Diana Venable does not shy away from the pain of the African-American experience. However, she is not much interested in underlining its darker aspects.
  • Diana Venable does not shy away from the pain of the African-American experience. However, she is not much interested in underlining its darker aspects.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
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Diana Venable

When public television’s Antiques Roadshow rolled into the convention center the last weekend in June 2001, local collectors crowed. Suddenly San Diego seemed invested, artifact-wise, with the status of a major metropolitan center like Chicago or New York, which happened to be the show’s next stop. For those whose job it is to promote the city, such as board members of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, this was a real coup. Civil War buffs and Dr. Seuss fans would later say this was a dream come true. For collectors of African-American memorabilia, there is a story here within the story.

Venable’s postcards offer a view of a benign world in which racial humor happens to reign.

Antiques Roadshow is seen weekly by over 15 million viewers, and after five seasons it currently ranks as public TV’s most popular offering. The show introduces audiences to local antiquarians, visits historical societies, and displays native artifacts and memorabilia of a community’s earliest settlers. Roadshow’s big draw, however, and to which most of the hour is devoted, are the appraisal tables and the hubbub there. The history of an old portrait, the fineness of period furniture, the pale translucence that distinguishes one piece of quality glass from a look-alike fake, the exquisite silver work of a brooch — here all is revealed. This revelation opens up a discourse on beauty, remarkable for its being derived from the dusty detritus recovered from local attics and garages. And what is better, revelation includes a price tag — not the vulgar gazillions for hitting the lottery, but a nice bit of change with a tasteful antiquarian twist.

1930s postcard. 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.

On the TV screen, Antiques Roadshow appears folksy and low-key, but this casual look is achieved at a cost of millions. The show’s summer production season, a trundling crisscrossing of the country, is a massive endeavor that involves, in each city and for just one day, the coordinated efforts of 70 or more appraisers, a 30-member technical crew, an administrative staff of 20, a dozen or more security and venue personnel, and about 100 volunteers. Roadshow tapes in the summer, then edits the material down into hourlong segments for the upcoming viewing season.

About her postcards of blacks drawn to look moronic as they slaver over juicy slices of watermelon, she says this is history.

“No Tickets. No Objects. No Show.” This is the rule for those who wish to attend the June taping. So picture this: when tickets for Roadshow are made available on May 19, a hypothetical couple we’ll call Jim and Joyce Goodfellow go online (where transactions are made faster than by phone) and successfully manage to order their free tickets. (Up to four tickets are allowed per household.) Six weeks later, on the morning of June 30, they cart a couple of things down to the convention center. Though Jim is dressed, say, in a colorful Hawaiian shirt, and Joyce is in a neat cotton blouse and skirt, they look pleasingly ordinary, as if they’d stepped out of central casting. The Roadshow’s tiny lipstick camera (named for its size and perfect for picking up fine detail) hones in on what the Goodfellows have set on the table in front of the handsomely suited appraiser. Whether it is a piece of knobby furniture, a frayed quilt, or a multicolored set of Fiesta ware, its very presence on camera endows the object with the magical mystery of potential.

“For some, they embrace a fascination with an American yesterday, a before–Civil Rights era when it was thought proper to decorate homes with cute and cruel depictions of the ‘other.’"

The fluorescent lights and Fresnels give the effect of bright daylight. One of the show’s seven cameras dollies in. The Goodfellows are experiencing their 15 minutes of fame. The appraiser invites them to share how they’d come upon the object. They have been prompted to be clear and concise, and are. Then the appraiser gives a brief description of its manufacturing history, its rarity, and what similar objects, but in worse (or better) condition, are currently priced at. Finally comes the awaited moment. The specialist asks the Question:

“And do you have any idea of its value?”

The appraiser has already estimated the value of the object. Age, rarity, manufacturer’s mark, and refurbishing history are just a few of the variables he will draw upon and that can dramatically increase the value or send it crashing through the floor. Suppose it is a set of old baseball cards picked up at a yard sale (but at the moment the market is flooded with old baseball cards); the Lalique vase was discovered in a thrift store (but is a knockoff import from Taiwan); the diamond pendant, a family heirloom, was left by Aunt Ruth (but she secretly replaced the jewel with cut glass). Tiny tragedies like these unfold on the show.

Yet the Goodfellows have signed releases, undergone quick powdering in the greenroom to make sure their foreheads don’t shine, been outfitted with wireless microphones and transmitter packs, and then set in front of a camera and asked to talk. And what for? Just to be told that what they own and prize, and what they dream will allow them to redo their kitchen, professionally landscape their yard, maybe even vacation in Hawaii during high season is, technically speaking, worthless?

The answer is yes. Because TV, even public television, is an entertainment medium. And in entertainment, sometimes it’s the gladiator who wins, but more often it’s the lion.

“And do you have any idea of its value?” This question invites the vision of sudden, hoped-for wealth or the spectacle of a rube’s disappointment unfolding before millions. If the appraiser has always known the answer, the viewing audience also knows a thing or two. They know, for example, that winners are supposed to look stunned and ill-prepared for their good fortune (a version of the beauty pageant weep-and-wave), and they know that losers who don’t know how to lose leave a lousy aftertaste. If Jim and Joyce Goodfellow discover that what they are sitting on is not a gold mine but an anthill, they’d better be prepared to stare unflinchingly into the camera and say it wasn’t the money anyway, it’s the sentimental value that counts. It is a lie, of course, but that’s how the game is played.

“No, we have no idea,” whisper Jim and Joyce, and wait.

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