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A Show About Antiques? Musty TV, It's Not

Collecting: 'Roadshow' finds drama in telling ordinary people whether their treasures have real or just sentimental value.

July 15, 1998|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the unlikeliest premise for a television show: People haul out their grandmother's vase, an old, dusty cabinet, a trinket from Japan or a worn teddy bear, take it to a local hotel, and have it discussed and appraised by auctioneers and antique dealers. That's it. No car chases, no bloody shootouts, no steamy bedroom scenes, no laugh tracks.

It's "Chubb's Antiques Roadshow," better known as just "The Antiques Roadshow," and it is, in the public television sphere at least, a hit.

There's the young man who brought in a well-worn family scrapbook--unremarkable except for the fact that it contained the original letter his great-grandmother wrote to the New York Sun asking whether there was a Santa Claus. The famous "Yes, Virginia" letter was valued at $20,000 to $30,000.

A woman was curious about a spice chest that had been in her family for generations. She was told it was a rare and valuable example of Americana from the 18th century and was valued at about $50,000.

A couple came with a vase that the husband had bought at an antique store. He believed it to be a signed Tiffany worth much more than the $400 he paid for it but was told it was a fake worth considerably less.

These and other stories make up an hourlong program that airs weekly on PBS, produced by WGBH in Boston and sponsored by the Chubb Group of Insurance Cos. It's a knockoff of a BBC production that's been popular for years in Britain, where antiques are a way of life. The American version is going into its third season as the highest-rated prime-time TV series airing nationally on PBS.

It's done for antiques and collectibles what Julia Child did for French cooking--shaken off the mystery and intimidation, and made them accessible to middle America. There are Aunt Dot and Uncle Ned with that banged-up doohickey that's been in the attic for years--wonder what it's worth?

Sometimes a lot--a lot--as in five to six figures. Or maybe nothing at all if the piece is a fake or reproduction. It's the dropped-jaw amazement, the drama, the buildup, the expectation of what something could be worth that keeps viewers' fingers off the remote.

The premise is simple: The production team comes to a fairly sizable city--24 so far and due in Los Angeles on Aug. 1--and sets up in a large hotel or convention center. Reputable auction-house appraisers (from Sotheby's, Christie's and Butterfield & Butterfield) and antique dealers from around the country show up, and the public shows up with alleged valuables (the maximum is two per person). A free one-on-one meeting with an appraiser results in a little history about the piece and an approximate value. The most interesting of the lot appear on the show.

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If there's a secret to the show's success, says executive producer Aida Moreno it's the stories that people relate about how objects were acquired, how they were used and what significance they held in someone's life. On one show, a woman related to two appraisers that antique hunting had gotten her through a bout with cancer.

"The value for me in the show is the story," says the energetic Moreno, whose previous PBS credits include "Championship Ballroom Dancing" and "Let the Good Times Roll."

"When we did the show in Nashville, a woman brought in some old school [composition] books that belonged to an Indian boy from the 1800s who sketched," she says. "They depicted the daily life of this boy on the reservation. Talk about getting a chill."

The book was appraised at $60,000 to $80,000.

Moreno also touts the show's mini-history lessons, as objects are frequently put into a cultural and historical context. She also believes there is a great appreciation for "these artists, these great craftspeople of the past."

Moreno was recruited for "Roadshow" by a WGBH executive who caught the British version while overseas years ago. Some time later, he asked her to check it out, which she did, quickly becoming a convert despite a dearth of knowledge about antiques.

"I knew that I could translate what was going on there to America," she recalls. But first she had a little persuading to do. A show about antiques didn't exactly set pulses racing.

"This is PBS, not CBS," Moreno says. "We had to go out and convince people that it would be worthy of their sponsorship. I had to find appraisers and convince them that this would be worth their time. People have a right to be skeptical when you're a little crazy. But I just knew this could be done."

Not only did she have to make everyone believe this wasn't going to be a televised version of paint drying, she had to ask the appraisers to work for free. (They also are not allowed to solicit business while working on the show.)

In its first season, the show went on the road minus the usual buzz and hype that accompany a new program. Only local advertising alerted the public. (The show tapes during the summer and begins airing in the fall.) Moreno recalls she would "pace, sweat and pray--anything to make sure there would be people at the door."

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