Antique Roadshow

This article originally appeared on our good friend’s at New England Antiquing website.

The apparent benefits of the very popular PBS television series Antique Road Show to the hobby and business of collecting antiques are numerous and seemingly unmitigated by any downsides. Now in its eleventh season, Antique Road Show is arguably the most influential force in antique collecting to come down the pike since Kovel?s Price Guides. Recently however critics have begun to appear accusing the show of a curious mix of sins including both the dumbing down of antique collecting and encouraging a culture of elitism.

The program seen traveling around the country on American TV is based on a similar series first broadcast by the BBC in 1977. Public Broadcasting station WGBH in Boston began producing the American version in 1997 with Chris Jussel as host. Over the intervening years Jussel was followed by Dan Elias in 2001, Lara Spencer in 2004, and Mark L. Walberg in 2006. Mr. Walberg had previously hosted such high-toned cultural programming as Temptation Island and the Big Date.

We love sports and gambling as a culture and Antique Road Show has brought a rather gameshow-like atmosphere to the rather stuffy act of antique appraisal. Watching people trying to pretend they aren?t really interested in the dollar value of grandma?s tea chest is both a prurient pleasure befitting Mr. Walberg?s reality TV past and the central appeal of the show for most viewers. Anyone doubting this idea should visit, a youth oriented and bitingly caustic television culture site, and read the entries for Antique Road Show.

Regardless of any one?s opinion of Antique Road Show?s miraculous resurrection of interest in antique collecting or its brutalization of a sophisticated and tasteful pastime the show has done what few others could, attract a wide spread audience from a cross section of America to a Public Broadcasting series. Take that, Frontline.
The programs virtues are numerous and obvious. The show encourages the public to dig into their cellars, attics, and storage units to reclaim treasures that could otherwise have been lost to us through neglect and damp. There can be no doubt that many forgotten pieces has seen the light of day for the first time in decades, been restored or at least dusted off, and brought before a consuming public because of the program.

It may be assumed that the show has attracted many people to the world of antique collecting that would not have discovered this consuming passion without the draw of Antique Road Show. Old antique hands I speak with often express their fears that antiquing is a dwindling interest. They worry that the older generations of avid collectors are passing on but not passing on their passion for old furniture. It?s not that collecting has become passe, far from it. Younger collectors, however, seem more interested in modern collectibles such as sports cards, comic books, and science fiction and movie memorabilia. So, every spark of interest created by Antique Road Show should be hailed by dealers, if not necessarily collectors for whom every newly interested person means a possibly higher bid at their next auction, as a saving grace.

The show?s panel of experts provides a service to the neophyte collector by offering something like an introductory education on what to look for in antiques. A fair amount of basic information regarding finishes, types of wood, and the like are provided in nearly every appraisal. An attentive viewer can learn a good deal about judging condition and an occasionally exhausting amount about the importance of a documented or at least known history for the item in question.

The sometimes long-winded erudition of the appraisers approaches the level of scene chewing but is highly informative. Fans of the earlier British version of the show often comment on the vulgarity of the too often repeated phrase ? Do you know what this is worth?? and the pandering behavior of the experts. I see their point.

The behavior of the experts brings up another criticism of the show. The panel of appraisers gives several false impressions regarding antique collecting and dealing. Not surprisingly these erroneous ideas are said to reinforce the importance of the role of antique professional. Critics of the show say that the appraisals featured on the program give the impression that if an antique is not of museum quality that it is worthless or at least of little interest.

Building up the cult of expertise could have several affects on the antiquing community generally, most of them negative. Besides leading antique owners to undervalue their less than perfect pieces it also encourages the notion that collecting is so expensive an undertaking and comes with so burdensome a learning curve that they look elsewhere for the enjoyment of collecting.

If you want you know why people might be drifting away from traditional antiques you could blame an antiquing culture the warns participants away from exploration of their own tastes and just about anything else that smacks of fun. Nothing like the fear of a pedantic browbeating at the hands of an antique professional to ruin an antiquing weekend.

One of the pleasures of collecting antiques is about exploration of personal taste and building a unique menagerie of pieces that reflects something about the owner. If a small collection of experts principally interested in the very highest end of antiques are the arbiters of desirability there is little room left for the funky, garish, amusing, or even personal.

Posted on August 16th, 2007

Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions or by email at

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