The hour-long Antiques Road Show airs on PBS Monday nights at 8 PM. It is an inspired solution to the problems that beset publicly funded arts and humanities in the early 1990s. Back then, public broadcasting and the national endowments for the Arts and Humanities were (rightly) taken to task as mechanisms for transferring money from working-class families to a handful of elite subversives in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Two reforms were needed if these cultural programs were to survive: (1) they had to transfer more government dough to Podunk; (2) they had to become more prole-friendly.
Road Show, produced for the past three years by WGBH in Boston, kills these two birds with one marvelous stone. Host Chris Jussel leads a team of gallery-owners and academic experts to a different antique show in a different far-flung city each week. These are the only people in dresses and ties you’ll see. All they do is appraise antiques. Down-at-heel locals bring various heirlooms from their attics and cellars in hopes they’ll turn out to be Ob Jay Dar.
Monday night last, at Edgecroft Hall in Richmond, Virginia, we started with a lady who brought a pair of gold bracelets, which turned out to have been given by an army captain to his wife during the siege of Fort Sumter–$15,000! Then a jade necklace someone’s great aunt had brought back from China–$35,000! A pear-shaped tea caddy from the eighteenth century–$4,000! There was an eighteenth-century French sundial ($8,000-12,000), a pocketbook owned by a friend of George Washington ($4,000-6,000), a ball used in Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series ($18,000). And that’s nothing! The all-time highlight came a year or so ago, when some old lady found out her 25-dollar card table was actually a Seymour card table. It sold for $490,000 at Sotheby’s months later.
What’s really showcased is the reciprocal exploitation at the heart of the antiques trade. Urbanites rob the patrimony of these rustics who know Chippendale only as the name of a strip club; hayseeds bleed city-dwellers over a piece of furniture they’d otherwise use as firewood. There’s a reciprocal malarkey as well: The experts pretend to know offhand the history of the object. (Which they’ve obviously rehearsed, since it includes such arcana as the provenance of the ochre used in the enamel-painting for Lepine watches in the 1840s.)
And the owners pretend to care.