My parents were under the impression that this producer was going to be the real expert in Asian art. They speculated that she must not be particularly good on television, at least compared to Lark, with his royal blue blazer and his young Kennedy haircut. I told them that this producer was probably just someone who would decide whether the scroll was worthy of being on television. Would our story hold up?
Knowing we had a chance to perhaps get on television was thrilling and gave me a fleeting sense of superiority, which was ridiculous, given that I wasn’t even going to be on camera, nor was it my scroll. Last year, the writer Stephen Lurie wrote a touching ode to “Antiques Roadshow” in which he argued the show’s “popularity might stem from the paradox at its core: This show about putting a price tag on coveted possessions is not actually about money. It’s not about getting rich, playing the market, amassing wealth or even acquiring nice things. In a show whose segments are punctuated by dollar amounts, there’s actually a quiet, persistent suggestion to direct our aspirations somewhere else: history, family, sentiment, even love.”
All these heirloom tapestries, Coca-Cola signs, baseball cards and old chairs get appraised for disappointing amounts and then are lugged back to the attic to eventually get handed down to the next generation. Lurie points out it’s estimated that more than 90 percent of people who come to the show end up keeping their objects, which he sees as proof that the animating spirit of the show is not capitalism but rather “the sanctity of stories, family, empathy.” People watch “Antiques Roadshow,” in other words, to come away disappointed at the price, but also to find that perhaps the connection to, say, their grandmother’s Tiffany lamp (fake) was more important than whatever money it could fetch. It’s a nice thought.
After about an hour wait, the producer came over and asked my parents a few questions, took the scroll, had a hushed conversation with Lark and then hurried away. Lark walked over and said he was sorry, but the producer had said it was going to be too hard to display the scroll on television, which did seem reasonable enough. He then told us that the calligraphic section of the scroll was definitely not a genuine Dong Qichang, but that the painting, which he noted was “beautiful,” was probably from the 19th century and was worth anywhere up to $2,000. “Now tell me again how much you paid for it,” Lark said. When my mother said $50 again, Lark said, “I want to go shopping with you!”
On the way out to the parking lot, my mother, who talks to everyone within a 10-foot radius, struck up a conversation with two women who were carrying a set of tapestries. They were incensed that they had only gotten a valuation of $40 and asked my mother if she had gotten good news. My mother laughed and said not really. “These people have no idea what they’re looking at!” one of the women told her. They shared another laugh.
This, I believe, is the actual spirit of the show, at least for the losers like us who walk to the parking lot without getting on TV. It’s true that when I watch the show, I always feel a slight resentment toward the big winners, especially when it’s clear they just inherited some priceless painting that they clearly know is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I don’t think the televised losers — the ones who visibly wince when they’re told that their chair is, unfortunately, a reproduction — go back feeling more connected with their families. Instead they feel something much more animating and pure: a stubborn, American distrust of experts, and the camaraderie of the underbid and underappreciated.