Bring In That Family Heirloom And Prepare to Be Surprised

Antiques owners discover the value and history of their collectibles on PBS 'Antiques Roadshow'

Just off your Aunt Sadie's favorite chair - better move Aunt Sadie first. She may be sitting on a fortune.

A team of antiques appraisers from some of the nation's top auction houses has just begun a 13-city cross-country tour this summer to videotape the new "Chubb's Antiques Roadshow" for public television. And if their recent stop in the colonial town of Concord, Mass., is any indication, the sort of treasures they will find will be buried in the attic, next to the tool box, and under a pile of Life magazines.

"The fun part of the show is you never know what's going to come," says Christopher Hartop, a silver appraiser from Christie's in New York. "It will be interesting to see how different this will all be from region to region."

The Concord Armory, the site of the first taping, was filled with more curiosity-seekers than fortune-seekers. Lorraine Consoletti of Boston was happy when an appraiser said that her Chinese plate was worth about $100, especially since she had won it in a drawing.

"He said it dates to the late 1800s, it came from China, and was made in the 'thousand flowers style,' " she says afterward, cradling the elaborate plate in a nest of Bubble Wrap. "You can count the flowers, but who has the time? Isn't it pretty?"

The day was a kind of reverse yard sale, with a few hundred hopefuls lining up at cloth-draped card tables staffed by some of the keenest eyes in the business.

Some flocked to Pottery and Porcelain, some to Collectibles, and others to Toys, Dolls, and Games. But while many were called, few were chosen for videotaping.

"The producers ask the appraisers to be poker faced when they see something special, so they can capture the surprise on film," says Barbara Knight, an organizer of the event, sponsored by the Chubb group of insurance companies. Mind you, the surprise is not always pleasant. "One person will find out their furniture is [worth] an absolute fortune," she says, "while another who thinks it is valuable will find out it is not."

If this sounds cruel, remember that the advice is free. One woman from Maine carted in a heavy wooden chair with carved wings attached to the armrests. When an appraiser told her, gently, that it was "a bit rustic" and not worth all that much, her eyes welled up with tears. But she was all smiles by noon. Other appraisers had looked at her pictures of other family heirlooms, and they were all worth much more than she expected.

In all fairness, the idea for this show comes from Britain, where a similar program has been a favorite on the BBC (see accompanying story). Pam Faulkner, a recent immigrant from Ireland, says she used to enjoy watching the original show back on her native sod, and thought she would give the Yank version a shot.

"This chair came from Scotland in the 1890s and then to Ireland in the 1930s," says Ms. Faulkner, resting her arm on the back of a formidable, medieval-looking chair. Still, she was surprised and "thrilled" when an appraiser told her she should insure it for $1,000. "I could sell it for $750, but I'm not swapping anything."

Long ago at a yard sale, a green vase with tarnished silver overlay caught the eye of Davi Adler's mother. She bought it for $5. Today, Ms. Adler has had the vase appraised. On camera.

"It's a Lutz vase, made in Austria. The appraisal price is $2,000 to $3,000."

Adler beams. "My mother had a good eye."

But the experts turned a cold eye to the turn-of-the-century paperweight in the palm of Bob McGowan.

"I was offered more money for this 20 years ago," he says, holding what looks like a huge glass marble with blue, red, and purple swirls and a flat bottom.

Asked if he is disappointed, the burly man shrugs. "It was my father-in-law's."

The ability to distinguish a work of art from a piece of junk comes from hands-on experience more than book learning, says William Lipton, the expert at the Oriental Arts table and owner of a gallery in New York. He demonstrates his appraisal skills by examining a Chinese silver case for sewing needles.

"These carvings look like lotus blossoms," he tells one person in an encouraging tone, turning the small, tarnished cylinder over in his palm. "This part is a hook so you can put it on your belt, and on the hook there is the character that means 'long life.' You could polish that up and probably get $100 or $200 for it."

Over in the middle of the room, a flurry of activity suddenly surrounds a man, a woman, and an easel. A small crowd begins to form behind a row of television cameras, and the word goes around that the object of interest, a framed piece of cross-stitched embroidery, is worth $20,000. Nancy Druckman, the head of American folk art at Sotheby's in New York, had calmly explained to the man that the piece of cross-stitching was no mere memento.

"It was the first piece I saw today, and I got a big rush," she says later, off-camera. "Initially, I just told him, 'This is a really nice piece,' and then I got the producers. He was thrilled. He had found it in a trunk, had done a lot of research on it, but he had no idea of its value."

The news was more mixed for Ruth Paddock of Wayland, Mass. Her desk-like piece of furniture turned out to be the lower part of an 18th-century highboy. "They said it was worth about $1,500 as it is, but if I had the top piece with the drawers, it would be worth $50,000."

"Well, let's call the family," her daughter, Deborah, says with a laugh.

Antiques-lovers may project a certain serenity, but in truth they are an intense, passionate people, known to brake the car suddenly at the sight of a Tiffany lamp in a country store. Consider Erica Meyer, for instance, who was the first in line at 7:15 a.m. at the Armory. For an hour and a half she waited, holding an old teapot and listening to the clink of aluminum bats from the Little League field across the street.

"They told me it was a Rockingham-type ware and probably worth $300 to $400," she gushes later to Chris Jussel, the host of "Chubb's Antique Roadshow." "That's much more than I paid for it."

"There's an old saying among antique dealers," Mr. Jussel responds with a grin. "I'd rather have a good eye than good knowledge."

By noon, the stream of visitors has slowed to a trickle, but the taping has just begun. John Hays, director of American decorative arts at Christie's, looks at two pooped journalists preparing to leave. "As soon as you let your guard down, something comes up," he says, and then arches his eyebrow. "My guard isn't down yet."

* 'Chubb's Antiques Roadshow' is scheduled to air in the winter of 1997.

'Chubb's Antiques Roadshow'

1996 Site Schedule

JUNE 15 Philadelphia

Civic Center

JUNE 29 Washington area

The Stamp Student Union at Univ. of Maryland College Park, Md.

JULY 13 Seattle, Washington State

Convention & Trade Center

JULY 20 Denver

Shrine Auditorium

JULY 27 Albuquerque, N.M.

Convention Center

AUG. 3 Detroit, Southfield Pavilion

at Southfield Civic Center

AUG. 17 San Antonio

Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center

AUG. 24 Durham, N.C.

Omni Durham Hotel & Civic Center

SEPT. 7 Minneapolis

Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, at Nicollet Mall

SEPT. 14 Kansas City, Mo.

Convention Center

SEPT. 28 Greenwich, Conn.

Greenwich Civic Center

OCT. 5 Chicago

Odeum Sports & Expo Center

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