© 2022 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

David Bouchier: The Genuine Article

antique table
Image by Kevin Phillips from Pixabay

Twenty years ago I remarked on the apparently endless popularity of the Antiques Roadshow on television. Incredibly it is still going, almost every night it seems. After so many years some of the rediscovered treasures we see on the show might be appearing for the second or third time. It was the genius of the Antiques Road Show to turn trash into potential treasure, and the search for it into a treasure hunt. It is a cultural phenomenon, a tribute to the national gift for optimism and the mysterious alchemy that gives value to objects with no apparent value at all.

Most public television viewers must have seen the Antiques Roadshow dozens or even hundreds of times. It is produced in different cities around the United States, and there’s also a British version. Members of the public are invited to bring in their supposed antiques or collectibles for valuation by experts, and a few of these valuations are filmed and put together to make a half-hour show.

The process of valuation is theatrical. The experts follow a prepared script. They ask a few questions about the origins of the piece, and then launch into an erudite description of its history and background — names, dates, manufacturing techniques, its rarity and the numbers of fakes on the market. Every show includes at least one blatant fake to add to the drama. The owners sit rigidly in front of the camera, their eyes glazing over as they wait for the real punch line: the price. At last, the expert asks: "Have you any idea of the value?" The owner wakes up and dutifully says no, no idea at all. Then the expert pronounces, almost always in the same words: "I would estimate that, at auction, this would fetch......" and finally names a price.

This is the moment of real-life drama, what actors call "the take." The camera zooms in to catch the owner's reaction to the price. Nine times out of ten, they say "Wow." But well-trained members of the TV audience, know that one of two things is happening. Either they were expecting their piece of junk to be worth a million dollars, and are crushed with disappointment. Or they genuinely thought that it was worthless, and are amazed at the valuation. Either way, they are required to accept the verdict without question or argument. The thrill of the show is not just this lottery aspect but that we can actually observe the alchemical process of transformation from trash into treasure.

The segment is then wrapped up with another ritual. The antique's owner must stammer out a couple of sentences, indicating that the object in question is really a priceless family heirloom, full of memories, which they could not possibly bear to sell. They don't care about the price. They will treasure it forever. The experts smile and nod approvingly, as if irony had never been invented.

The Antiques Roadshow has everything: human interest, financial interest, local interest and a lot of information about art and antiques. And it is a sobering reminder that the antiques world, like the human world, is full of fakes. Phony colonial writing desks and imitation Tiffany lamps are only the tip of the iceberg.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.