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Discover Mid-America — June 2006

The Discovery
of Antiques Hits the Road

by Ken Weyand

Though the Antiques Roadshow originated in Great Britain in 1979 as a BBC documentary, it was only a matter of time before it would become an American success story. WGBH, a Boston station, began producing the PBS version in 1997. Nominated for three Emmys, show features a small army of art, antiques and collectibles experts who give verbal appraisals to collectors seeking to know about their “treasures.” Now in its 11th year, the PBS show is carried by more than 300 member stations and reaches a nationwide audience

Like its predecessor, the show combines history with appraisals. But a big part of the show’s popularity is the “gotcha moment” when show participants learn their dusted-off family heirloom is actually a valuable antique or a not-so-valuable fake. But when the real “finds” are discovered, they can be dramatic.

At ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in Kansas City, MO, appraiser Leslie Keno of Sotheby's takes a break with the owner of this Federal style sofa. After turning the substantial piece of furniture upside down to inspect the frame for authenticity, Keno told her the sofa is estimated to be worth $10,000. (photo by Jeff Dunn, WGBH and courtesy of KCPT)

According to the show producers, the three most valuable items ever appraised on the American Antiques Roadshow were a Navajo chief’s blanket, valued at between $350,000 and $500,000, a painting by 19th century marine artist James Buttersworth, valued at between $250,000 and $500,000, and a rare Federal style card table made in the late 1700s by John and Thomas Seymour of Boston, valued at $200,000 to $300,000. (For a video scrapbook of the Roadshow’s top 10 all-time treasures, visit and click on “Series Overview.”)

The older gentleman who brought in the vintage blanket to the 2002 Tucson show said it was given by Kit Carson to the foster father of his grandmother. For years, it had been casually hanging over the back of a chair. When informed of the blanket’s true value, the man wiped tears from his eyes.

“I had no idea — I must lean on the back of a chair — I can’t believe this!”

The appraiser continued to laud the blanket’s value as an American treasure, worth perhaps $500,000. “My grandparents were poor farmers,” the old fellow said. “There was no wealth — no wealth at all. I’m amazed,” he said, wiping his eyes again. “Flabbergasted!”

In Tampa, Fl, a woman with a hurricane-damaged oil painting wrapped it in cardboard and rolled it through the exhibit hall on a luggage carrier. Appraiser Debra Force identified the artist as renowned 19th century marine painter James E. Buttersworth, and estimated the painting to be worth between $250,000 and $500,000. The astonished woman later carried the painting from the building with a police escort.

The woman who brought in the Seymour card table to the Secaucus, NJ, show and astounded the Keno brothers, the Roadshow’s top furniture appraisers, had bought the rare piece at a garage sale.

“I needed a diminutive table,” she said. “When I saw this out in the yard, I thought ‘this is a great thing.’ It was pitch black, a moldy mess. The lady was asking $30. But I only had $25. She took it.”

The Roadshow in Kansas City

Kansas City became a site for the Antiques Roadshow in 1997, when the PBS version had just taken off. Featured was a visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art narrated by Chris Jussel, former owner of a major New York antique store, who hosted the Roadshow for several years. The show was held at the Kansas City Convention Center.

The concept of making Roadshow-like appraisals readily available to the public was dear to Jussel’s heart. In an interview with Susan Reed, a writer at WGBH Boston, Jussel said, “I think it is important for the public, which is spending money, to have objects that are guaranteed to be what dealers say they are.”

At the Kansas City, MO, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW event, appraiser Leigh Keno, of Keno American Antiques (right), discovers this dry sink hutch cupboard from the late 19th century and confirms what the owner's family has believed for decades: it is a truly valuable item. This piece, complete with its original hardware and distinctive grain painting, is valued at $7,500 to $8,000. (photo by Jeff Dunn, WGBH and courtesy of KCPT)

Appraisers at the first Kansas City show examined Persian rugs, Tiffany vases and an original Thomas Hart Benton painting.

Kansas City again was the site of the Antiques Roadshow in 2003. Dan Elias, owner of Elias Fine Art in Boston, began hosting the show during its fifth season and was the host in Kansas City. His wife, Karen Keane, was one of the appraisers at the Kansas City event.

The 2003 show featured a wide array of items, including a vase made for the Imperial Household of China. Many memorabilia items were brought in, including a shirt with bullet holes, which was part of a collection documenting the life of Beat generation writer William Burroughs. One of the top items was a 1880s Pennsylvania poplar dry sink, estimated by the appraisers to be worth $8,000.

Another item of similar worth was a 1938 cartoon animation cel of Dopey, from Walt Disney’s first full-length film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The item was given to the owner’s great-aunt by Disney, who signed it himself — a rarity for the cartoonist, who rarely signed his work. The cel was also in excellent condition, bringing its estimated value to $7,000 to $8,000.

One of the 2003 Kansas City Roadshow participants was startled when Leslie Keno, one of the famed Keno brothers, produced an exacto knife and proceeded to cut a slit in the upholstery of the Early American sofa she had brought in. Keno explained that as a period piece, the sofa would be worth up to $10,000. As a copy, its value would be closer to $1,000.

Appraisers look for internal clues, such as replacement of part of the framework, which might occur if the piece was a hybrid or copy.

"We're looking for what kind of wood is there, whether it has the proper aging, the right tool marks, the right nails," Keno said. “In addition, the species of wood found inside the sofa can also reveal the region in which the piece was made, which can influence the value significantly.”

As it happened, the sofa was authentic and worth the higher amount.

Alex Greenwood, director of public information at KCPT Channel 19, the Kansas City PBS affiliate, is enthusiastic about the Antiques Roadshow and its importance to his station’s programming.

“It’s one of our highest rated shows,” Greenwood said. “It’s extremely popular in Kansas City. It’s good television.”

Greenwood said that KCPT has carried all the Antiques Roadshows, including many of the BBC productions made before the current WGBH series. The show, which airs Monday at 7 p.m., is watched by more than 22,000 households in the station’s coverage area, he said. KCPT reaches viewers in a 60-mile radius from Kansas City, for a total of 438,000 households weekly.

So why the popularity of Roadshow’s with Midwest viewers?

“I think it’s a couple of things,” answered Greenwood. “The Midwest was settled by people who brought their items from the eastern U.S. and in many cases, from the ‘old country.’ The Roadshow provides a link between Midwesterners and their ancestors. Also, it’s just plain fun to see a person humbly bringing in an item and finding out the family memento is worth a small fortune.”

Other Roadshow stops

Chris Jussel hosted the 2000 Des Moines show, giving viewers tours of the state capitol building and the historic Salisbury House. The show included a collection of Charles Lindbergh memorabilia, consisting of a broken propeller from a biplane piloted by the aviator, who had stayed with the collector’s family while the aircraft was being repaired. Lindbergh had signed the prop. There were also two books written by Lindbergh in the collection, also signed. The prop and books were valued at between $7,000 and $10,000.

Also at the show was a signed letter from Mark Twain, a unique wooden dog carving, a delicate Royal Worcester porcelain pitcher and an antique Wurlitzer jukebox. The jukebox, purchased at a tag sale for $20, was valued at a jaw-dropping $10,000 to $11,000. Visitors also brought a unique Tiffany vase, and a Chinese box and horn valued between $17,000 and $19,000.

At the 2001 St. Louis Roadshow, new host Dan Elias visited the city’s Old Courthouse, site of the 1850 Dred Scott trial. The 1880 Cupples House was also featured. Among other items, participants brought a Victorian hall tree, two Japanese ivory carvings and Spanish-American War Limoge bowls valued at $10,000 to $20,000.

At the Kansas City, MO, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW event, appraiser Louise Luther of Skinner, Inc.(left) reveals this colorful, Venetian-looking glass chandelier actually was crafted in Czechoslovakia and imported to America sometime between WWI and WWII. Today, the delightful art glass piece could fetch $5,000 to $6,000.
(photo by Jeff Dunn, WGBH and courtesy of KCPT)

The owner of the hall tree was unaware that his unusual item was made by cobbling together (or “marrying”) parts of six or more other pieces of furniture, all with different styles. The unusual item was beautiful, but worth no more than the original $1,700 purchase price.

Also at the show: an antique Budweiser tin, a toy bear, and a large and well-preserved 18th century silk needlepoint scene valued at $60,000 to $80,000, later topped by a rare repeating rifle valued at $75,000 to $100,000.

At the Tulsa Roadshow the same year, host Dan Elias admired the “Queen of the Tulsa Skyline” and the Art Deco Philtower built in 1927 by oil tycoon Waite Phillips. The show also visited historic Route 66, and the Gilcrease Museum, with its outstanding collection of western art, and more than 250,000 Native American art and artifacts.

Antiques at the Tulsa Convention Center included a turn-of-the-century gambling wheel, a collection of mourning jewelry made from human hair, an 1881 cylindrical calculator, an earthenware amphora from early Rome, and a hand-painted place card from a memorable Hollywood party, which contained the signatures of the celebrity dinner guests, valued at $75,000 to $100,000.

Probably the biggest surprise was an 18th century chest of drawers the owner was using as a TV stand. The chest was valued at $125,000 to $150,000.

At the 2004 Roadshow in Oklahoma City, host Lara Spencer arrived on horseback at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, where expert Bruce Shackleford explained the finer points of collecting saddles. Later, Roadshow expert John Buxton discussed Hopi Kachina dolls.

Show goers brought a 1870s elephant table, a 1937 Martin guitar, an unusually large and rare Gallé vase worth $60,000 to $80,000, French Art Deco travel posters worth $40,000 to $60,000, and an 1801 Jefferson Peace Medal worth $40,000 to $50,000. A drum used in the election campaign of President Zachary Tayler was valued at $10,000 to $15,000.

In January 2005, Omaha presented the Roadshow, hosted by Lara Spencer. Farm history was brought to life as Spencer and Roadshow expert Noel Barrett visited a collection of antique tractors.

A fascinating collection of letters, drawings and documents documenting a Nebraska woman’s dispute with her architect about a remodeling project was estimated to be worth more than $100,000. The architect: Frank Lloyd Wright.

A silver serving dish, purchased by a bed & breakfast owner for his wife at an estate sale for $1,000, has been an admired focal point of their establishment, located two hours west of Omaha. It was determined that the dish had been crafted in the 19th century by a master silversmith using Sheffield and silver plate dating from 1819. It was estimated to be worth between $4,000 and $6,000.

Dealers are fans, and not

The excitement of average people discovering family items to be valuable antiques has been a key ingredient in the show’s success. To some antique dealers, however, Antiques Roadshow is a two-sided coin.

Casey Ward, owner of Mission Road Antique Mall in Prairie Village, KS, said she believes the Roadshow benefits antique malls and shops by raising public awareness about antiques, and getting people excited about buying and selling collectible treasures. The mall, which is home to more than 300 dealers offering some of the highest quality antiques in the region, is a Roadshow sponsor.

“The Roadshow offers us a good targeted audience,” Ward said, “and is something we feel good about being associated with.” Ward added that “probably as many as ten of our dealers have taken items to the Roadshow for appraisals.”

One of those dealers is Dr. Phillip Reister, at one time Harry Truman’s personal physician. Reister, who said he’ll be 88 on his next birthday, is a long-time appraiser and is known as “Mr. Antiquer” at the mall, where he works once a week. He is also an associate of the International Society of Appraisers.

Reister said he attended the 2003 Kansas City Roadshow with a shoe buckle and hat buckle, both from the Pilgrim era. The items were signed by an apprentice who worked in the Colonies. At the Roadshow, Reister said he handed the items and their documentation to an appraiser.

“Wrong approach,” he said, noting that the appraiser would have preferred to demonstrate his own expertise. “Eventually the appraiser estimated the items’ value at $3,000.”

Another view of the Roadshow comes from Kay Rozzelle, owner of Timeless Treasures Antique Mall in Claycomo, MO.

“I’ve watched the Roadshow for years, and enjoy it,” Rozzelle said. “It helps me keep up to date with what’s going on in the antiques field. But sometimes it creates problems for malls. People bring in an item worth maybe $5 and expect me to offer $5,000 because it’s ‘just like the one on the Roadshow.’

“Many customers expect free appraisals, not realizing that the Roadshow appraisers are experts in that particular field with years of experience.”

Rozzelle added that although there are dramatic discoveries on the Roadshow, “most of the show’s participants bring in items that have little value.”

For his part, Reister worries that young people don’t appreciate history or the value of antiques, something he said is “bad for the industry.”

But he agrees that quality antique malls, antique shows and programs like the Roadshow are helping get the message out about the value antiques and the history associated with them.

Inside the Antiques Roadshow

Judy Matthews, at WGBH in Boston, said it takes four months for the Roadshow to go from taping to television.

Mark Walberg is the host of Antiques Roadshow. (photo courtesy of ANTIQUES ROADSHOW)

“We finish taping events in August and premiere our new episodes the following January,” she said. “We don’t know the exact order in which episodes will air until everything is in the can and the producer has done a rough outline of each episode. We shoot three episodes’ worth of material at each event, and we’re doing six events this summer for a total of 18 episodes.”

Matthews said the average attendance at each Roadshow is 5,500.

“Everyone gets a free appraisal of as many as two objects,” she said. “That’s roughly 11,000 objects appraised in about ten hours by 70-80 appraisers in more than 20 categories.”

Matthews added that the Roadshow travels with a production team of approximately 50 people, and at each event; approximately 100 volunteers assist with crowd control.

Getting on the Roadshow takes some luck. But the web site offers some tips, including sending a postcard with your name and address to enter the random drawing for two free tickets and choosing your antique wisely, knowing the unusual and older items have a better chance to get on TV.

Since its inception, the Roadshow has been exported to other countries. CBC Television in Canada began Canadian Antiques Roadshow in 2005. The Dutch have their own version: Tussen Kunst & Kitsch (Between Art & Kitsch), with the shows originating in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

Mark Walberg was picked to be the host for Antique Roadshow in 2005. His is a familiar television face having hosted a number of game and reality shows. Walberg said at the time of his Roadshow debut that he is a long-time fan who watches the show with his family.

“I know Antiques Roadshow has a winning formula — the excitement and challenge of finding out how much something is worth gets viewers to tune in, and along the way they get hooked by all the incredibly interesting history,” Walberg said in June 2005.

This summer, the American Antiques Roadshow will visit six U.S. cities. The schedule: June 17, Tucson, AZ, June 24, Salt Lake City, UT, July 8, Mobile, AL, July 29, Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 5, Philadelphia, PA, and Aug. 26, Honolulu, HI. Sorry, tickets for these shows have already been assigned.

Ken Weyand can be contacted at

> Discover Mid-America Archive — Past cover stories

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