Because of TV’s dread of dead air, that black hole of dumb extended silence, the torturous wait the Goodfellows must suffer will extend only to the length of two heartbeats. Yet it is in pursuit of that heartbeat pause, so crucial to Antiques Roadshow’s success, that the crew, preparing for a sixth season, set up shop at the San Diego Convention Center on Friday night.
Diana Venable is a collector. She lives in a gray ranch-style home on a quiet street in Oak Park, an attractive enclave in East San Diego. The place looks ordinary enough, but a rescue operation has been going on here. Venable has helped to save time’s face, its black face. We met a few days before Christmas 2000. It would never cross her mind to make it down to the convention center six months later. She does not need an appraiser to tell her the worth of any of her collection. She knows.
Renee Johnson writes in the February 2000 issue of Antique Trader that African-American memorabilia is a vast domain. Whether salt-and-pepper shakers, postcards, cookie jars, or canvases prized as fine art — each captures images of black culture in America. Johnson quotes Barbara Mauzy, a dealer: “Black memorabilia is extremely popular right now. More than 1000 auctions of black collectibles take place each week on eBay, the giant online auction company.”
But just as the interest in black memorabilia has been rising, so has the controversy. Some view these items as part of a unique heritage and feel that they should be preserved as historical artifacts. Others think items depicting African-Americans in a negative light should not be sold. According to Mauzy, some people buy black collectibles to destroy them and thus keep them from the market.
“But they don’t merit destroying because they are a piece of history,” says Mauzy, who reports an unwillingness to traffic in certain items. “Everyone has to draw his or her own line. Some things are acceptable and some we find offensive.”
I’d heard that Venable had a large collection of black memorabilia and called to ask if I could see it. Venable appeared on the other side of the screen door, at 54 a boyishly trim woman. She was dressed in a tailored white cotton long-sleeved shirt, dark slacks, loafers, and small gold-hoop earrings that she called her no-bother “uniform.” She abhors vexation and pretension. Smiling, she unlatched the screen door. Her gaze was direct and hinted at the peremptory. It was instantly clear that she does not suffer fools gladly, but like a mother with a newborn, Diana Venable is a sucker for anyone who wants to see her collection. She led the way into her house.
Antiques Roadshow is like a blockbuster museum exhibit on wheels. From June through August 2001, the show traveled to Tucson, Miami, San Diego, New York City, New Orleans, and Indianapolis. For the San Diego taping, 6000 tickets went on sale on May 19 at noon. By 12:35, the tickets were gone. Two thousand one hundred seconds. Collectors from all over the country, including a few unable to get tickets for their local Tucson or Miami show, reserved a spot for the San Diego show. But plenty went ticketless, and six weeks later, early on the morning of the taping, some of them appeared outside the convention center looking for scalpers. They found them.
Tickets were available for six different appraisal sessions: 8:00 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2:00 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. Although ticket holders were instructed to arrive just half an hour before their assigned time, lines formed hours ahead, and a kind of mini-jam remained in place for much of the day.
There was a jam of sorts in the two glass-shelved cases that stood against one wall in Diana Venable’s kitchen, but unlike at the convention center where blacks standing in line were outrageously outnumbered, in the display case they were well represented; indeed, there was not a white face to be seen. In one case, among a neat clutter of black figurines, I took inventory: (1 small can) Black & White Skin Whitener; (1 small can) Sweet Georgia Brown’s Hair Dressing Pomade; (1 package) Aunt Jemima’s Waffles; (2 books of matches): Cotton Patch Restaurant (2720 Midway Drive), Golden West Hotel (between Third and Fourth on G Street); (1 bottle) Warrenton Rum Coke; (1 ashtray) Dinah’s Pancake Chicken House (on the Las Vegas Strip); (1 cookie tin) Rum Creoles (“A toasted confection of the Tropical Flavors with fine imported Liqueurs”); (1 ointment bottle) Black Magic Leaf Lustre; (1 small cardboard box) Solid Head Eyelets; (1 jar) Lucky Brown Pressing Oil; (1 small tin) Nigroids (throat and breath mints from England); (1 small box) Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice; (1 small box) Solid Dust Twins Washing Powder. The products were emblazoned with black women, black butlers, pickaninnies, all smiling.
Beside the cases, covering the wall, were signs on which were shown the faces of other black people, many plump and pleasing, with rosy cheeks and white teeth. These images were attached to items as diverse as Florida oranges and New Jersey taxi rides. The Internet and dot-coms are today’s codes for contemporary priorities (i.e., information speedily delivered); not long ago, a happy colored face was a symbol for honest advertising, country values, friendly service, and assured quality.
“I think they’re all beautiful,” said Venable.
Among the thousands of items she owns, by her count Venable has 11 Mister Cream of Wheats, 20 Aunt Jemimas, and as many Black Sambos.
Her three-bedroom house is so jammed with odds and ends in display cases and boxes, tacked onto walls, folded onto chairs, or dropped in corners that the visitor, with room only to turn around and gawk, finds a chair and stays put. In her garage, piled high as a tall man, are dozens more boxes, each bursting with memorabilia waiting to be cataloged.
The mind boggles.
As for the value of individual pieces in her collection, the Johnson article in the Antique Trader includes a price sampler for comparison purposes: Candy box, cardboard, “Whitman’s Pickaninny Peppermints—Chocolate Covered,” 23/8-oz., black children’s heads on narrow, long box, early 20th century, $150–$200. Cleanser box, cardboard, “Fairbank’s Gold Dust Washing Powder,” black and orange, ca. 1920s, 4" by 6", $200. Doorstop, cast iron, figural black man carrying a satchel and looking over his shoulder, Hubley, 51/8" wide, 7H" high, $950. “Alabama Baby,” cloth doll, made by Ella Smith in Roanoke, Ala., 1904–1924, called “Alabama Indestructible Dolls,” available in black and white, 13H" high, (sold at auction in 1992), $6090. “Darktown Battery,” cast-iron mechanical bank, three black baseball players including a pitcher and catcher, J&E Stevens Co., $3400.