For nearly 20 years, PBS’s Antiques Roadshow has provided ample hours of addictive TV watching as regular folks cart in their old stuff — art, furniture, clothing, toys, firearms, etc. — for professional appraisal by a slate of experts in these fields. But how does the show pick which stuff gets on the air? How do the appraisers know so much? And what happens after someone’s inherited trinket is valued at tens of thousands of dollars?
AVclub.com’s John Teti has a massive interview with one of the show’s more distinctive characters, smooth-voiced auctioneer and poster expert Nicholas D. “Nicho” Lowry, who has no problem pulling back the curtain on one of TV’s longest-running shows.
Here are just a few of the important things we learned from the Lowry interview:
1. The experts don’t always know every single fact about that family heirloom you show them.
“The main member of my entourage is Mr. Google,” jokes Lowry, who says that while there is usually just the one expert on-camera, the information he or she provides is the result of a group effort.
“We often have to confer with other people,” he explains. And even though he’s the only poster specialist in the Roadshow, there are other experts there who can offer their insights. “[I]f it’s a sports image, I confer with the sports people. If it is a pop-cultural image, I’ll refer to the pop-culture people. But generally speaking, if it’s a travel poster, which I know backwards and forwards, I’m not sure who’s there that can give a second opinion.”
And during the time between selecting an item for an on-camera appraisal and actually doing that appraisal (more on that process below), Lowry says he tries to squeeze in the necessary research so he looks extra smart on TV.
“A lot of these things, we really do know,” he says. “Price, we have a good idea for. But things likes dates of artists being born and dying, we may not have that committed to memory. Certain parts of the story that need to be put into historical context. There’s sort of a transient office in the back where the show has set up computers.”
2. The experts see a lot of the same items over and over.
Lowry says that while the experience at his category-specific table is going to be different than what the folks at other tables see, “I imagine there are certain common themes… And certainly everybody in America has one or two things in their family on paper that are identical.”
He says one of the things he comes across repeatedly from visitors to the Roadshow is old, early 20th century prints of Jesus.
“So here you have something that’s legitimately a hundred years old or more, but every single family had one,” he explains. “Because it was the dawn of a new printing era where high-quality color prints could be made inexpensively, so everybody could buy them… And they bought them, saved them because they were meaningful, and now everybody’s bringing them in.”
3. It’s a relief to hear you bought something at a flea market.
Family heirloom stories make for better stories, but there’s also a bigger chance of a letdown when the object turns out to be worthless or not as valuable as your grandmother had made it out to be.
Lowry says that when someone brings in something they picked for virtually nothing at a flea market, there is only an upside to the news he can provide.
“[T]hat means it wasn’t left to them by a loved one,” he explains. “It means they have a decent sense of humor, and it means you can say, ‘Wow! Well, it’s probably worth about $10, which is 10 times what you paid for it, so you did well.'”
4. A lot goes into deciding which items make it onto the air.
The show films for about 12 hours in any one day, with some 6,500 visitors bringing their stuff to be appraised. This all results in only three hours’ worth of show from each Roadshow stop. So how do they determine which stuff makes the cut?
First, visitors go through a “triage” area where they are given tickets to the various tables where the experts can evaluate their stuff.
“We’ll take a look at it, and if we think — if it’s not a turn-of-the-century Jesus, if it’s not an etching from the 1880s — we think, hmm, this is actually something that has value, a story. Without telling the guest anything, we just say, ‘Listen, I’d like to send for a producer and talk to them about it,'” explains Lowry. “Now, at this point, the guest knows that the producer is being sent for. But the guest doesn’t know if the producer is being sent because they have a made-in-Mexico reproduction, and they’re going to be embarrassed on national television, or if they’ve struck it rich with the rare, lost Incan treasure. They don’t know. They just know that they’ve been singled out.”
Then the appraiser and the producer chat privately about the merits of the piece. There is also some vetting that needs to be done — checking to make sure the person bringing the piece in is the actual owner, or that they haven’t recently had it appraised. Lowry says there is little interest in doing an on-camera appraisal when the person comes in showing they’ve done years of research and likely already know more about the particular piece than the experts.
If they then decide it’s something worth possibly airing, Lowry will go back to the item’s owner and say, “I know something about these things that you have, and I’d be happy to tell you about them, but I’m wondering if you’d like to try and do it in front of the camera.”
5. Not everyone wants to be on-camera.
It baffles us why someone would lug something to a show primarily known for its on-air appraisals only to say no to going on air, but Lowry says it does happen.
“Some people actually say no,” he admits. “It’s disappointing. It’s happened to me twice.”
6. The people are genuinely unaware of the appraisal until it’s done on-camera.
“It is 100 percent above board,” says Lowry. “All the guest knows is that they’re going to be on TV. They’re sent to the green room if the producer approves the pitch, but they really don’t know why.”
7. The wait for an on-camera appraisal depends on the time of day.
“If somebody walks in at 7:30 a.m. with a piece, the producer will be there right away, and the guest will go on right away,” explains Lowry. “Once the day gets underway, and the producers are running around—they’re all on their walkie-talkies, their headsets. They have lists of the appraisers they need to see. In the afternoon, if we get a pitch approved, it could be three or four hours before the guest is on air.”
8. Calling out a fake on-camera isn’t about humiliating the item’s owner.
While some people have brought plastic “ivory” vases, or the person who was convinced that “Faciebat Anno” was the name of violin-maker Stradivarius’s lady love, a producer for Roadshow tells AVclub that “A big reason that we film fakes is as a teaching moment. We’re not just trying to crush dreams or make ‘good TV.’ We want to teach the public what to look for. If there’s something that wouldn’t be that teachable moment, we’re not going to take the time.”
9. People with valuable finds can get police escorts.
While most of the more valuable finds on Roadshow are worth a few thousand dollars, they usually aren’t worth enough for someone to beat you over the head and take. For owners that suddenly find out they are the proud owners of a painting worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the show can arrange some security for the ride home.
“I’m not sure where the cutoff is, but there is a point where, if an item is really worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the person will be escorted home by the local police,” says Lowry.
The Roadshow producer adds that they will have security escort guests to their car if they’re not comfortable leaving the show after all these people saw them hit the jackpot on camera.
10. The appraisers are not allowed to purchase the items they evaluate at the show.
“Not only aren’t we allowed, but we are appropriately and militantly not allowed to do it,” explains Lowry, who says he and his fellow experts are not even allowed to hand out business cards. “That is probably the show’s cardinal sin.”
However, he gives a hypothetical example of how he can do business with a person who visits his table: “I do an appraisal for you, and it does or does not get on TV, but it’s a $5,000 piece, and you say, ‘Can you sell it for me? Can I have your business card?’ Which would be a normal thing to ask under the circumstances. The answer is, ‘I actually can’t give you my business card here, but as you’re leaving the convention center, there’s a table by the exit that has all our business cards on it. You’re welcome to take mine and call me during the week, and we can discuss it.’ That’s completely legitimate, and it sometimes happens.”