines—the woman with the sword, the man keeled over trying to carry a giant stone vase, the woman with the brass spyglass. 

“I’ll get lunch mom,” I tell her. “My print’s worth at least that.”