Behind the Scenes at Antiques Roadshow: The Characters, the Stories and the Treasures

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Photo: PBS
Photo: PBS

Out of the 30,000 who requested tickets to a recent taping of the PBS juggernaut, Antiques Roadshow, 6,000 were given. I was lucky enough to be among them. The scene at the Santa Clara Convention Center was exactly what you would hope. People wandered the halls carrying everything from stained glass lamps to carousel animals, taxidermy bird scenes under glass to Danish moderne secretaries. Dukes of Hazard lunch boxes vied for attention with Shaker tables, as people from every corner of California (and one couple I met who flew in from Hawaii) tried their best to impress appraisers and producers with their treasures.

Each week, the Boston-based Antiques Roadshow travels to a new city with a team of staff appraisers and their host, Mark L. Walberg (he was plain Mark Walberg back when "Marky Mark" was still modeling jocks), to meet the people. Actually, the people can be slightly incidental, if the object they bring is fantastic enough. Of the 100 or so participants who get taped for the show, roughly ten or so make it onto an episode. Over and over again, I was told by members of the Antiques Roadshow team that the antiques are the real star. So I set forth into the nerve center of Antiques Roadshow and met the pieces.

Before mixing with the public, I met Los Angeles-based appraiser Laura Woolley, whose specialty (appropriately enough for this blog) is pop culture memorabilia. Woolley, who started her career at Sotheby's after college and now has her own company, The Collector's Lab, has evaluated everything from production items (a scene painting from the 1960s camptastic film version of Batman is among her more recent fabulous appraisals) to pop collectables to major celebrity auctions (Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Midler, and Cher, to name a few).

In the past 20 years, the celebrity auction market has taken off and Woolley has been there almost from the very beginning. Appraising a celebrity item is two fold: there's the value of the item itself and then there's the value the celebrity name brings to it, which can raise the final price far beyond the object value. "The best example I can give you of this phenomenon was the Jackie O auction," Woolley said. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis auction in the mid-'90s was among the first major celebrity sales, where the prices of everyday items shot unbelievably high because of the star glimmer. "There was a tape measure Jackie used at the tailor, a totally ordinary tape measure. It went for something like a hundred times its estimated value. That's when we knew the market had completely changed."



When Woolley was called off to film a segment, I wandered around the taping, eyes wide open and occasionally agog at some of the items people had brought in. I caught up with Steve and Marion, who had their hands full with an 8 foot tall telescope (in pieces). The antique stargazer, which Steve dated back to 1850, was purchased by the couple 50 years prior from a neighbor in Palm Desert who had taken it when the local school no longer had use for the archaic instrument.

"It still works," Steve said proudly. "All I had to do was clean the lens."

Next, I wandered from telescopes over to jewelry, where I met Maureen and her husband Larry from Berkeley. Maureen had been given a silver Chinoiserie bracelet from the "Court of the Seven Seas" at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition by a patient when she was a dental hygienist in the 1970s.


"This very elegant lady patient of the doctor I worked for was always so immaculately dressed," Maureen said. "And when I admired her bracelets -- this was one of three in a set she was wearing -- she told me her husband had been the curator of Asian artifacts at the expo where it had come from. Then she told me she had no children to pass it on to, she unsnapped it from her wrist and passed it on to me." Maureen put the bracelet on, pointing out its pagoda scene and raised detailing.

"I wear it at least twice a week. Now, when someone compliments a scarf or a pair of earrings I'm wearing, I love to do what that lady did and hand it off to them." Maureen learned that her bracelet was worth about $200, but she had no intention of selling anyway.

"My daughter is getting this one day. I want her to have it to remember how important random acts of kindness are."

Next, I met Larry, who also had a piece appraised with better monetary results. His white 1968 Hot Wheels Camaro turned out to be one of the most rare toy cars from the period. He wouldn't say what the appraiser valued it, but said he was "very pleasantly surprised."

"I thought it might be worth more because it was still in the package but not by that much."


Among the most popular appraisal fields at any Antiques Roadshow taping is painting and prints. It's almost always the field with the most requests. My eye was immediately drawn to to a woman in line with a large, turn of the century poster from France.
"It's from between 1900 and 1906," Sandra said of her piece. "I collect these French posters, but this is one of the earliest ones I own. My other ones are all more Art Deco and this is very Belle Époque."

As I took in her poster, an advertisement for a major exposition/fair in Paris, a number of other people began to take notice of it. Sandra said the item would definitely be staying in her home, regardless of the value ("it looks perfect on the wall I had to sacrifice so it could hang alone"), but when word reached us later that Sandra and her poster had been chosen to be taped for the show, we wondered if she might hear that her poster was worth a price that might make her want to reconsider selling.


So what's the policy when it comes to buying at an Antiques Roadshow taping? Apparently, soliciting in the taping area is completely verboten. What happens in the parking lot is another story. Sure enough, there were so many deals going down in the parking structure after the show, you would have thought you'd wandered into a very informal flea market. And one more insider Antiques Roadshow fun fact for the road: when a member of the public has an item that is appraised as having a huge value, they are provided with an armed escort to their car. There's never been an issue, but they don't want to tempt the fates.