The Antiques Roadshow Fallacy…

Antiques Roadshow really is one the most interesting premises for a television show. Regular people from all over the country bring forward everything from their prized family “heirlooms”, to “junk” they found at a basement thrift store. In turn, some of our country’s preeminent arts specialists and appraisers cast wheat from chaff, delivering gentle letdowns or jaw dropping estimates. For the past 22 years, Antiques Roadshow has regaled American audiences with incredible stories, valuations, and forgotten treasures; all of it onscreen and nationally televised.

Just like any great series’ fan base, hardcore fans of Antiques Roadshow strive to test their knowledge against that of expert on-screen. From the comfort of their own living room, they shout out terms and artists, clamoring to beat the appraiser to the punch…

Thanks to 25 years of fine and decorative arts study, I can usually do so, but the key to the show (and appraisal science) is the valuation. It’s the moment that you watch for, the moment which gets you to lean forward in your chair and desperately turn up the volume.

The appraised values, however, aren’t quite so easy; my timing is off. Obviously, the objective is to “beat the appraiser”, but you see, it’s nearly impossible. I contend that the roadshow appraiser knows so much more about the item, having researched the bejesus out of it, there’s no way I can beat him.

This brings me to the BIG Antiques Roadshow FALLACY. The Roadshow Appraiser not only sees the item before s/he goes on television, s/he has the benefit of exhaustive research, executed by a team of appraisers with computers, libraries, sales results, and everything there is to know about the item including history and provenance. Sometimes the production crew knows about a piece before they even get into town!

We get a lot of referrals from the Antiques Roadshow for which we are grateful. You don’t get to feature on the show unless you’re a talented specialist or appraiser, period. But, because of this BIG FALLACY, some people think appraisers just know this stuff and can spout instantaneously. Some find it hard to believe that an appraiser doesn’t know everything there is to know about everything (and at the drop of a hat, too!). Oh, some appraisers (I live with one) have enormous brains, indeed, as well as the ability to recall the data and use their lips at the same time. But, mostly, appraising is all about honing one’s connoisseurship skills and studying items. Mediums, artists, makers, history are just as important as sales results and market analysis.

So despite what you see on Antiques Roadshow and shows like it, a successful appraisal is not often spontaneous. Were it not for the multistage screening process and armies of research assistants, I’m sure that the TV-magic of Antiques Roadshow would be too little to warrant its current fanbase, and years of success. But hey, that’s Hollywood!


Co-authored by: Lynn Magnusson, ASA, AAA , and Kollin Handler, Communications Director

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