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Party Time for Pack Rats

July 26, 1998|PATT MORRISON

There's no use pretending that the general run of PBS programs will ever unseat the majors in the ratings. That is a great part of its charm; this is a network where a bow to sweeps-week sex and violence might, might, extend to the mating rituals of the praying mantis.

Yet certain offerings in the PBS lineup have their junkies and groupies, and in the last few months, a lot of people I know, moi aussi, have joined their ranks. One show has climbed to better ratings than PBS' heretofore top-ranked weekly series, the brilliant and British "Mystery!"--thus knocking Diana Rigg and Hercule Poirot and Adam Dalgliesh and Brother Cadfael into a very crowded cocked hat.

"The Antiques Roadshow" is--how do I put this?--like "The Price Is Right" for history majors, with a touch of highbrow "Queen for a Day." Each week, the show takes its experts to a different American city and invites the locals to shake out their cellars and dredge through their cupboards to bring in their "finds" for free appraisal and a bit of historical storytelling. A true object lesson--teaching history through objects. (My disclaimer: I do a few TV chores for the PBS station here every week, but that usually deals with animate objects.)

Like so much of what airs on PBS, the model of this show originated in Britain, but everything about it resonates deep in the American psyche, as a treasure hunt cloaked in genealogy. The one-in-a-million prize in the Crackerjack box. A roulette spin on the wheel of stuff. A 10-cent yard-sale find beyond your wildest dreams of avarice.

It has the satisfying serendipity of get-rich-quickery, where the humblest (some junky old metal bowl stuck in the rafters of the attic) shall suddenly be exalted (it turned out to be a 17th century Milanese helmet worth a quarter-million)--and of P. T. Barnum quackery, a comeuppance for the gullible and the greedy (an expensive copy of an antique doll clearly marked "reproduction" and worth, in round figures, five bucks). One couple was told that an old family chair was a Chippendale, worth as much as $90,000. They were delighted. Then the appraiser added that if they hadn't refinished it, it'd be worth $200,000. Easy come, easy go.

It's been 150 years since those shiny nuggets launched the Gold Rush and made a few men rich, made thousands poorer and made all of us believers. How fitting that on Aug. 1, "The Antiques Roadshow" unpacks its trunks here, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.


Southern California may be a challenge to these folks. This is not Philadelphia, where that piece of old paper lining the silverware drawer may turn out to be an early Ben Franklin document, or where 300-year-old cherry highboys are found in the chicken coop. Here, Native American populations were not the prolific weavers or potters that tribes were elsewhere in the country. Here, 50-year-old coffee shops are designated historic landmarks.

Of the thousands who show up at these "Roadshow" events in each city, lugging magnificent quilts and hideous lamps and all the detritus of a rich and peaceable and acquisitive nation, fewer than a dozen will get on TV. To do so, their possessions must be historically engrossing, have a great tale behind them, be worth an astounding pile of money or an equally astounding pittance--or be some spectacular fake.

Surely "Roadshow" will have experts in the local product, Hollywood ephemera, plein air painting, Batchelder tiles and California art glass and the ornaments of bungalow architecture and Arroyo culture (whose Mission furniture was manufactured mostly in Michigan).

And surely someone will be versed enough to phrase in very diplomatic terms the more sentimental than substantive values of Los Angeleana: a menu from the last meal served at the Nickodell, a souvenir Kewpie doll from the Long Beach Pike.


Los Angeles is a very new place, and the antiques and collectibles bought and sold at its famous flea markets are deracinated, the links severed between then and now, between the who and the what. Antiques dealers call such a pedigree "provenance," and they put a premium on it. And in L.A., that is the most fascinating part. I need only look around my household clutter to wonder, how did this stuff get out here?

--A Darwin-era anti-evolution sampler in verse: "I hearken not to evolution's drone, the Godless critic or the cynic's tone . . ." it begins.

--An inkstand carved from a single piece of oak taken, according to the 1881 inscription on the bottom, from a tree on English poet John Milton's estate.

--A Stetson-shaped ceramic ashtray (the cigar rests in the crease of the hat) signed in gold by Lyndon B. Johnson.

--A 1930s carnival-sideshow metal sign inviting visitors to see "The Boy Who Cheated the Electric Chair."

--A souvenir cup from the coronation of Russia's last czar and czarina, Nicholas and Alexandra, more than 100 years ago and 5,700 miles away.

Yet what I truly want to know about each of these things is the one question no appraiser can answer: Why on earth did I buy it?

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