Year after year, devotees of the wildly popular program Antiques Roadshow on PBS haul their family heirlooms and yard-sale finds to this traveling altar of the weird and wonderful, in hopes of discovering that they are the proud owners of a valuable national treasure. More often than not, they aren't. But most are happy to endure Disneyland-like lines and lengthy waits just to learn the history of their object and its estimated value -- even if it doesn't involve a lot of zeroes.
"Everyone wants to tell the story that they bought an item for $5 at a yard sale and now it's worth $100,000," says Alasdair Nichol, of Freeman's Auctioneers & Appraisals, in Philadelphia. "But that doesn't happen most times," he says. Nichol is one of the more than 100 appraisers who participate in each of the show's stops and who, over the show's 15-year history, have appraised more than a million objects.
Kiplinger's tagged along as Antiques Roadshow wrapped up its 15th season last summer, in Washington, D.C. More than 5,000 fans braved oppressive August heat and humidity to participate in the show's first-ever visit to the nation's capital. Months before Roadshow began its 2010 six-city tour, the public was invited to send postcards or log on to the show's Web site to request free tickets. More than 22,000 people applied for tickets to the Washington event, and 3,200 submissions were chosen at random, each receiving a pair of tickets. Each person admitted to the Washington Convention Center could bring two items to be appraised.
You can watch Antiques Roadshow's Washington, D.C., visit -- along with the program's other ten million weekly viewers -- during three one-hour programs that will be broadcast in May and June (check the entire 2011 viewing schedule).
Gene Elliott drove more than 200 miles from his home in Roanoke, Va., to get his cherished standard-gauge Lionel locomotive appraised. Elliott carried his prized possession, carefully wrapped in towels and foam padding and cradled in a 30-gallon plastic storage bin, through the mammoth Convention Center and then waited patiently for his five-minute audience with antique toy expert Jay Lowe, of Lancaster, Pa.
Lowe noted that the circa-1935 engine -- a 400 series with a black crackle finish -- was extremely rare, very desirable to collectors, and worth about $4,000 to $5,000. "It was probably worth more five years ago," Lowe said. "The whole train market was worth more five years ago."
Call it the eBay effect. Once-scarce items now flood the online auction sites, tipping the scales of supply and demand and diluting values. Throw in the impact of the economic downturn -- during which some folks desperately scoured their attics and basements in search of anything to sell that could help them pay their bills -- and the result is a perfect storm: a decline in prices for most collectibles and antiques.
Still, Elliott was satisfied with the appraisal of the locomotive that he bought five years ago for $3,000. "I'm glad it's worth more than I paid for it, and it's probably going to be worth more in the future," he said. But like a true collector, he measured its value in joy, not dollars. "My uncle introduced me to trains when I was 4 or 5 years old," Elliott, an attorney, explained. "I've been collecting them for about 20 years and now have ten or 12 sets."
Some Roadshow attendees were not so pleased with their appraisals. Denise Moser, an avid treasure hunter from Emmaus, Pa., bought a wicker doll carriage at a yard sale a few years ago for $35. She thought it might date back to the Civil War era and be worth up to $400. But antique doll expert Marshall Martin, of Folsom, Cal., didn't have good news. "It's a cute buggy with its original caning, but its rubber wheels put its origin around 1915 to 1920," said Martin. "It would probably fetch about $25 to $100 at auction." Prices have been hovering around that level for about 20 years, added Martin.
Moser was unconvinced. "I've had people offer me more money than that for it," she said. "I could have sold it many times over right here," pointing to the throngs of Roadshow fans who were eyeing one another's treasures, sometimes making deals on the spot.
The value of an antique, collectible or decorative art piece is often tied to its history, known as its provenance. A break in that history is like a missing piece of evidence in a criminal case, says Rudy Franchi, of PosterAppraisal.com. Franchi advises collectors to write down the history of an item and affix it to the back or bottom of the object. Years from now, the object might be more valuable if its provenance is intact.
Roadshow executive producer Marsha Bemko says it's critically important for collectors to understand what they own so they don't become a victim, either by selling an item for less than it is worth or by paying too much to add it to their collection. And if you're thinking about selling something, get several appraisals. "Remember, you can sell it for only about half of what the dealer will resell it for," Bemko says. "And once you sell an object, you probably can't afford to buy it back, so think long and hard before you part with it."
Although the prices of many collectibles have declined in recent years, there are a few exceptions. "Some Chinese and Russian works of art have increased in value by 200% or 300% or more as those foreign markets continue to expand," says Robert Waterhouse, head of Freeman's Asian Arts division.
Waterhouse was one of the appraisers who reviewed a jade necklace and earrings set that Bob and Pat Feidler of Alexandria, Va., brought with them to the Roadshow visit. Although Waterhouse was unimpressed by the quality and carving of the pale green jade, he was very enthusiastic about the lacquered cinnabar box that held the jewelry. After asking the Feidlers' permission to bite the box, Waterhouse identified the hand-carved piece as 19th-century Qing Dynasty and estimated its auction value at $500 to $800. (The tree resin that was used to create authentic antique lacquer boxes is softer than the plastic found in later copies.)
Waterhouse recommended that the Feidlers, who acquired the Asian artifacts from a relative who lived in China during the 1940s, insure the lacquered box for the higher replacement value of $1,200. But appraisals are subjective by nature and are often more art than science. Another expert at the Roadshow event, who specializes in jewelry, appraised the necklace and earrings set at $4,000.
All in the family
For many attendees, a Roadshow visit provides an opportunity to piece together fragments of family history or to create a narrative to pass on to their kids and grandchildren. Judd Groza traveled from Columbus, Ohio, with a collection of his father's football memorabilia. His dad, Lou "the Toe" Groza, was a left tackle and field-goal kicker for the Cleveland Browns and was instrumental in the Browns' 1950 National Football Championship win over the Los Angeles Rams. Groza brought his late father's championship ring, jacket and other items to be appraised for insurance purposes. He was selected as one of about 50 participants to be filmed for the TV show. Groza's collection, which he loaned to the Browns' stadium for a display honoring his dad, was valued at about $60,000.
Joyanna Moy of Chevy Chase, Md., brought a child's blue metal pedal car that she received as a Christmas gift in 1951, when she was a year old. It was a real crowd pleaser: Virtually everyone who saw it asked what it was worth, and many said that they had had one just like it when they were little. Moy said her toy car was appraised at $700 and noted that her 22-year-old daughter, Katherine Stinson, who accompanied her to the show, played with it, too. What will she do with her whimsical piece of nostalgia? Probably save it for future grandchildren to enjoy.
For many participants, swapping stories with others was the highlight of the day. "After waiting in line for so many hours, getting up to the table to talk to the appraiser was a bit anticlimactic," said Kait Handler, a decorative arts student from Washington, D.C. Handler brought her husband's vintage 1942 guitar, which he bought for $200 and plays regularly. Will she treat it any differently now that it was appraised for $3,000? No, she said. She'll probably just hang it back on the wall with the others in his collection.
Jill Salvatore of Sewell, N.J., had been trying to score tickets to the Roadshow for five years and was thrilled when she finally landed a pair of passes to the Washington, D.C., event. She wanted to learn more about a portrait of her grandmother that was painted in 1872, when her grandmother was a little girl. She had found the rolled-up canvas in her grandmother's attic and had spent $1,000 to have it restored and framed.
After waiting in line for hours, Salvatore was disappointed by the brief and dismissive encounter with the art appraiser. Not satisfied, she tracked the appraiser down after the show and begged for a little more time to discuss the painting. "Initially, she didn't understand that this is a family painting," Salvatore explained. "I don't want to sell it. I was just looking for information to pass down to my children." It turns out that the signed portrait was painted by a prominent New York City artist. Its value? Between $7,500 and $10,000.