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VOL. 44 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 7, 2020

To the attic! PBS ‘Roadshow’ is coming to town

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Short of having the cast of “Downton Abbey” swoop in for a public meet-and-greet, “Antiques Roadshow” coming to town is about the best promotion Nashville Public Television could hope.

Coming back to town, I should say. The program was first here in 1997.

You’re familiar with the Roadshow concept, I assume. A fleet of appraisers from various specialties – clocks, jewelry, furniture, sports memorabilia, folk art and lots more – are on hand. Members of the public bring items large or small to learn the value, in hope that a family heirloom or flea market find is worth enough to pay off the mortgage.

Kayne and I have watched so much we’ve nicknamed some of the appraisers. There’s the Enunciator, for her precise diction; the Clown, for his plaid suits and handlebar mustache; the Mafia Guy, for his Sopranos-like looks. I can even tell the identical twins Leigh and Leslie Keno apart (Les parts his hair on the left).

Roadshow, produced by WGBH in Boston, is the highest-rated ongoing PBS program. It’s in its 24th season with more than 1.4 million items assessed.

I asked Marsha Bemko, the executive producer who has been with the program since 1999, the secret behind its success.

“First, there’s the variety of objects, people and stories that make up each show, so there’s literally something for just about everyone,” she said in an email. “Then each appraisal segment involves two complementary stories: a personal history from the owner of an object and the professional analysis and context provided by the expert.

“Finally, we present all that entertaining information in a 3-minute-or-less package with a little drama at the end, when a value is placed on the object.”

Kayne’s take: “It’s a little bit of history, a little bit of art, a little bit of pure greed.”

While the basic format is the same as it was for Roadshow’s previous visit, some things have changed. All Nashville hopefuls had to do in 1997 was get there early enough – people started showing up at 3 a.m. The demand for tickets now is such that an online lottery is used to randomly award about 2,000 pairs of tickets.

More than 15,000 people already have applied online

The deadline is Feb. 19. The event is May 12. Nashville Public Television also will give out about 350 tickets during its March Membership Campaign, says MiChelle Jones, a WNPT spokeswoman.

Another change is the setting. The old convention center hosted the first visit, but starting in Season 22, Roadshow shifted to scenic, historic venues. Cheekwood Estate and Gardens will be this year’s home.

I asked about the most expensive item ever appraised for the show. Turns out that’s a bit complicated.

The most valuable item in the archives, Bemko says, is a Patek Philippe pocket watch that was appraised in 2004 for $250,000. After that it was found to be one of a kind, and the appraisal was updated after it sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $1.5 million. It’s since been updated again to $2 million-$3 million.

“If we do not account for updated values,” Bemko says, “our most valuable find is a collection of Chinese rhinoceros horn cups made around 1700 and appraised by Lark E. Mason in Tulsa for $1 million-$1.5 million auction value in 2011. However, if we updated this value it would only command a fraction of the price and, in some states, where they can’t be legally sold, have no market value at all.”

I saw the show with those rhinoceros horn cups. I can tell you they would have no value for me. Nor are big-ticket items necessarily the best for TV. It’s more about the backstory, Bemko explained.

“We don’t want to play ‘show and tell,’” she said, “and we have turned down very valuable items if the owner knows everything about it and there is no opportunity to teach something new.

“I always tell guests to just bring something they are genuinely curious about and go from there.”

Obviously, most items are not going to make the cut for TV. But any visitor can be filmed for the Feedback Booth segment, which is a big fan favorite, Bemko says. How can you improve your chances to be selected for that minute-or-so segment?

“I would recommend you be yourself, have fun with it and tell us what you learned,” Bemko says. “We’ve seen everything from singing to poetry to proposals in there!”

My personal advice/request for anyone who gets in: Don’t take a Civil War sword. It’s been done. Lots.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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