After 10 years, 'Roadshow' has changed the way America looks at antiques

Ally's Attic owner Mary Hollowell can tell immediately which of her customers are avid watchers of "Antiques Roadshow."

They're the ones who know a bit about the history of what they're trying to sell to her Snellville antiques store. They're the ones who tell her the story of the item. And they're the ones who usually think their items are worth much more than they really are.

"Since (the show's) gotten more popular, people think their stuff is worth more than it is," Hollowell said.

"Antiques Roadshow," the venerable PBS show that brings antiques appraisers around the country to evaluate people's heirlooms and collectibles, turns 10 this year. Part treasure hunt and part history lesson, the show draws in about 12 million viewers a night, an admirable number for a public television show.

A decade after its inception, "Antiques Roadshow" has become a phenomenon, and local and national antiques experts say it's changed the way the average family views antiques. The show's greatest finds - everything from an overlooked Navajo blanket valued between $350,000 and $500,000 to an heirloom solid gold-handled sword valued at $200,000 - have convinced the average American they, too, might have buried treasure in the attic.

America scours the attic

People might give an old bowl they inherited from a distant relative a second look, said series producer Marsha Bemko. They might do a little background research on a certain item before selling it in a garage sale.

"I've noticed people are much more careful. They ask questions. Before they have a yard sale, they have this ugly pot, they don't like it, but they know enough to ask around about it. They're not going to put it out there for $10," Bemko said.

Rafael Eledge, a Shiloh, Tenn., antiques dealer who's been an appraiser for the show for six years, credits both the program and the Internet in changing the way people antique.

"It has really opened people's eyes to what they have. They're a lot less likely to throw stuff out before they do their homework and find out what it's worth," Eledge said.

It used to be that if people had an old piece of furniture they weren't using, they'd stick it in a yard sale or take it to a local shop, Eledge said. These days, brushing up on some history via "Antiques Roadshow" or one of many antiques Web sites could help bring in much more money.

But the show has also taught viewers a sometimes painful lesson about the real thing vs. a fake, said Linda Dyer, a Franklin, Tenn.-based appraiser who has been with the show since its pilot episode. Researching items is a lot like detective work, Dyer said. Appraisers need to know what materials were available at certain periods in history to determine when an item was likely created. If an item contains materials that were definitely not available at the time it was supposedly made, the item is probably a fake.

"People do see things and there tends to be a rush of calls. You'll have a great jug find and suddenly you start to see all these jugs," Dyer said. "You have to explain to them all jugs aren't created equally."

The making of a sensation

There's no question the show is popular. Just take a look at the thousands of people who line up at the door, clutching their prized items, waiting for hours for a seven-minute appraisal.

"I never thought an antique show would end up like a rock concert," Eledge said.

But why?

In a word, the appraisals. The show is divided into short segments that pack in a personal story, a history lesson and even a little drama. It's almost impossible to predict how much the item will be worth.

"Viewers love those appraisals. We can't jam enough into that hour. Each one is three minutes filled with suspense, history, drama and surprise," Bemko said. "If you don't like military items, just wait. A perfume bottle might be next, or jewelry."

Hollowell, who owns the Ally's Attic antique stores in Snellville and Lawrenceville, said she watches the show whenever she can. She enjoys watching people's faces when they find out the value of their items.

"I like seeing people so happy when something's valued more than they imagine," Hollowell said.

And the show also gives hope to antique treasure hunters, Dyer said. She insists there are still diamonds to be found, even though yard-salers are getting more educated.

She shared the story of a woman who found a Walt Disney animation cel featuring Mickey Mouse and his broom from the film "Fantasia." She bought it at a yard sale for a quarter, and it was worth thousands.

"People are still letting things slide out of their hands, as knowledgeable as they are," Dyer said.

Behind the scenes

The American incarnation of "Antiques Roadshow" was translated from a British version of the show that still airs on BBC. The show's pilot episode was filmed at Skinner Inc., the international auction house where Dyer was employed. The auction house's clients were featured on the episode, which was hosted by Monty Hall, Dyer said.

Ten years later, much remains the same.

For three months a year, the "Roadshow" crew travels around the country, scouring the prized possessions of locals for the best - and sometimes worst - finds. A full season of the show is taped during the summer, then the staff spends the rest of the year editing the episodes.

The show's new host, Mark L. Walberg, and a small team travel down on Wednesday and scout out locations for "field pieces," or segments that give a little local color and history on the city. The rest of the crew of about 40 travels down on Thursday, spends all day Friday setting up for appraisals and all day Saturday appraising.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 people show up to most tapings, each toting two antiques. Anything from furniture to art to jewelry to war relics are fair game, but only about 100 of the items are actually taped for possible inclusion on the show.

There's no magic ingredient to ensuring your item will get you on the show, Bemko said. She doesn't always go for the clueless Joe who "knows nothing about what they brought," she said.

Eledge said he's always amazed by the sheer quantity of items that are hauled through the doors during the sometimes 12-hour shoots.

About half the items that end up in front of appraisers are family heirlooms, while the other half are items someone bought somewhere else, Eledge said.

During the tapings of several follow-up episodes, the show crew has found that the majority of people who get items appraised do not sell them.

"Most people go home and put the thing back where it was," Bemko said. "They have attachments to it. If it's a family heirloom, even if it's worth $10,000, they're not going to sell it for that."

There are other stories, too, of people who have made shocking discoveries, sold their valuable items and had their lives change, Bemko said. But it certainly doesn't happen in every city or even every year, she said.

Each three-minute history lesson could take appraisers up to three hours to research, Bemko said.

Before they even arrive in town, the appraisers have seen pictures of some of the bigger pieces of furniture, and the furniture is also brought in advance, so appraisers get to spend more time with it. The producers pick two pieces of furniture to tape the night before, which gives appraisers a head start on researching the items. For the rest of the tapings, the appraisers have a few hours beforehand to research.

To research, the appraisers consult a computerized antiques database and a huge box of books, Bemko said.

Bemko pulls about 80 appraisers from a pool of 150 for each show. A group of 25 devotees attend every city on the tour. The appraisers have grown close over the years, and they know each other's strengths and weaknesses now.

"It's like summer camp for adults. They are brilliant and they've spent their lives pursuing a passion. Most grew up with parents who are collectors and auctioneers," Bemko said. "I have seen men cry when they see something beautiful they've been waiting so long to see."

They've also gotten more comfortable in front of the camera over the years, and many have become great storytellers, Bemko said. While some appraisers have fine arts degrees, most learn the trade from hands-on experience, Dyer said.

"Being an appraiser is not a licensed profession," Dyer said. "A lot of us come up through the ranks of just being interested in certain objects, certain histories."

If you watch

•What: "Antiques Roadshow's" 10th season

•When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays on PBS

•Info: During the rest of the season, the show will visit Houston; Los Angeles; Providence, R.I.; and Bismarck N.D. Visit www.pbs.org/roadshow.