Will the gods of antiquity smile on me and my stuffed-cow pull toy?
Now in its 14th season on PBS, “Antiques Roadshow” has become a cultural touchstone, teaching us all that what we once considered junk cluttering our attics may in fact be valuable heirlooms. So when the show visits the Hartford Convention Center on Aug. 23, 2008—to film three episodes scheduled for its 2008-’09 season—I’m there, armed with a 1930s vintage Steiff stuffed-cow pull toy that my father was given as a child, as well as two examples from his collection of commemorative buttons. One is anti-Nazi propaganda featuring Adolf Hitler and Uncle Sam (pull the dangling thread and you help us all hang the Führer), the other a campaign button for Wendell Willkie, who was trounced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election, 449 electoral votes to 82. I can only hope his button will be more of a winner.
As with any such process, there are rules. All ticket holders have an assigned arrival time (between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.), and your first stop must be the “generalist” tables, where a representive examines your collectibles and determines to which of 25 or so specialized stations you should bring them. There’s a “two appraisals only” restriction (I suppose I’m borderline guilty of bending that, having brought one toy and two buttons, but why obsess). For obvious reasons firearms have to be checked out at a “police station” upon entry, and stamps and paper currency will simply not be appraised, as they’re too easily counterfeited. (For reasons that are less clear, neither will coins or glass fire extinguishers.)
Of the roughly 6,000 local citizens who pass through on Aug. 23, around 55 will be filmed for the “spotlight” segments that make up the Hartford shows, and these will be whittled down to 15 segments per episode. One’s item is chosen for filming when an appraiser decides it’s choice enough to alert a producer, who then must agree that the piece is “of interest.” The owner is told nothing more specific about the object while he or she is taken to a greenroom and made up for his/her big TV moment. The first anyone hears of the worth of a piece is during the taped discussion, which enhances the sense of surprise.
Thus I, as a member of the press, am warned not to divulge the value of any item I might overhear during a taping, though it’s okay to chat with the appraisers about choice objects they have seen. At the Asian Arts station Lark Mason, owner of the auction company iGavel, is delighted over a circa 1850 Imperial Japanese gun (“absolutely the finest quality”), while Sports Memorabilia expert Simeon Lipman of Christie’s extolls a football signed by everyone on Notre Dame’s 1930 team, including Knute Rockne.
I’m taken with a solid silver flute brought to the Musical Instruments station that bears a plaque stating it was made especially for “Blind Tom,” assumed to be Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908), a Georgia-born African-American and autistic “savant” allegedly near Mozartian in his musical abilities (though he was a pianist, not a flutist). He performed at the White House for President James Buchanan and became a favorite of Mark Twain before winding up his career and life in New York City. Actually, appraiser Frederick W. Oster of Philadelphia’s Vintage Instruments Inc. can’t tell me as much about the flute as can its owner, who acquired the instrument when he bought the salvage rights of a house in Orange County, N.Y.—the flute, he says, was found under one of the beds.
Nothing I see rivals the item that topped the list when “Roadshow” first came to Hartford in 1999—a painting by 19th-century Spanish artist Luis Jimenez, valued at $60,000 to $90,000. I’m not surprised to learn that none of my pieces is of “special interest,” though they’re worth more than I expect. At the Toys & Games station the Steiff cow gets short shrift—my guess is these guys see enough vintage Steiff nowadays to jade even the most fanatical enthusiasts—but my dad’s well-loved little cow will still command a price from the low $400s to the high $700s. Rudy Franchi of Heritage Galleries in Dallas, who’s working the Collectibles station, is more impressed with the Hitler button, which thanks to its condition (no rust, string intact) is worth $90 to $100. Worth about $75, the Willkie button, he informs me, is but one of 70 to 80 anti-F.D.R. buttons produced, and less scurrilous than most.
All things considered, my day is a success—which seems acutely clear after I encounter a couple of people with collectibles deemed worth no more than what they paid for them (one a decorative Sheffield silver-plate cigar lighter bought at a high-end Greenwich antiques shop for—gad—$2,000). Whenever I watch “Roadshow,” I note that most participants swear up and down that their collectibles have too much sentimental value to sell. That’s not an issue for my family. So with that in mind, I have a final question: Anybody want to buy a button?
The Hartford “Antiques Roadshow” episodes air at 8 p.m. May 11, 18 & 25 on CPTV.Antiques Roadshow