Genealogy Insider: Antiques Roadshow

By Diane Haddad Premium

A huge wooden likeness of Abraham Lincoln’s head rolls by on the left as a laundry basket holding a painting and a figurine-base lamp nudges you from the right. Where are you? At the “Antiques Roadshow” Cincinnati appraisal event, where more than 70 antiques specialists from auction houses across the country offered free appraisals of the locals’ family heirlooms.
Appraisals filmed there will be blended into three hourlong episodes of the popular “Antiques Roadshow” series on PBS. Launched in 1997, it’s modeled after a British show of the same name that premiered in 1979. The particular combination of treasure hunt, history lesson and personal stories has caught on, attracting about 10 million viewers each week. “I would say we’re the first show that came along to appreciate old things and cause the masses to take a second look at their objects,” says executive producer Marsha Bemko, now in her 14th year with “Roadshow.”
A record-breaking 37,422 hopefuls entered a lottery for 3,000 pairs of tickets. Another 600 pairs were distributed during pledge drives for local PBS station WCET and to encourage a diverse crowd. They travel an average of 100 miles, Bemko says. Jamie (for security purposes, “Roadshow” forbids publishing guests’ last names) drove 10.5 hours from Montgomery, Ala., with a spoon that dates back to the American Revolution and her great-grandfather’s WWI-era pocket watch.
Ticketholders for an appraisal event are assigned hourly time slots. After standing in a long “triage” line, treasures in tow, each guest gets another ticket for one of about 20 categories of collectibles, such as clocks, glass, toys, documents or folk art. An expert’s evaluation awaits at the end. Appraisals for select objects are filmed amid the bustle, inside a ring of appraisers’ tables.
Selecting those special objects from the 12,000-plus that walk in the door falls to Bemko and two of her staff. “The experts are the ones on the front lines,” Bemko says. “Unless it’s too small, they see a great object from across the room. Whoever is available when the person pulls that item out of their bag is the one who gets to evaluate it. If that item is of interest, the expert doesn’t tell the guest anything.” A producer is summoned to listen to the object’s story and ask questions.
High-dollar items make an impression on viewers, but that’s not all Bemko looks for. She wants to show something different and let the owner hear new details about it. “If another Tiffany dragonfly lamp comes to us, chances are we’re not going to tape it. You’ve seen a few. We’re not discovering America’s hidden treasures anymore at that point.”
Once an object is selected for filming, its owner is sent straight to the green room to await the appraisal. “If you watch ‘Roadshow,’ that’s the first time the guest is learning it. Nothing’s faked,” Bemko says.
Not often does the surprise include what Bemko calls a “life-changing” amount of money—and that’s OK with most guests. “Mysteries like paintings, which are hard to look up and determine authenticity by yourself, people may be having fantasies. But most people don’t own things in our homes, no matter what corner you look into, that are worth $50,000. It’s rare stuff.”
Instead, they’re out to satisfy curiosity about something they’ve been looking at their entire lives. “They come with questions like ‘I’m not sure if this came from the South or the North,’ ‘Did it come from this side of the family or from this era?’
It’s really a discovery of self,” Bemko says. “And no matter what it’s worth, most people don’t sell.” Those curious about the fate of seen-on-“Roadshow” treasures can look for them on “Antiques Roadshow FYI.”
A woman named Carolyn learned her figurine lamp, which a great-aunt brought back from Austria in the 1920s, is worth “just” $80. “It was my bedroom light when I was a child, and now it’s in my guest bedroom,” she says. And there it will stay.
From the October/November 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine.