My excellent ‘Roadshow’ adventure

BILLINGS, Mont. — When people wonder, “How do you get on Antiques Roadshow?”, the answer is the same as when someone asks for directions to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice.

After three decades as an antique dealer, author, editor and appraiser, I was given the opportunity to join the show’s 2010 tour for three of the six stops, including Billings, Mont., on June 26. My assignment was the collectibles table. But before I could step out on the biggest stage in the antiques world, I had to go to “TV School.”

Arriving in Billings on June 25, my class was scheduled for 4 p.m. I had a chance to view the shattered remains of the Rimrock Auto Center, destroyed by a tornado the previous weekend. Rimrock is located just yards away from the Expo Center in the Billings MetraPark complex. How the Expo Center survived to serve as the event site is one of those freakish tornadic mysteries, and the people of Billings were glad that the devastation didn’t prevent Roadshow’s visit.

TV School was not as daunting as I had feared, and the information proved invaluable the next day. The group of first-time appraisers gathered on the familiar Roadshow set to be tutored by WGBH directors John Boyle and Bill Francis in the finer points of on-camera conduct: Treat the appraisal as a conversation with the “guest.” Don’t talk down to them or appear aloof or preachy. Don’t use your middle finger to point at an object. (It’s amazing how that digit just naturally pops out there … Got a demerit for that one.)

My new best friend, stage manager Ron Milton, put me at ease when signaling off camera how much time was left to talk. I especially enjoyed his “wrap it up” signal: His hand circling calmly at eye level, as though twirling an invisible lariat.

Talking with Roadshow veteran Leslie Keno, he put things into perspective for a nervous first-timer: “Look, it’s what we all do every day, just with the lights and cameras.” Easy for him to say.

There were plenty of other nuances covered, and we all did mock appraisals to get comfortable (or less terrified) with the process. Then it was time for the 5 p.m. production meeting that occurs every Friday before the event, conducted by the show’s executive producer, Marsha Bemko.

The appraisers gathered in the area set aside for the green room, and Bemko went down a list of topics, mostly gleaned from the show’s first stop in San Diego on June 12. Her comments to us were delivered as a den mother might address a room full of fidgety Boy and Girl Scouts — affectionately (“we’re a family”) but direct and to the point: Make sure the object being appraised is in the same position at the end of the piece as it was at the beginning. Watch for the sign to wrap it up and don’t blather on. Make sure your fingernails are clean (the camera sees all).

My head was on a pretty active swivel at this point, trying to keep everything in mind for the event barely 14 hours away. But I have to say it was pretty exciting to be sitting there with a group of people that Roadshow viewers have come to regard as a second family. I had known some of the appraisers personally, but most were just friendly, familiar faces to which I had yet to attach names, or whose names I knew but hadn’t met yet. I was grateful to be greeted by Rudy Franchi and Mike Gutierrez, and welcomed to the collectibles-table crew.

After the meeting, I set my priorities: Have one (repeat, one) beer in the hotel bar. Return to room and iron shirt. Pick out tie. Arrange for 5:30 wakeup call. Try to sleep. Get up on time. Shower, shave and get dressed. (Suspenders or belt? Wear both to be safe?) Eat breakfast at 6:30. Get on the shuttle bus to arrive at the event by 7:30.

Saturday dawned and my preparations were accomplished in order … Except for breakfast, which I was too nervous to eat. (I went with just the suspenders, by the way.)

The shuttle dropped me at the Expo Center at 7:21 and I walked in wearing my official Roadshow lanyard and ID badge. Making my way to the set, I found the collectibles table. Hmmm … Only three chairs and four appraisers. Was I in the right spot? Yes, I was informed, but because I was the new guy on a collectibles crew that normally numbered three people, I’d have to move over and share a table with Toys.

This resulted in the happiest (at least for me) coincidence of the weekend. I got to sit with Noel Barrett.

You can count on one hand the number of Roadshow appraisers who are instantly and universally recognized by viewers, and Noel is definitely one of them. Burly and jovial, mustached and ponytailed, deep resonant voice, encyclopedic knowledge of early toys. And I was his tablemate! I had met Noel briefly a few years back, and introduced myself, reminding him of our meeting. He greeted me as an old friend might, and I set up my laptop next to his. But there was no time to visit.

With bulging bags and squeaky wagons, eager faces and visions of TV fame, the “guests” had arrived.

If you’ve never been to a Roadshow stop, it’s hard to appreciate what a model of efficiency the operation is, despite its chaotic appearance. After 15 years, the Roadshow crew has it down to a science. Thousands of attendees laden with treasures are funneled into a serpentine holding area before being allowed into the main appraisal setting in small groups. This circular “cocoon” is made up of tall fabric panels around the perimeter, backing the tables lined with dozens of experts. In the center of the circle is the technical heart of the operation: a maze of cameras, sound and lighting equipment swarming with technicians, and the sets where appraisals are shot in rapid sequence throughout the day. When a crewmember calls out, “Cameras moving!” it means one appraisal has wrapped and another is about to start.

As the crowd grew and the objects large and small emerged from their wrappings, it was time to start “pitching.” When an appraiser finds what he/she believes is a significant antique or collectible (or a clever fake) worthy of going before the cameras, word is sent to the “pickers.” The three pickers who have the final say include the show’s executive and coordinating producers.

Pitching is an art I have yet to master. Appraisers have to pitch early and often, because there’s only so much time in the day to coordinate all the on-camera time. My first two items pitched were a late-19th-century electric generator and a 1930s vending machine of the kind once found in only the finest bus-stop men’s rooms … Neither made the cut.

Then I knocked one out of the park! Then another! Both amazing pieces with fascinating back stories and values in the thousands of dollars. And … I wish I could tell you more, but that would spoil the surprise, now wouldn’t it? I’ll save that for another time …

Of course, even objects recorded expressly for TV (one of mine was a “webisode”) might not make the final cut for the broadcast season, which starts in January 2011 at 8 p.m./7 p.m. Central on PBS. As they say, check your local listings.

After 12 hours at the collectibles table, I was pretty beat. Appraising antiques in any setting is like performance art: You have to be “on” and enthusiastic and pleasant, even when you’re handed a dilapidated object that passed it’s prime 50 years ago, or something that was made last year and is merely trying to look old. Diplomacy and tact are also requisites.
Though all event tickets have been distributed, here’s the remaining schedule: After Miami Beach on July 10, the last three Roadshow stops will be in Biloxi, Miss., on July 24; Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 7; and Washington, D.C., on Aug. 21. ?

Mark F. Moran is senior editor for Krause Publications antiques & collectibles books division. He has been a contributing editor for Antique Trader magazine, editor of Antiques Review East, producer of the Atlantique City antique show, and editorial director of F+W Media’s Antiques Group. He has also authored more than 25 books on antiques and collectibles, including the Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 2011 Price Guide.

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