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Antiques Show Hopes to Find U.S. Audience

Television: Version of popular British program on which participants learn value of possessions will begin airing on PBS early next year.

November 14, 1996|From Bloomberg Business News

LONDON — For millions of television viewers worldwide, the thrill of the BBC's "Antiques Roadshow" isn't in the discovery of a long-lost Constable landscape or perfectly preserved Ming vase. It's in watching the unimpeachable British reserve of the participants.

Whether told that a tatty piece of canvas should be insured for 100,000 pounds ($158,000) or that the silver vase they have so diligently polished is a cheap copy, the owners' reaction is almost invariably "Oh, really?"

As the British Broadcasting Corp.'s show heads into its 19th year, a U.S. version of the program is in production by WGBH in Boston for the Public Broadcasting System, to begin airing early in 1997.

"I will never look at trash the same way again," said Aida Moreno, executive producer of the U.S. version of "Antiques Roadshow."

Trash indeed. Sales of antiques in the United Kingdom are roughly valued at 4.5 billion pounds a year by the British Antiques Dealers Assn.

Junk shop and rummage sale aficionados are driven by the knowledge that somewhere amid the flummery is something worth 10 times the asking price.

The PBS series in the U.S. is sponsored by the Chubb Group of Insurance Cos. Like its British counterpart, it will rely on a panel of outside experts to appraise the items brought to the taping and flag those that are interesting because of their history, value or rarity.

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Moreno and her experts have already stopped some items from becoming bargains. At a taping in Seattle, a young man brought in an old sword that had been in the attic for years and which he'd been about to include in a garage sale. He wanted to know if it would be reasonable to ask for about $150. Identified as a Confederate weapon from the Civil War, it was estimated to be worth closer to $35,000.

One woman brought a violin.

"It had layers of dust, and moths had eaten through the violin case lining," Moreno said.

Since it had been given to her by a neighbor, the owner wasn't too disappointed upon hearing that the battered 18th century instrument was mass-produced and of no value. She was shocked, however, to learn that the bow, stamped by William Dodd of London, was worth $8,000.

In the 300 episodes so far of the original British version, more than 3 million items have been valued by the panel of experts, estimated Christopher Lewis, the show's producer. While each program will include the disappointments, it's the possibility of a major windfall that inspires viewers.

In 1994, a painting of a cat bought at a flea market for 50 pence was brought to an "Antiques Roadshow" taping in Inverness, Scotland. The appraiser recognized it as the work of 18th century artist Henrietta Ronner, known as the "queen of cat painters." Estimated at 15,000 pounds, it sold at auction for 22,000 pounds.

Each year, the BBC tapes one show abroad, and the most valuable discovery so far was a collection of Filipino watercolor paintings at a program recorded in Belgium last year.

"I'm flabbergasted," said the owner, who inherited them from his grandfather, when told they would be worth around 100,000 pounds. They later sold for 265,000 pounds at auction.

The antiques industry is highly fragmented, including auctions, dealers, fairs and private sales, and not everyone agrees on what sort of items should be counted.

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That makes figures on the market's size and economic significance hard to come by. The best estimate, said a spokeswoman for the British Antiques Dealers Assn., is that United Kingdom sales of antiques are in the range of 4 billion to 5 billion pounds a year from all sources.

While some wait for the arrival of the television cameras to raid the attic--since fame may be a more potent spur than mere fortune--the TV program has also encouraged people to bring their items directly to the experts for valuation. Many potential treasures are locked away gathering dust because people just don't know how to find out whether the value is more than sentimental.

"Some people don't trust their local antique dealer, or they're afraid to get laughed at," Lewis said.

In fact, auction houses including Christie's and Sotheby's will generally provide estimates of an item's potential sale value, at no charge, and frequently hold open days when people can bring in their wares for an assessment.

Dealers and auctioneers said that "Antiques Roadshow" has helped to popularize interest in antiques and change the way people think of what was once just old junk, drawing in more people as buyers as well as sellers.

"The show alerts people to the idea of auctioning and the sort of things that go through our sale rooms," said Hannah Goring, a spokeswoman for Bonham's Auctioneers in London. "Anything that provokes publicity, people will always respond."

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