18 Aug Ron & Jill at Antiques Roadshow!

Jill and I have tried four times to get into Antiques Roadshow – D.C., Baltimore, Memphis, and Philadelphia – and finally we got into Pittsburgh’s, just last week. You’re allowed to bring 2 items per person for appraisal. We took 3 oil paintings and one old toy. The way it works is that you are assigned a certain time to show up and you can’t show up any earlier than 30 minutes before that time. Then you stand in line outside the main room, where the appraisers and filming are. Before getting in, you wait in a line that’s as long as the typical TSA queue. Then, at last, somebody looks at your stuff to determine which category your stuff fits into. And then you walk inside to your designated category line so that you can see the appraiser. And then you wait even longer to see the appraiser.

The minute we got in line at the convention center, Jill announced, “I’m feeling competitive.” She meant that, seeing other people’s stuff, you start dismissing their aspirations and start telling yourself that you’ve got better stuff and, therefore, stand a better chance of getting on the air. Before arriving at the show, I told myself nothing was going to happen. But I wore a well-pressed dress shirt and chinos — not jeans and a t-shirt – which clearly betrayed my own aspirations. And I started feeling competitive like Jill.

More than a few people were carting in trash — cheap mid-twentieth century furniture and the kind of art you’d see hanging on motel walls and fat, old family Bibles (which the appraisers have told people never to bring). The couple behind us were trundling in an old sewing machine. If you’ve worked in an antiques consignment store, as Jill has, you’d know that old sewing machines are notoriously difficult to get rid of. They were mass produced, are completely useless now, and can’t be re-purposed for anything because of all the hardware they contain. At best, you might use an old sewing machine as an end table. Antiques dealers have learned that you can’t even give away old sewing machines.

There were, of course, some gorgeous things in the room. A couple behind us had a large portrait of a revolutionary war era woman who had been famous in her day. They believed it was circa 1760 and possibly painted by Charles Peale, the famous portrait painter of that time.

We brought two really good paintings and a third that looked good but was possibly a fake. If our paintings didn’t do the trick, I thought our circa 1910 wheeled dog toy might be of interest to an appraiser. It didn’t take us long to see the paintings appraisers. Jill took the two smaller paintings, I took the big one, a circa 1920 portrait of a woman in a black hat.

The show is set up like a spoked wheel. The hub is where the appraisers sit, at long tables. This area is surrounded by high partitions. Those waiting to see the appraisers must wait outside the hub, in their designated lines, where you can’t see anything except other people waiting. It’s kind of dull and not at all the festive atmosphere that the show makes you believe it is. You can talk to the others in line but mostly people are too preoccupied with waiting for their turn – and dreaming of big money and a shot at fleeting fame. The heaviest load everyone carries is hope.

Inside the hub, the lights were bright and we saw lucky people getting their stuff filmed for the show. We also saw some very familiar faces – Jill has a serious crush on Nicholas Dawes and I on Suzanne Perrault, whom we call “Frenchy.” The host – Mark Walberg, the sweet-mannered, empty-headed host – was nowhere to be seen, but it was early yet. No doubt, he’d show up for an hour of taping later in the day.

My appraiser was the Scottish guy, Alisdair Nichol. He asked how much we paid for the portrait. When I told him, “500,” he looked up in surprise and asked, “Are you a collector?”

“No,” I said and then wondered, Should I be a collector?

He elaborated: Did we know something about the painting that would compel us to pay that much?

No, I said, we just liked the look of the painting. We knew nothing about the artist; in fact, we couldn’t read the signature.

To be polite, he said, “Well, I could see why you might pay 500 for the painting.”  He guessed it was British but it could be French. He searched his data base for the artist’s name. He spent a good five to seven minutes doing this.

I glanced around at the other painting appraisers and was struck by how nice they were to each visitor, no matter how crappy the artwork. One woman had brought a huge painting of a matador, clearly something done in the 1960s’ or ‘70s and sold cheap, what Jill calls “furniture store art.”  Anyone half knowledgeable about art would know, at a glance, that it was worth no more than $50. Still, the appraiser gave it a careful going over, even examining the back of the canvas.

Alisdair looked up from his computer and said, “I’ve had no luck. It’s probably Camden school. You could contact a British museum to see if they can place it better.”

He said the painting might fetch $1000. “It’s a little blocky here,” he said, pointing to the woman’s face.

“Here too,” I conceded, pointing to an awkward detail.

I thanked him for his time, then went to see how Jill was faring. One of our small paintings was of great interest, probably Dutch but the artist’s name illegible, so we were at another dead end. This one, too, was worth about $1000, twice what we paid for it but no rare find. Then Jill pulled out the third painting.

She explained that we were suspicious of the painting from the moment we saw it at a Baltimore auction – it’s too clean and it could very well be one of those well-done fakes now coming out of China and Mexico, paintings done in the old style, often on old wood or canvas and framed in era-appropriate frames. But our little painting has a certain charm and looks 150 years old. So we took a gamble and placed a low bid and, to our surprise, won the thing.  We suspected that the frame was a replacement but then, after taking off the paper backing, were curious about the yellowed paper tag underneath – it looked original.

The appraiser examined the back of the painting and said, “You’ve got a good eye. This isn’t original. Why wouldn’t the framer put his name on his own paper tag? The whole idea was to advertise his business, right?”

Apparently the faker had found a generic era-appropriate paper tag.  We had assumed that in re-framing the painting, someone had transferred this old tag from the original frame. But why hadn’t we been smart enough to have thought this through? A tag without any proprietor’s name was useless and highly suspicious.

Then the appraiser noticed that the back of the painting board had been stained to look old — so the painting was a fake through and through and not worth more than the $100 we had paid for it. No wonder so few bidders went after this little charmer. Lesson: if it’s too good to be true, it’s not true.

A few minutes later, as we waited in the toy line, we were kind of glum because our paintings were not so grand. To say that a painting “might bring $1,000” is not the same as saying “this painting is worth $1000.”

Jill joked that Antiques Roadshow is a field of broken dreams. We noticed that the matador painting had been abandoned near the bathrooms. The couple with the revolutionary war era painting had argued with their appraiser because he said, “This is not by Peale. And this is not eighteenth century.”  Another couple next to us left in a huff because the appraiser valued their print (not a painting, just a print) at $75: “This is a travesty,” one of them said.

The Roadshow brought 6,000 hopefuls to Pittsburgh’s convention center. Of those, we estimated, maybe 100 had something camera worthy. And we were not among those. Which is to admit the sad truth: most of us own junk.

By this time, nearly 1:00 PM, the lines were long. Pity the people whose time is late in the day. The lines just get longer and the appraisers exhausted and the tempers shorter.

When we got to toy appraiser Noel Barrett finally, he looked tired and I felt for him because mostly he had to look at crap like broken pieces from an incomplete game and then two 1950s common toy train cars and then a wind-up of Pluto, the Disney dog, which was missing its ears. When I brought out our 1910 wheeled dog, one of its wheels fell off. Noel stood up it and, to my surprise, the thing stayed upright, even though one of its legs was broken.

“This is a early twentieth century German pull toy,” he announced, wearily. “In good shape it’s worth $200. In this shape, it’s worth a good deal less.”

I smiled and thanked him for his time, then retreated. I had bought this dirty, dilapidated toy dog as a Christmas gift for Jill some years ago and paid nearly $200 for it – because I’d never seen anything like it of this vintage and lots of people were bidding on it.  But now I realized that the toy is a wreck, and it’d cost over $100 to get it fixed and be nowhere near what I’d paid. Now, all I wanted to do was get rid of the thing.

Jill said that a young woman in the line next to ours left in anger after her cigarette paraphernalia collection was valued at less than $100. Oh my, we invest such hope in our little collections! Either we buy them for nothing and think they are treasures or we spend too much on them and think they should be treasures. Either way, they will never be as valued as we think they should.

We saw a couple carrying a 1920s painted colonial revival bench and they were beaming: “In a retail store, this would be worth $1200!” they exclaimed. It didn’t seem to bother them that an auction estimate for the bench ran only $100-200. So here’s the disconnect in the game: Sure, you can place any price tag you want on an item in a “retail setting.” But the auction estimate is where the rubber hits the road. “Good luck getting more than $200 for that at a consignment store,” Jill said sourly. “Did you see one of the legs was chewed up?’

It seemed that many of the appraisers were eager to cushion the blow with these misleading estimates. What’s the harm in telling someone that their mediocre piece of furniture could be priced higher rather than lower? I thought again of Alisdair telling me that our portrait could fetch twice what we paid. There’s a lot of hope in could.

We were not surprised to see only a few people waiting to say something to the camera at the feedback booth. Most people had high-tailed it home, nobody in the mood to shout, “Thank you, Antiques Roadshow!” We gave some feedback and tried to be funny. Jill was tempted to say, “I never realized how much disappointment I’d see at the Roadshow,” but of course she did not.

As we walked back to the car, I said, “The lesson is that condition is everything. Why buy a wrecked toy or compromised painting just because it’s cheap? Go the distance, spend a little more, and get something that’s really good. That’s the lesson.”

“So we’ll sell that old dog,” Jill said.

I was thinking that if I were at an auction right now, I could find something really good – and I’d prove I have a good eye.

But it was late in the day, there were no auctions, and we were hungry. Jill proposed that we find some pizza and I agreed. It would be the best deal of the day.