“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.
“That means up to 14,000 items [for a given event]. Even if I could get my four tickets and recruit three more people to carry in items with me, I’d have only a .057 percent chance of air time. Not very good odds. They get even slimmer with only about 50 pieces being shown on the three broadcast episodes edited from each day of shooting.
“At this point, I would have to consult a mathematician to assess by how many decimal points my chances of getting on TV had declined.”
At the 2001 Roadshow taping, ticket holders lined up outside Convention Center Halls A and B. Dimock’s antiquing accomplices included his wife Susan Mendolia, his sister Diane Murbach, and her husband Monte Murbach.
He had chosen four items he felt had the best odds of landing him airtime: a 36"x40" framed oil painting of Kirk Douglas that was featured prominently in the 1957 film Top Secret Affair; a set of 1960s Nabisco Rice Honeys and Wheat Honeys cereal boxes featuring the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine; a Tarzan pulp-art oil painting with lettered title Tarzan and the Jungle Queen that was published in a 1956 magazine; and a Big Loo toy robot from 1962, three feet tall and in the original Marx box, considered one of the most desirable items in the sci-fi and robot collector’s market.
Says Dimock, “Susan had the Tarzan painting, Diane had the Beatles cereal boxes, Monte was carrying the Kirk Douglas painting, and I was wheeling my three-foot-tall robot.”
Susan describes taking the Tarzan artwork to Paintings and Drawings. “They said, yes, it was an oil painting, but they didn’t know anything about it. So, since it was Tarzan, they sent me to Collectibles.”
A woman at that table performed a brief inspection (“less than a minute”) and informed Susan that she wanted a co-volunteer to examine the painting. “He looked at the front and said it was the original art for a movie half-sheet and then typed the title Tarzan and the Jungle Queen on his laptop.”
At this point, at least four Roadshow volunteer appraisers had handled the painting, without anyone checking the backside to read the signed and dated publisher’s stamp, clearly identifying it as coming from the July 1956 issue of Male Magazine.
“The volunteer couldn’t find the movie title on his computer, so he looked up the artist’s name but couldn’t find that either. Then he told me it could be from a book or periodical and that they weren’t very collectible.” Around this time, the volunteer was approached to do an on-camera appraisal nearby.
“He became very distracted, and that’s when I finally turned the painting over and showed him the writing and stamp on the back. Still acting distracted, he said, ‘Oh, it must be from one of those old men’s periodicals, $200 to $400,’ and then he walked away from me to start taping something.” None of her encounter was filmed.
Next up was Diane at the Collectibles table, with the Beatles cereal boxes. She recalls: “An older gentleman started checking them out, and I told him the boxes had come from the original owner in San Francisco, were sold to a man in Boston, and then made it back to San Diego. He told me that the cereal box market had fallen, so the boxes weren’t worth that much, maybe $50 to $100 for the pair.”
When I talked to Dimock about the Beatles boxes, he smugly retorted, “That [later] became my biggest collectible sale of all time, when I sold the pair for $5000!”
Back at the Roadshow, Monte carried the Kirk Douglas movie prop to the Paintings and Drawings table. “They sent me away with ‘The frame and painting are not in good shape, very little value as a painting, maybe $100 to $200, but make sure to take it over to Collectibles.’”
Doing as instructed, Monte says, “A woman did a quick look and tried calling over another man, but he was doing a videotaped interview with someone else and clearly preferred that [being on camera]. This time, I was able to explain that the painting was an original prop from the 1957 movie Top Secret Affair.
“Kirk Douglas is painted as his character, a two-star general, and I told her the artwork was seen in the film quite a bit…she told me she really didn’t know a lot about Hollywood props but that, with verification of the facts, she would give a value of $400 to $600.”
Once again, the inspection and estimate wasn’t filmed. Three items down, one to go.
“Finally,” says Dimock, “it was my turn, with my three-foot-tall robot. Big Loo is futuristic, towering, and the big colorful box should be perfect for television. I even had a great childhood story of always getting mad at my sister for dressing my menacing Big Loo in her dolls’ clothes. Robot blasphemy!
“I wheeled Loo to the first appraiser that took me but ran into an immediate hitch. I had met the appraiser before at a toy show, and he also recognized me, which meant he wasn’t allowed to appraise my item. He passed me to another volunteer, but that guy didn’t want to look at it either, saying it was out of his area [of expertise].”
Dimock says, “My plan had been thwarted by a chance encounter with someone who knew me. However, even though the guy had a conflict of interest that prevented him from doing the estimate, he motioned the roving camera to come over anyway. Pretty soon, they decided that shots of the robot itself were good enough for a one-minute roll, even though there wasn’t going to be an on-camera appraisal.”
That meant Big Loo might appear on the eventual TV broadcast. But what about Dimock?
“I signed a release form, still photos were taken, and I was videotaped for a possible spot. But that still didn’t ensure I would be getting on TV.”
Dimock returned to the convention center later that day with one more item to run through the guessing gauntlet, having scalped an additional entrance ticket. His final broadcast bait: a 1917 box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix, unopened and in mint condition.
When the African-American volunteer took the box from its protective plastic bag, Dimock says, “You could see he was thoroughly pleased to hold and see it. He spent over five minutes explaining that it dates from before Quaker Oats owned Aunt Jemima and that this was probably the first box used to sell [the pancake mix].
“He said he’d never seen such an early Aunt Jemima box and raved about how it was in such primo, beautiful condition. His value estimate was $200.”
However, neither the praise nor the estimate pleased Dimock. “If they tell you a value without the cameras on, they’re not going to film you. They want to catch the surprise or disappointment on people’s faces when they find out what their junk is supposed to be worth.”
The Roadshow volunteer also handed him a business card. “He said, ‘If you ever want to donate it to our Black History Museum, just get a hold of me.’”
Dimock was later offered $600 for the Aunt Jemima box. Neither he nor his items appeared in the resultant Roadshow episodes.
Nine years later, when he returned to the convention center on June 12, 2010, “The Roadshow was set up in the middle of the hall, like a circled wagon train getting ready for an Indian attack. Huge lights went all around the partially walled 300-foot-wide, 20-to-25-foot-high encampment. Like a giant octopus, several lines [of people] sprouted out, different lengths and at random angles. The largest line by far was the one for Paintings, with around 200 people…. We were taken to the Collectibles line, which stood about 30 people long.
“Five large TV screens were placed around the hall for entertainment and anti-boredom while waiting. They showed previous episodes, fun trivia, and annoying ads, mostly for insurance. Pictures could be taken in the lines, but no pictures or videotaping was allowed in the appraising hall.”
Dimock had arrived carrying a cardboard file drawer full of ’70s television memorabilia, theorizing that TV-related rarities might finally — hopefully — land him on TV.
Obtained from musical conductor Jim Helms, of the cult western TV show Kung Fu, the box included around a half dozen reel-to-reel tapes with two-track production music used in the pilot and in episodes like “The Elixir” (1973) and “Blood of the Dragon” (1974). Also in the box were Helms’s own hand-annotated Kung Fu scripts, sheet music with handwritten lyrics, and original production cue sheets.
It took about 30 minutes in the Collectibles line before Dimock was able to talk to Roadshow volunteer Rudy Franchi about an appraisal. Or rather, a “verbal approximation of value.”
Franchi, who’s been hitting the Roadshow since its first season, has become well known among viewers for his collection of comics-character neckties. He co-authored Miller’s Movie Collectibles, a guide to collecting movie posters, Hollywood autographs, and props, and he and his wife Barbara are currently working with Heritage Galleries of Dallas, directing their movie-poster staff and organizing auctions.
So Franchi seemed well qualified to gauge the probable value of Dimock’s Kung Fu lot, and in fact his estimate was in the $3000 to $4000 range. Encouraged, Dimock once again brought out the 1950s Tarzan and the Jungle Queen painting, confident that Franchi was knowledgeable enough to vastly improve on the previous lowball quote of $200 to $400.
“I had put the Tarzan painting on one side of a 27" by 41" cardboard holder used to hold movie posters. While the appraiser was looking at the painting, his attention was distracted by the poster holder I had off to the side. He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Nothing, it’s just a poster holder.’
“He insisted again to look at it, and I was annoyed, [because] it’s just a poster holder. He said, ‘What’s on the other side?’ and I said, ‘Just a poster that was left in the holder.’ I turned it around to show him the Lost in Translation movie poster from 2003. He said, ‘Yes, let me look at that,’ and I rolled my eyes, thinking these guys are more off than I thought. He asked how much I paid for it, and I said, ‘I don’t know, the poster came with the holder, so maybe a couple of bucks.’
“He went on to say, ‘This is the first version of the Lost in Translation poster, fairly scarce and worth around $200.’ Susan and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows — well, that was amusing, an accidental appraisal.”
∗ ∗ ∗
A few other locals described taking their potential treasures onto the Roadshow.
Larry Cisewski decided to crash the event without a ticket, purchasing a 2:30 pass from a woman in line for $15. He carried a Western shirt once owned by cowboy hero Roy Rogers, as seen in several published photos and on a comic magazine cover accompanying the item.
In 1953, the Roy Rogers Fan Club sponsored a contest wherein fans who recruited the most new club members would win prizes. Second-place prize was Rogers’s personal shirt, made exclusively for him in 1947 and well known among the cowboy’s devoted fans. Larry purchased the shirt directly from the girl who’d won it, along with all attendant fan-club newsletters, photos, and magazine stories referencing the contest and its winner.
According to Larry, “After waiting in line with everyone for over two hours, I was met by a younger blond-haired fellow, and I asked him if he knew who Roy Rogers was. He said ‘Yes,’ and I laid out the comics, magazines, and photos one at a time, telling him the background story. I finished by pulling the shirt out of my bag, and he took it and kept saying, ‘This is great, this is great.’ He carried the shirt over to show an older guy, and they talked for a few minutes. Then, the older guy came over to ask me if I wanted to be on TV. I said, ‘Yeah, sure!’”
However, while walking with the younger blond volunteer toward a makeup station to prep for taping, Larry was asked where he obtained the shirt.
“When I said eBay, Blondie stopped immediately, asked if I could stay put for a second, excused himself, and went back to the older guy who had offered to put me on TV.”
The young volunteer finally returned several moments later. “He started apologizing, saying, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know how to tell you this, but we can’t use it because of conflicts of interest. It was purchased on eBay.’ He never explained what that meant but just kept apologizing and saying they couldn’t film the inspection and estimate.
“I was mad and disappointed. Nothing was posted anywhere saying that it mattered where you got something. I had wasted my afternoon for no reason. To top it off, the older man who approved me for filming didn’t even have the respect or guts to come over and apologize.”
No estimated value for the Roy Rogers shirt was ever quoted, on or off camera.
When Gwen Gibbs of Morena Park hit the Roadshow, she was carrying two crunchy collectibles: the very first Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box from 1906, along with a Post Toasties package from 1917, both complete, with all flaps intact.
She recalls: “With all the TV lights and such, it was like Disneyland. When it was my turn, a middle-aged blonde woman looked at the boxes and asked where they came from. I told her they’d been hidden behind a framed picture for years, until the frame had been changed and they were discovered behind the backing. I pointed out the 1906 date printed on one of the Kellogg’s flaps, as she didn’t seem to see it at first.
“I had researched a little, and a biographical book on the Kellogg family indicated this was the first cereal box they ever produced. I tried pointing this out to her, but she didn’t seem to hear me. I got the impression she just wanted to get this over with soon. Her appraisal for the 1906 Kellogg’s box was $30 to $40, and the 1917 Post Toasties box was $5 to $10. I said thank you and left.”
A brand-new box of corn flakes at Vons costs around $5.
When Dimock hears about the cereal slight, he’s apoplectic with indignation. “Think about the indescribable scarcity of the Kellogg’s box, over a hundred years old, an item that everyone just threw into the trash. Something that nobody in the world would have thought to collect, until just recently. The first-ever product box produced by the first-ever cereal company, today the largest cereal producer in the world, and a completely intact and preserved box at that. Thirty to $40…what was she thinking?! And the Post Toasties box at $5 to $10?
“I sometimes make photocopied reproductions of food-product boxes for retail stores or as theatrical props, and I usually get paid at least $25 apiece for those…I’ve never seen these two boxes on the open market, but I’d estimate the Kellogg’s as probably worth $300 to $800 and the Post Toasties box at $100 to $200.”
The three San Diego episodes shot in June 2010 are slated to air on January 24, 31, and February 7, 2011. “The accidental appraisal has the best chance of being on TV,” says Dimock.
“I still can’t believe all the mistakes they made and how faulty the price estimates were, at least for the stuff that got as far as actual appraisals. And they all have laptops now, with access to so much web information! Each of us going into the convention center knew more about the items and about what they were actually worth than any of the so-called experts from the TV show.”
During the most recent taping, “While some appraisers were giving me the lopsided appraisals, what kept popping into my mind was the Beatles boxes and how I sold them for 50 times their appraised value. I just kept nodding my head.
“What I was really thinking was Yeah, yeah, yeah.”