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Antiques Roadshow in Washington: Behind the Scenes
The author was more excited to go to Antiques Roadshow than to her own wedding, but what she learned took the shine off her favorite TV program. By Cathy Alter
Comments () | Published May 24, 2011

Everyone wants to be this "Antiques Roadshow" guest, who learned a tea set she inherited from her mother is an extremely rare Art Nouveau design worth an estimated $90,000. But most people leave like our author: disappointed. Image courtesy Antiques Roadshow.

Posing for a photo in front of the orange welcome banner for Antiques Roadshow at the Washington Convention Center, it occurred to me that I had come dressed as my own roadshow. I wore an 18th-century ring, a midcentury Patek Philippe watch, a classic Hermès handbag, and—pulling the whole look together—a ’70s Pucci silk dress that once belonged to a friend’s grandmother.

I fantasized that one or both of the items I was permitted to have appraised would turn me into a Roadshow superstar. Apparently, plenty of other people had the same dream. About 23,000 tried to get one of the approximately 6,000 tickets for the TV show’s August taping in Washington. Rumor had it that tickets were going for up to $800 on eBay.

I’d been a fan since the show hit the PBS airwaves in 1997. I can name all the hosts (there have been four), recall what item secured the highest appraisal ($1.07 million for a small collection of carved jade dating from the Qianlong dynasty), and recite the regional woods that line drawers in 18th-century tallboys (pine for Philadelphia, tulip poplar for Kentucky).

Yet I nearly missed my chance to be in the presence of my idols. The previous week, I had shown up at my regular Thursday gig as a volunteer at the Christ Child Society Opportunity Shop in Georgetown. As I chatted with manager Jay York about my recent estate-sale scores, he asked whether I’d gotten my ticket to the Roadshow. In the show’s 14-year history, it has never before come to Washington and I had missed the big news.

“It’s sold out,” York said. “There was a lottery, but that was months ago.”

I could feel tears welling up. I was entering the five stages of grief.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I have an extra ticket, and I wasn’t sure who to bring.” He paused before adding with a compassionate smile, “Until now.”

I spent the rest of the week making Sophie’s Choices of what to bring—an 18th-century portrait miniature painted on a sliver of ivory, my grandmother’s heart-shaped diamond pin, an Austrian cold-painted bronze of a boy riding a crocodile—until I settled on two treasured possessions: the Hermès bag and a gold-and-pearl ring that looked as if it had been pulled from the ruins of Pompeii.

I was more excited about my day at the Roadshow than I was about my wedding. As I joined what would be the first of many lines, I noticed that the convention hall resembled the world’s largest attic. Dusty oil paintings stood next to ’50s dinette chairs. A tobacco-store Indian chief made its way, strapped to a dolly, past an old exercise bike. A Rolling Stones poster leaned against a stack of cloth-covered books. A bearskin rug had come back to life, draped over its owner’s head.

“It looks like there’s some better-quality stuff than I expected,” the woman in line behind me said to her friend.

Soon the pair, Jennifer Jewett and Susan Strange, were playing show-and-tell with me. Jewett, from Silver Spring, had brought two oil paintings. Strange, who lives in Potomac, wanted to learn more about her jester-shaped doorstop and champlevé incense burner.

In the 45 minutes we stood in line, we asked to see what our neighbors had brought and got mini-lessons in subjects ranging from cartography to military sweetheart scarves.

Sure, some people were hoping to learn they’d brought a priceless artifact that would turn them into millionaires. But many, like me, were there just to be part of the action, to learn about their items, and maybe to meet their heroes, such as the Keno brothers, the golden-haired twins who have emerged as the Roadshow’s rock stars. And if it was all caught on camera, that was just the icing on the Biedermeier chair. Typically, appraisers “pitch” their best finds to producers, who ultimately decide if someone’s prized possession will make for interesting TV.

One truth that many would learn is that old doesn’t necessarily equal valuable. Another, as I was about to learn, is that appraisers—even those vaunted enough to work for the Roadshow—don’t know it all.

>> Next page: The author learns the value of her items


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  • Washingtonian Appraisals ( were also mentioned on this episode of Antiques Roadshow. It was great to finally welcome the Roadshow to Washington DC. It's good to know that DC has some of the better fine art and antiques appraisers in the nation. Great to see the local media supporting local small businesses!

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Posted at 03:50 PM/ET, 05/24/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles