“I was just trying to get on television,” says über-collector and longtime eBay hawker Duane Dimock. It was while haunting Kobey’s swap meet and the garage-sailing circuit that Dimock first heard that the TV program Antiques Roadshow would be filming in San Diego.
The fortyish entrepreneur and urban archivist has spent most of his adult life selling pop-culture collectibles and vintage boomer memorabilia out of his home, first in Mira Mesa and currently Morena Park. “It’s a good living, it pays the month-to-month bills,” he says. “It was a lot better before eBay came along to raid everyone’s attic and basement. Stuff that used to be extremely rare became more common and less in demand.”
A self-employed, self-described hoarder, Dimock hasn’t held an outside job in over 25 years. Mostly known as an expert in advertising personalities and TV memorabilia, he’s hosted a local internet show about eBaying, authored several collectors’ price guides; under a pseudonym, he also cowrote the Monkees Scrapbook, a biography of the pre-fab foursome that has gone through multiple printings.
His house bursting its load-bearing walls with stacks of collectibles and kitsch, Dimock was excited to learn that Antiques Roadshow would be filming at the downtown Convention Center in June 2010. As before attending any unfamiliar convention or swap meet, he began by researching the event online.
“The show officially started out as Chubb’s Antiques Roadshow, sponsored by the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies,” says Dimock. “You can get all your collectibles insured by this reputable insurance company because they supposedly know collectibles and antiques. And they launched a TV show with appraisers…any insurance company can insure your treasures, but Chubb was smarter than the other companies by exploiting the value aspect on television.”
Roadshow debuted in 1997 and now claims around 11 million viewers each week, the most popular prime-time show on PBS. Value estimates on the program are provided by Roadshow volunteers, including independent antique dealers with specialty expertise, as well as auction-house employees from firms like Christie’s, Skinner, Doyle New York, and Sotheby’s.
It should be noted that “appraisal” isn’t an entirely accurate description of what goes on at the Roadshow. According to their website, the price estimates offered by volunteers, though often referred to as “appraisals” on-air, are actually “verbal approximations of value…technically, an appraisal is a legal document, generally for insurance purposes, written by a qualified expert and paid for by the owner of the item. An appraisal usually involves an extensive amount of research to establish authenticity, provenance, composition, method of construction, and other important attributes of a particular object.”
Around 100 volunteers are recruited to help operate most Roadshow events. According to Dimock, “Most of the 80 or so appraisers fly into town on their own dime. Each appraiser is paid exactly nothing to show up, no travel money, no food money, and no lodging money. Just plain nothing.”
This information got him wondering. “Why would any sane person leave their home for three to five days to see thousands of babbling idiots pushing stuff in front of them and not get paid a cent? Well, every time an appraiser gets shown on TV, the more exposure he or she gets, and the more well known they become. The more well known, the more appraising jobs that person can get. A qualified and recognized appraiser can make a lot of money.”
Several Roadshow vets, from both the U.S. program and its U.K. incarnation, have built up substantial cults of celebrity.
Twin brothers Leigh and Leslie Keno are frequently greeted with Beatlesque cheers when they first enter a hall being hosted by the Roadshow crew. Tribal arts specialist Bruce Shackelford, a show volunteer since its first season, is regularly commissioned to curate gallery and traveling art exhibits and to write about his interests for publications such as Southwest Art Magazine and Conquistador, a journal of Spanish horses.
Although Roadshow rules forbid volunteer value specialists from purchasing items brought into the show, working for free can pay off for the more esteemed estimators.
“Say a well-known appraiser certifies a collection as being worth around $300,000,” says Dimock, “and someone buys it. The appraiser will get from one to ten percent of that value for putting their name on the collection. That’s $3000 to $30,000.”
The high stakes occasionally lead to scandal. In 2002, frequent show volunteer Russell Pritchard III pleaded guilty to making false appraisals on the program and defrauding Civil War collectors. The antique dealer was sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to repay $830,000 in illicit profits. Prosecutors allege he may have pocketed as much as $1.5 million by lowballing value estimates on air and then brokering sales at a much higher rate — for a paid percentage.
Another Roadshow rogue, the late Wayne Pratt, pleaded guilty in 2004 to tax violations related to the purchase of a condo owned by one-time Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland.
Resolved to get himself and a handful of rare goodies into the filming, Dimock watched several dozen episodes, hoping to gauge what sort of items (and item-bearers) tend to make the broadcast cut. “By watching the show, you can figure out why certain appraisals end up being taped and broadcast…I wasn’t interested in value, I didn’t want information, and I wasn’t going to play ‘stump the appraiser’ with some obscure item or jump up and down over their appraisal while claiming, ‘I only paid a nickel for that.’ My one and only motivation was to see how many items I could get on TV.”
To that end, he attended two Antiques Roadshow tapings in San Diego, the first on June 30, 2001, the second, and more recent, on June 12, 2010.
Obtaining tickets can be difficult. “Between 6500 and 7000 passes are given out free for each show,” he says. “[You get them] by calling a phone line on the on-sale date. Most cities sell out in 10 to 30 minutes. Each household can have four tickets, which means it might take only 1750 calls to exhaust the ticket supply. Nobody is allowed into the taping without a ticket, each ticket holder can only bring one or two items, and no children are allowed unless accompanied by an item.