Film and TV

The highs, lows and TV magic of ‘Antiques Roadshow’

The heat dome did not deter the long line of people outside the Maryland Zoo on Tuesday. They hauled duffel bags and dollies, totes and bubble-wrapped packages - all containing treasures whose secrets they hoped to learn.

“Antiques Roadshow” had arrived in Baltimore, the final destination in its five-city 2024 tour. The beloved show has been on the PBS airwaves for nearly three decades, deriving success from a deceptively simple concept: People bring their old stuff and appraisers tell them about it on camera. “Antiques Roadshow” is easy to watch while folding laundry or scrolling your phone, yet it somehow brings forth a symphony of human emotion: the disappointment of learning you were swindled, the delight of discovering an object gathering dust is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the connection to an ancestor you’ve never met through an item you both touched.

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A man named Javance, shielding himself with an umbrella from the blazing sun, rented a truck to bring an 8.5-foot-wide painting of a dollar bill that he bought at Goodwill for $17. He’s tried to learn more about it over the years, to no avail. “It’s been hanging on my wall in my living room for eight years and it’s time to see who the artist may be and if there’s any value,” he says. (“Antiques Roadshow” only permits the media to use guests’ first names.)

Shannon, who has her 5-month-old strapped to her chest, introduced her husband Tommy to the show when they started dating - she has been watching since she was 8 years old. “He was like, at first, ‘What is this?’ but now it’s very soothing,” she says. Tommy, who is pushing their 2-year-old in a stroller, agrees: “It helps us decompress.”

They scrambled around the house at the last minute, looking for items to have appraised. Though Shannon says the things they brought turned out to be “pretty worthless,” the couple was mostly there for the experience anyway.

Plus, everyone at the zoo on the sweltering day of filming had already gotten lucky: only about a fifth of the 10,000 people who applied for tickets got them. Each ticket allowed two people to enter with two items apiece for appraisal.


As a member of the press, I, too, was allowed to bring a pair of items for appraisal (and I got to cut the line). I brought a large linen sheet that my mother-in-law found last year while cleaning out her own mother-in-law’s house; it was allegedly woven in 1793. For my second piece, I selected a starburst ring that was once my great-grandmother’s. In the case of the sheet, I wanted to know if it really was from 1793, as the date stitched onto it claimed; how to best maintain it; and its value. I had a feeling that the ring wouldn’t be worth a lot of money, but I was hungry to learn a little more about my grandmother’s mother, who died when I was a toddler.

When it’s my turn to meet with an appraiser, I am thrumming with anticipation.

As media, I won’t actually be on the show, nor will most of the members of the public who attended the Baltimore taping. At each stop on the tour, the creators gather enough footage for just three episodes - roughly 25 guests appear on each one - along with content for the show’s social media platforms.

The line outside the zoo first funneled attendees to the “triage” tent. This is where your wares get categorized into one of two dozen different appraisal specialties, including books and manuscripts, ancient art, and arms and militaria. From there, you proceed to your assigned tent and wait for your turn with an appraiser.

That was the final stop for most of us. Only a very select few ever make it onto one of the multicamera television sets peppered throughout the zoo’s enclosures containing birds of prey. The people who get filmed are chosen by “pickers,” including executive producer Marsha Bemko, who get intel from the appraisers about which cases seem like TV material.

“What gets you onto ‘Roadshow’? You’ve got a good story, let’s start there,” says Bemko. “Story is king.” It helps, of course, if your item turns out to be worth a lot, or if there’s a big chasm between what you paid and how much it would sell for at auction. And the appraiser has to be able to tell the owner new information, even in the age of online research.

One person Bemko picks for filming in Baltimore is a descendant of a Delaware governor who brought a silver pitcher, and had a sense it might be valuable. “He thinks he knows things and he does know a lot,” she says. “But we know a little bit more and we’ll tell him.”

Despite the oppressive heat, the crowd at the roadshow buzzes with excitement. Perhaps it’s the incredibly high ratio of oddities per minute in your sightline. There’s something especially pleasing about knowing that people are toting around objects of significance or curiosity to them, like a life-size sculpture of a naked woman collaged with patterned paper, or a collection of comics that rarely get fresh air.

Now in her 25th year with the show, Bemko has seen trends come and go. Victorian furniture pieces that once sold for thousands now might appraise for $500. Even some of the categories over at the triage tent have adjusted over time, which she says reflects “changing tastes with the changing demographic.”

That’s why Pokémon cards and other trappings of ‘90s childhoods have recently made their way onto the show. “My official job now is just to make millennials feel old,” says Travis Landry, director of pop culture for Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers. “People always want to collect what they have or what they can remember having.” He’s been an appraiser for the show for eight years, since he was 20, and grew up watching it.

When filming in Arizona, a woman plopped down a binder filled with Magic: The Gathering cards, including ones he immediately recognized as extremely rare. “Those genuine reactions of when people have no clue, and then you get to tell them they have $100,000 worth of trading cards, [that’s] the best,” he says. (Those cards have at least doubled, and potentially tripled, in value since the appraisal.)

Alas, I wasn’t fated to have quite that dramatic of an experience. Martina D’Amato, the managing director of fashion and textile gallery Cora Ginsburg LLC, looks over my antique linen textile, running her fingers over the weave. She says it’s “totally plausible” that the linen was indeed woven and stitched in 1793. “It’s just hard to say more than possibly or probably,” she says, though she is confident it was made before the industrial revolution because early linen “has a really special feel to it. There’s nothing quite like it … It’s very heavy, and linens today feel like cheesecloth.”

D’Amato puts the value of the textile at anywhere between $200 and $500 because “it’s a really yummy linen and it has a lot of potential for use and collectibility … (but) it’s not like something I haven’t seen before.”

Onto the jewelry tent, where Sarah Churgin, owner of Acquisitions Fine Jewelry and Antiques, uses a handheld magnifier to inspect my great-grandmother’s ring. “What we have here is a silver ring in a very high fashion style,” she says. She describes the shape as Sputnik-inspired and the style as brutalist. “It’s rough, textural, like Paul Evans furniture.”

In trying to sum up what this might say about my great-grandmother, she says, “She wasn’t the timid sort, was she?”

When I ask what it’s worth, Churgin offers that its real value is its family association. It’s missing some of its stones, she notes, but “it’s priceless to you.”

Yes, yes, of course. But how much money is it worth?

“It’s within $20, based on the condition.”