In its fifth year on the air, PBS' Chubb's Antiques Roadshow is the highest-rated prime-time program on the network. An estimated 15 million people tune in weekly to see average Joes and Jolenes present their attic and estate-sale finds to appraisers from some of the most prestigious auction houses in the land. Is their lamp a hallowed Tiffany? Were those rifles really used by Buffalo Bill? How much is that Inuit whalebone shoehorn worth to a collector?
Kids, college students, parents and grandparents all dig the Roadshow, says new host Dan Elias. But why? Is it because it's fun to try to guess the monetary value of the artifacts before the appraisers give their professional estimates? Is it because many of the items are surviving tokens of our rich American history? Or is it just because crass American materialism and greed make folks want to know what this old stuff is worth and, indeed, whether, perhaps, they have similar desirable junk in their own basements?
"I think the great thing about Chubb's Antiques Roadshow," says Elias, "is this moment which occurs at each show many times over when somebody's intimate personal history -- something that they picked out at a flea market, something that their grandmother left them, something that they bought while they were on vacation -- something that really speaks about them and who they are, somehow; when they bring that piece of history and their own personality in and see the response of these extremely knowledgeable and sophisticated appraisers.... They (the appraisers) have seen thousands of objects in this general area, this general kind; they know everything that there is to know about this area of aesthetic inquiry, and when you see both of those aspects -- the personal and the historical, knowledge-based aspects -- come together, it makes this beautiful, very satisfying whole -- it makes a moment on television which is sort of perfect, in a way."
"Perfect" may be pushing it; sure, it's nice -- but what about the greed? It's hard to ignore the estate-sale-vulture mentality that must help make the show so popular, and that, well, made this lucre-driven capitalist nation what it is today. "A lot of people will say that what they like is the money," Elias responds. "Let's face it; we all love to hear about other people's money ... we like to know if somebody got robbed; we like to know if somebody has made a killing -- all of those things are interesting to our kind-of-voyeuristic sense, but more than that, I think, is this idea of story ... I think it's very clever the way the show was put together in that it takes advantage of that materialistic instinct and slides in an enormous dose of education and information along with it."
The show has recently weathered several controversies, including an imbroglio over some questions of provenance regarding pre-Columbian Latin American artifacts. Might they be the fruits of smuggling? Could they have been stolen from an ancient tomb (a disturbingly common practice in the market for this sort of item)? Don't items like this belong in a museum or, arguably, back in their countries of origin? A gang of archaeologists and scholars have attacked the show in print, crying that antiques collectors have no business buying and selling the sort of ancient native art and artifacts that rightfully belong to public institutions of art or science, preferably in whatever country now encloses their place of origin. It's an old controversy, really -- it's just that the Roadshow, which has featured a few of these ancient items, is so prominent.
To their credit, the folks at Roadshow have responded. The show's Web site offers a thoughtful analysis of the controversy, which has no easy answers. A link to the article "Standing Up to the Smugglers," by Roger Atwood, taken from ARTnews, is illuminating. In the end, the academics and governments can debate all they like; this is television, which is stronger than either.
What will happen when Roadshow hits America's Center on Saturday? Well, get in the queue. Each visit of the perpetually touring circus of chattel draws about 7,000 locals, with entry to the convention center staggered into six time slots, beginning at 8 a.m. and lasting through the day. If you don't have a ticket by now, you're out of luck. And you can't come just to say hi to those chipper champions of the Chippendale, the Keno twins; you must have one or two items for appraisal.
St. Louis is the seventh stop in a nine-city summer tour for the show. As dedicated viewers know, several segments focusing on places of historical interest in the area will be interspersed with appraisals of some of the more noteworthy finds. Chris Jussel, the former host, left to accept a juicy offer elsewhere. Elias, who is also a Boston contemporary-art-gallery owner, is pleased to report that the summer of 2000 has already yielded a genuine campaign poster for the Abraham Lincoln/Andrew Johnson ticket of 1864, a small chest dating to 1778 New England and a book signed by Edgar Allan Poe. The St. Louis show will air sometime in 2001.
There's no greater thrill than when the Antiques Roadshow appraisers expose a fake and tell the hapless owner of some painting, highboy or Colt .45 that their item has been doctored by a charlatan. When that happens, the gleam of enthusiasm and human greed in the visitor's eyes melts to humble disappointment. Now that's a perfect television moment.