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Originally appeared in Feed, March 14, 2000

Only the deranged look to PBS for visceral thrills, but the basic game plan
of their Antiques Roadshow seems exceptionally mundane. Inside a
noisy convention center in Anywhere, USA, thousands of ordinary folks bring
their heirlooms and thrift-store finds to high-dollar auction-house experts
for verbal appraisal. The most interesting items are culled for the camera’s
eye, and we watch as a series of people get the scoop on their pieces, with
the current auction value finally revealed with a kind of Monte Hall
flourish. In between these bouts, host Chris Jussel will toss in a canned
interview with hardcore collectors or trips to local hot spots, like James
Thurber’s boyhood home in Columbus, Ohio, or Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum.

I don’t know about you, but all this seems about as liver-spotted and likely
to induce a narcoleptic trance as such PBS favorites as Birdwatch or
the immortal American Quilt. But Antiques Roadshow, now in its
fourth season, has become PBS’ number one show, attracting an impressive
fourteen million people a week. About four hundred thousand folks also own
the new Antiques Roadshow Primer, written by Martha Stewart
Living
contributor Carol Prisant.

Needless to say, these are impressive numbers for such a quaint, almost
aggressively dorky show, though Antiques Roadshow is actually an
ingenious and addictive spectacle. Combining elements of an archeological
dig, a detective series, a quiz show, and a daytime confessional, the
program is a sui generis celebration of historical art, expert knowledge,
and lumpen greed. Despite crappy production values and Jussel’s waxen
delivery, the show clicks out its curious pleasures with the compulsive
dependability of potato chips. The program’s popularity suggests that
Antiques Roadshow has struck a cultural nerve, and I suspect that
nerve goes pretty deep.

***

Here’s the basic formula: Joe or Jane Blow present some object scrounged
from a flea market or granddad’s attic — a Coca-Cola bottle opener, a
highboy, a Deco brooch, a Victorian bon bon tray, a whirligig. The
appraiser, generally better dressed and better spoken, asks the owner about
how they came to possess the object and what they know about it, which is
almost invariably zilch. With that sort of chat out of the way, the
appraiser unfurls some historical background and aesthetic analysis, often
pointing out the clues — nails, maker’s marks, materials — that helped
them identify the vintage and value of the thing. Then comes the Let’s
Make a Deal
moment: the evaluation. Most objects range from five hundred
to a few thousand dollars, but a few fetch considerably higher estimates.
“Gee”s, “Wow”s, and, “Oh my”s are common, and people have been known to lose
it entirely.

The evaluation is the Roadshow’s money shot, and you get ten or so an
episode. But the real pleasures of the program lie in the foreplay. There
are many marvelous, strange, and beautifully crafted things in our world,
and it’s nice to watch a show that slows down and caresses them, with
knowledgeable words and pornographic close-ups. Old decorative art pieces
speak for the functional creativity and craft that played such a powerful
role in the ordinary material lives of previous generations. These objects
are like three-dimensional snapshots of history, congealed signs of someone
else’s times. Their material presence allows us to ground ourselves in the
past at a time when the present seems increasingly vertiginous and
incorporeal.

In this sense, Antiques Roadshow has a very different feeling in
America than in the UK, where the BBC has been cranking out the original
program since the seventies. In Britain, nearly everything reeks of history,
and appraisers there are simply separating wheat from chaff. But in America,
the youth-worshipping land that invented the forced obsolescence of consumer
goods, history still remains something of a surprise — especially the idea
that the patina of age itself can be valuable. Moreover, history itself has
also lost much of its coherence and consistency in the face of the
hyperactive future tense of the digital age, where every memory is spliced
anew and every artifact simulated for a theme park.

Not that Antiques Roadshow can dodge the threat of the simulacrum. At
least once an episode, appraisers root out the snake in the grass that
haunts the antiquities trade: the fake. These deceiving replicas are the
shadow of the collector’s greed for the real — as one appraiser put it,
“where values climb, fakes follow.” The detective work that goes into
uncovering an ersatz Boston chair or an artificially weathered Colt Walker
pistol can be marvelous to behold, even though the wounded, crestfallen
expressions on owner’s faces can make you cringe. Sometimes appraisers will
even play challenging guess-the-fake games, whose resolution only
underscores the unspoken truth: that the distinction between authentic and
fake is sometimes impossible to determine.

The fakes remind us that the stories that the appraisers tell are themselves
always interpretations, and that there are always gaps in their tales. At
the same time, the whole business of appraising objects depends on hiding
that gap. In his 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle, which
features a subplot concerning the trade in Civil War Colt .44s, Philip K.
Dick formulated a version of Gresham’s Law: The existence of fakes
undermines the value of the real. Like disinformation, the
knowledge that otherwise undetectable fakes are being traded subtly
undermines markets that depend on authenticity. Even the value of real guns
— both their economic worth and their “historicity” — starts to crack.

Antiques Roadshow appraisers are fighting a constant battle against
this law. But if Jean “Simulations” Baudrillard is right, the battle has
already been lost in our hyperreal age, where digital modeling and
reproduction destroys the difference between original and copy, and
Disneyland becomes the new archetype of authenticity. If so, then watching
Antiques Roadshow is an exercise in nostalgia not just because it
reminds us of a time when our domestic environments were simply better and
more lovingly crafted than they are today. It’s nostalgic because the show
still insists on a distinction that itself no longer defines the world we
live in.

***

Every hardcore Roadshow fan has a favorite appraiser: Frank Boos, with his
outlandish bow ties; the aged Wendell Garrett, almost Stephen-Hawking-like
in his wheelchair; or Mildred Ewing, a Skinner specialist in toys and dolls
who privately collects Christmas ornaments, teddy bears, and bamboo
furniture. For all their sophistication, these folks are all basically fans
at heart, and the naked glee they often display as they fondle some clock or
porcelain vase is, if not infectious, then at least deeply charming.
Moreover, an almost magical function on transforming junk into gold through the power of
their expert knowledge.

At the same time, they are perfectly willing to humiliate guests who bring
in fakes or do something stupid like refinish a Colonial cabinet. In one
episode, a proud couple turned up with a gorgeous eighteenth century chair
that would have fetched between ten and fifteen thousand dollars if they
hadn’t polished its decrepit (but valuable) wood. But because they wanted to
extract some use value out of the thing, the chair was worth only a grand at
best. Hopelessly attempting to contain her anger and disappointment, the
wife choked out: “So, this means that if you have an antique chair you can’t
actually use it?!” The appraiser smiled, and without missing a beat, said,
“Well, you can always donate it to the decorative arts department of your
local museum.”

Such scenes are de rigueur on Antiques Roadshow, not only to
emphasize the ultimate superiority of elite models of taste, but to provide
drama to the show — after all, you can’t have a lotto without losers. And
Antiques Roadshow is essentially a lottery. The sixth-grade teachers
and ex-busboys in “Grits” t-shirts who cart in little goldmines are no more
deserving of their scores than the hundreds of folks who walk away from the
Roadshow with the firm knowledge that their junk is indeed junk.
Moreover, the guests who make it on air are almost invariably ignorant about
the worth of their possessions — an innocence that sets the stage for a
sudden lotto-like bestowal of status and value.

In other words, the real juice driving the show is the inflationary magic of
market value. The stock market, after all, is essentially a mechanism of
mass appraisal, and its not always so easy to clearly distinguish between
the supposedly rational behavior behind something like Amazon’s profitless
triumph and the cultural desires that can make a piggy bank shaped like a
black baseball player or a crappy painting of a Civil War battle worth
thousands of dollars. Obviously a Shaker chair or a Tiffany lamp has more
lasting value than fluctuating twentieth-century collectibles like board
games or lunch boxes, but the ultimate fickleness of collector lust — and
the unspoken and unstable backdrop of the economic boom that inflates these
markets in the first place — gives the Antiques Roadshow appraisals
a Wheel of Fortune spin.

***

If Antiques Roadshow is a kind of dice throw, though, there is something
rather valuable that is potentially lost in the wager. Let’s call it “aura,”
a term that the German critic Walter Benjamin famously used to describe the
nimbus of meaning that surrounds a unique work of art — an aura he believed
was lost when the image was mechanically reproduced. The Mona Lisa, for
example, has been hopelessly drained of aura by the multiplication of that
strange sexy smile on t-shirts, puzzles, and coasters. That’s why so many
tourists respond to their first glimpse of Da Vinci’s canvas with a
deflated, “It’s so small.”

Many of the objects that show up on Antiques Roadshow arrive glowing
with aura, especially those that are heirlooms: “This belonged to my
great-uncle Harry, who got it from a fellow who worked the mines…” or “I can
remember playing with this doll as a child….” After the object is brought
before the appraisers, it is fixed in the objective brine of expert
reckoning. It becomes part of a class of objects, dated, organized, and
known. The information deepens the narrative richness of the object, but
these stories also come with a price — literally. When the appraisers name
their figure, the object reaches the final stage of its almost alchemical
transformation into a commodity. The money figure then sails across the
Roadshow screen, accompanied by a treasure chest icon and a kind of
pixie-dust jingle.

Here is the sad drama that often seems to rule our times: the triumph of
economic reckoning over less tangible values. It’s not that people shouldn’t
know about the things they possess, nor that anything is wrong with making
money from heirlooms or thrift store scores. Many Roadshow
participants clearly have no desire to part with their suddenly big-bucks
possessions. But the relationships that people have with their quirkier
possessions change irrevocably in the face of a major evaluation. Think of
the eBay addict, scanning his or her closets, basements, and shelves for
personal possessions that might spark a bidding war on-line. The temptation
is to depersonalize the object, to respect it for what it means to other
people — i.e., the market — rather than what it means to
yourself. Whatever other values or associations that might have
clung to those things are suspended in the quest to play the money game.
Despite its considerable pleasures, Antiques Roadshow subtly erodes
one of the most basic joys that possessions can provide: the way they slip
outside the market and into your life.