The Roadshow Rolls through Winterthur
“No photos,” said the signs posted everywhere at the Antiques Roadshow. As an avid photographer, I felt as if I had just sat down for a long-anticipated feast only to be told that eating was forbidden. But the atmosphere was so festive that I could almost forget my deprivation on this beautiful June day.
Though the lines were long, even at our 7:30 a.m. entrance time, the mood was very jolly. We were all lottery winners, my husband and I and about 3,000 others using our free tickets to join in this very long day. Everyone was happy to be at the Roadshow, even the harried, unpaid appraisers, many familiar to us from our years of viewing PBS’s most-watched ongoing TV series. There were lines by the parking lot, lines for shuttles to the appraisal site, lines to sort one’s items into categories, and lines at each specialty table.
The British Roadshow, on which the American one is modeled, has long filmed in historic sites. We were glad the American Roadshow recently followed suit, literally emerging into the sunshine from the featureless convention centers that it formerly favored.
Our destination was the last Roadshow venue of the season. Winterthur, half an hour away from Swarthmore, outside Wilmington, Delaware, is a former DuPont estate bills that itself as “the premier museum of American decorative arts.” Originally a 12-room house built in 1839, it eventually grew to include 175 rooms, a museum and a research library.
It had taken us a long time to choose which items to bring. Each participant was allowed two appraisals. Between the two of us, we managed to be shunted off to four different tables, spread out in the museum lobby, exhibit rooms and courtyard gardens, where we hoped to learn more about the history of our items.
At “Decorative Arts & Silver,” I presented some simple silver initialed cups that belonged to my great-great-great grandparents in Philadelphia. The appraiser, unable to get her computer online, couldn’t provide much history but hazarded a value.
The woman at “Collectibles” knew nothing about my great-grandfather’s boxed set of engineer’s drafting tools which he used for his work in Fairmount Park around the turn of the 20th century. The precision instruments range in size from a delicate, 3” long, ivory-handled compass to a massive multi-part version twenty times that length. Though the appraiser repeatedly assured me they were ‘beautiful,’ she didn’t think they were worth much.
A sweaty, bored appraiser at the “Jewelry” table looked at the same ancestor’s dozen stickpins (used for ties) and told us that ones with unusual designs, such as a gold fox’s head, were more valuable than ones with tiny decorative gems.
At “Arms & Militaria,” however, we really did learn something. My husband had long wondered about the history of an old, double-edged, engraved dagger he had bought 50 years ago at a Greek flea market for the equivalent of $10. The appraisers conferred and told us that it was a 19th century “khanjali” from the Caucasus Mountains, a dagger design which had been used since ancient times. (“It’s Caucasian,” they said, momentarily confusing me.) They noted that it was authentic, not made for the tourist trade.
We wandered around and chatted with people. A veteran Roadshow attendee who collected buttonhooks had actually paid for her ticket in a post-lottery fund-raising auction and driven hours to attend. Another woman brought her aunt’s elegant, century-old sculptural doll carriage with attached parasol, attracting a lot of attention despite its negligible monetary value. Filming occurred at various stations scattered throughout the courtyard: tall tables at which selected owners and an appraiser would tediously repeat their comments as needed for possible television presentation, a heavily rehearsed scene that appears to be spontaneous on the screen. Local Philadelphia appraisers walking by included Alasdair Nichol from Freeman’s Auctioneers, America’s oldest auction house, and Frederick Oster of Vintage Instruments on Broad Street.
There was a final, extremely long, thankfully optional, line for the “the feedback booth,” available to anyone who wanted to film their reflections on their Roadshow experience. These, too, are only selectively screened. A designated volunteer used people’s phones to create souvenir portraits, each attendee’s head shot centered in a cardboard AR frame
Towards the end of our visit, I saw a show official creating quite a stir as he hurried importantly along, carrying a flashy scarlet woolen coat resembling a British Revolutionary War uniform. Though appraisers are not supposed to comment on anything other than one’s official item assessments, I boldly asked him if that was indeed what it was. He hesitated, smiled, and then said, “I’m sorry I can’t say.” I guess we’ll just have to watch the three Winterthur episodes slated to air in the spring of 2020, the Roadshow’s 24th season, to find out.