Saturday, August 27, 2011

At the Antiques Roadshow in Pittsburgh

When we heard that PBS' Antiques Roadshow would be taping a series of episodes in Pittsburgh this summer, we knew we had to enter the lottery for tickets.

Who knew it was so hard to get them?  Tom and I entered, as did my mom, sister, and brother.  On the day the lottery winners were announced, I checked the website and discovered I didn't get them.  Via e-mail, my sister and brother confirmed that they hadn't, either.  Then we heard from Mom:  she was a winner!  So she and her chosen guest would each be allowed to take two items for appraisal.

There was some dithering about who would get to go with her.  Among the siblings, we decided that Tom was actually probably the best choice, since he's the real antiques guy in the family.  And he had a couple of things he'd been wanting to find out more about:  a Dürer print that had belonged to his great-aunt Esther Mary, and a pewter tea caddy engraved the the date 1774 that he'd picked up at an auction in May.

Tom was also the person who suggested what my mom might take--an "archive," of sorts, of the couple of years she spent working as a hostess on the C&O Railroad after she graduated from college, between 1948 and 1950.  She still had her uniform (well, actually, it's been on display at the C&O Railroad Museum in Hinton, WV for many years), and she also had a set of publicity photos that were taken on a promotional run to the Railroad Fair in Chicago in 1948, showing her in the uniform.  She also had one of the original coloring books that the hostesses handed out to kids on the train, and a couple of other documents.

As her second item, she took along two Victorian scrapbooks that my sister found in the attic of a house she lived in about thirty years ago in Columbus.  Apparently, the original owners of the house had been a pair of sisters who were Ziegfeld girls in the early 20th century.

Waiting in the entry hall for the general appraisal.
The guy in front of us brought this giant Buddha statue.

The Roadshow organizers have the whole process down to a science, and the whole thing ran as smooth as silk.  The tickets specified an arrival time (10:00, in our case), and these were staggered every hour so that there wasn't a crush of people all at once.

After waiting in the initial line, we were assigned to the general appraisal tables, where people looked at what we'd brought and gave us tickets for specific areas (in Mom's case, "Rugs & Textiles" for the C&O uniform and "Collectibles" for the scrapbooks; in my case, "Prints and Posters" for the Dürer and "Silver" for the tea caddy).

Then it was into the convention hall, where volunteers escorted us to our first lines and explained the process:  you get in the line for your ticketed area, and then wait when you get to the front of the line to have your ticket punched and to be taken to your appraisal table.

The setup was much like a pinwheel:  the appraisal tables were inside a sort of tent in the center of the hall, and the lines kind of snaked out of gaps in the tent.  What this meant was that you really couldn't see any of the set or the "celebrity" appraisers until you got inside the middle, although there was a smaller taping setup outside the pinwheel, too.  (See a photo on the show's website here for a visual.)

We were first escorted to the Textiles line to have mom's uniform appraised.  It seemed an odd choice, since she also had photos and other C&O memorabilia that accompanied it, and sure enough, the appraiser, Steven Porterfield, admired the suit and fawned over the photos but ultimately filled out a little referral card and sent us over to Collectibles.  (The beauty of the referral system is that you don't have to leave the inner sanctum and get back in line, but can go straight to the appraisal table.)

The guy there, Philip Weiss, was more interested in the uniform as a piece of railroadiana (yes, that's the real term), and said it'd be worth a lot more if it had a patch or something else that marked it more clearly as a C&O item.  Unfortunately, when the C&O cut the hostesses' jobs, mom was required to turn in her pins and patches...which she dutifully did, though after the appraisal she said she wished she hadn't been so ethical!  Weiss said the collection was probably worth somewhere in the $300 range to a railroad buff, but added that it was probably of more value as a piece of family history.

Publicity shot of Mom in her hostess garb, taken en route to the 1948 Railroad Fair in Chicago

Baby getting tired of posing; Mom looking nervous (as she said, "I didn't know from babies then!")

And honestly, that's what I found most astonishing about the whole experience--how gracious the appraisers were, even when they were telling you that your stuff was worthless, and even after they'd been being gracious for hours.  I have a feeling that's one of the requirements for being a successful Roadshow appraiser.  Another must be having a nose for a good narrative, because (as anyone who watches the show regularly knows), the thrill is as much about the story behind the items as it is about the items themselves.

For example, when I went through the silver line to get the tea caddy appraised, the appraiser, Reid Dunavant, asked how I'd come by it.  As I explained that Tom had bought it at an auction just a couple months ago, I felt like a total poser:  the tea caddy itself might be interesting enough, but my story was a real dog.  I mean, who cares about an item someone bought recently with the explicit idea that it might be worth something?

(Unless, of course, it's an 18th-century chair that you picked up for two bucks at a yard sale en route to the show, as in one infamous segment.)

The Dürer print, on the other hand, did have a good story:  purchased by Tom's great-aunt Esther Mary on a trip through Europe en route to Turkey in the 1930s, it spent a good decade or two stored in Tom's grandfather's barn until his parents found it and hung it on the wall.

A similar print had been appraised on the show several years ago for $40,000.  Since it's hard for a non-expert to tell whether it's an early printing or a modern one, it was the #1 item Tom wanted to get more information about.  And what more perfect marriage of great backstory and value if the piece turned out to be worth something?

Well, to make a long line story short, it wasn't.  When I got up to the appraisal table, I told the story to Nicholas Lowry*--known to viewers for his wild suits and cowboy boots--and he said, quite gallantly, "Ah.  One of my favorite images."

Then he whipped out his jeweler's loupe and looked at I-don't-know-what details in the print and told me, with great gentleness, "Well, it's not an original print.  But it's still a lovely decorative piece...worth fifteen, twenty dollars."

Yes, that's right:  I stood in line for two hours to find out that mouse-eaten thing was worth one Andrew Jackson at best.

Still, there were pluses to spending that much time in line.  I got to see a lot of other people's stuff, and hear more about how the show is made:  for example, they planned to shoot about 55 segments over the course of the day, around 50 of which will be aired on the three episodes from Pittsburgh next season.

And once inside the appraisal "big top," I got to see several segments being taped, or getting set up to tape.  A woman in line told me that she tried to talk to a guy who was seated on a makeshift set waiting to shoot the official TV appraisal of his item, and he waved her off, saying that he'd been forbidden to talk to anyone while he waited.  So mysterious!

Bottom line:  no one's quitting their day job, and no one's going to be on TV.  But there was a glimmer of fame to come out of it:  a photo of mom showed up in the "behind-the-scenes" slideshow for the Pittsburgh taping!

I'm not sure I'd go again, but if I did (and if you do), here are some tips:
  • Don't take a print, poster, or painting unless you're ready for a long, long wait.  Bring a paperback or your Kindle if you're not the chatty type (no cell phones/texting are allowed in the appraisal hall).
  • The shortest lines seemed to be for textiles, silver, Asian arts, and antiquities...but that might have just been when we were there.
  • This should go without saying, but wear comfortable shoes.  I did see a few insane women in heels, presumably in anticipation of being on TV.
  • Take snacks!  There was a concessions booth in the entry hall, but my understanding was that if you went back out there, you wouldn't be allowed back into the appraisal hall.  The woman in front of me in the prints and posters line hadn't even had breakfast and was about to pass out from hunger when the woman in front of her whipped a selection of stuff out of her purse:  a Hershey bar, a bag of Cheetos, and a package of cookies.  The hungry woman referred to her as "my angel" for the rest of our slow trip up the line.
Can't wait to see the actual shows when the new season begins.

*Interesting coincidences:  Lowry is a 1990 Cornell alum (Tom graduated in 1986), and has worked as an English teacher. 


Christy said...

What a wonderful post! I love these behind-the-scenes accounts of shows we come to know only through their short and highly produced segments on tv. I'll never forget John's experience attending a taping of Jerry Springer (Springer's book had just come out and John was dubiously elected as the guy to hawk the stock to audience members one day). Just amazing how these things are put together. Thanks for the detailed report!

Erica Retrochef said...

That's so much fun! I had no idea it was such an organized process. Glad you had a really great time, and hold on to that Durer -- maybe it'll be worth $25 someday!