Follow the Stories | March 2013
What I've Learned on Antiques Roadshow
Originally published in The Huffington Post 01/23/2012 8:20 am
ROADSHOW host Mark L. Walberg at the Minneapolis, Minnesota event in 2012.
My interactions with fans I meet in airports have changed dramatically since I became the host of Antiques Roadshow on PBS. When I hosted train-wreck reality shows like Fox's Temptation Island or The Moment of Truth, I would get comments like, "Aren't you Mark from that horrible show I love! OMG! (they actually say 'OH EM GEE') How many times have contestants punched you?" Or my favorite, which continues today and is completely unrelated to this topic, "Did you know there's another guy with the same name as you?" Love that one. It's awesome sharing a name with a movie star with washboard abs.
"On the road, the appraisers see the treasures. I see the people."
But now, as host of America's beloved Roadshow for the past seven seasons, things have changed dramatically. People I meet don't say hello. They don't introduce themselves. They simply push up their shirtsleeves and announce, "My grandfather gave me this watch. What's it worth?" And then they tell me they love me on The Bachelor. I guess I look like Chris Harrison. "Sorry, that's not me. I have no idea who's getting a rose this week, and more importantly, I don't know how much your watch is worth either."
Truth is, I know only a tiny bit more about antiques today than I did seven years ago when I started this journey. Many of the appraisers we feature on Roadshow are third-generation experts. The knowledge they've amassed can't be learned in one lifetime. They are amazing. Kooky, but amazing. You see, when you spend so much time laser-focused on one area of collecting, other parts of your "social tapestry" can atrophy a bit. It makes for a colorful crowd around the bar at the end of a Roadshow tour stop filled with experts who've become my dearest friends and patient mentors. They've tried to teach me about antiques but what I've learned is about value.
The key factors that dictate value in the antiques and collectibles market are Authenticity, Rarity, Condition and Provenance. When old things are true, one of a kind, been cared for, and have a story to tell, they become priceless. If not, they become that chest of drawers with a cigarette burn on it that smells like mothballs you inherited from your grandmother. Sentimental, but not valuable.
On the road, the appraisers see the treasures. I see the people. I meet them on location where we shoot and in the local diners we visit. My Roadshow experience is filled with priceless personalities, not Rembrandts or Civil war muskets. Although muskets are awesome. Just saying. What I've learned is the four things that make antiques valuable hold true for people too.
I was sitting with my friend, appraiser Kathleen Bailey, at the art glass table. In walks a guy with a beautiful perfume bottle with the Lalique mark on the bottom. Kathy asked me what I thought. It's her little game with me. She asks me questions like, "Is it old or new? What country is it from?" She's kind and gently asks me the same way you would quiz a kindergartener that's learning to read. That's about where I am in my study of antiques. Kindergarten. When I picked up the bottle and looked at it, I just knew it was a fake. And I was right. Even though it had the Lalique mark on the bottom, you could just sense that it was a reproduction. Maybe I shouldn't have been so excited to tell the guy his bottle was a fake. He wasn't nearly as happy as I was with this revelation. The bottle wasn't authentic. Authenticity is palpable. It's as true for people as it is for antiques.
We all want to be taken seriously. We all want people to think we're legit. Important. The "real deal." I've found that the more we WANT that, the less we ARE that. When I'm not being true to myself, I'm just a bad reproduction. I'm a just-manufactured coffee table — I look good and I'm functional, but I'm certainly not 18th century New England. And what I do in that moment won't appreciate in value over time.
Worthwhile antiques, much like worthwhile people, exude an aura of truth and don't need to overcompensate. If you've ever met someone who is truly authentic then you know what I'm saying. They answer you with short, unqualified answers. They listen to you without searching for something in your words that will make them feel bigger. And in turn, you respect them without even fully being aware of why you hold them in esteem. What they say to you stays with you forever. That, my friends, is value.
Rarity also drives the price up an object's value. I'm not sure why we care if there are no more model trains like this one in existence, but if we can't get it, we want it. And we'll pay to have it. But while rare objects move me, I'm inspired by rare people. People who've somehow have found a sense of true purpose and happiness is rare. And when you meet them, you want what they have.
Anyway, I'll never forget the young family who invited us to their farm. In the midst of miles and miles of huge corporate farms growing tons of corn and soybeans, sits a little corner of land with a modest house and all kinds of food growing on every inch of the humble property. There lives a young married couple and their two toddler-aged children. Both of these parents/farmers are college educated with graduate degrees. Rather than pursuing their fortune in the city, they made a conscious decision to do something bigger — certainly not more lucrative — but so much bigger.
They grow food — just the two of them. It's a co-op where local people pay an annual subscription fee and have fresh produce delivered weekly. When I asked them if they were successful, their response was their goal was to live on a modest, average Iowa income while providing healthy organic food to as many people as their land would support. In that moment, and considering I had a son who was about to start college at the time, I thought this lifestyle choice would never even put a dent in their student loans! I also wondered how I would survive without cable TV and sushi delivery.
But their value system is different. They are physically thin but sinewy strong. They talk peacefully to each other with respect and obvious deep love. They seem so happy. They don't have a TV. They work 12-hour days — together — and have toddlers. No nannies. No mani-pedis. No SUV with DVD headrests. And they don't seem exhausted at all. Quite the opposite. It's a far cry from the harried look I see in the eyes of those millionaire soccer moms who frantically race to their bikini wax appointments before the babysitter leaves for the day. Not only are these two multiple-degreed young people great parents, they also feed a hundred families with delicious healthy food. They actually like to work together and enjoy what they do. They are filled up with purpose, not Venti non-fat lattes. Happiness from having a shared purpose is rare. And that rarity is valuable. If you don't think so, ask any of the families who eat their food.
As we sat in their barn wrapping things up, our host cut open the first juicy melon of the summer and shared it with us. It was a moment I'll never forget; my crew and I in this old barn eating a melon cut open with a pocketknife. Nobody was talking. We just ate cantaloupe. That moment is a treasure. And it's all mine. One-of-a-kind. Priceless.
Condition is everything. If you've ever seen the movie Sandlot, you know that once the Beast chews up the Babe Ruth ball, it's worthless. By the way, we get a lot of signed baseballs. Be careful — many of them were signed by the equipment manager. If it looks like Ruth and Gehrig have the same handwriting, take that ball and play catch with your kid. That afternoon will have far more value than that ball ever did! I don't think people really get how important condition is when it comes to the value of things. But why? When an item is in mint condition it says that, throughout all these years, the owners cared. And because they cared, we care. For people, it's the value of passion and vision. If you truly care deeply about something and share that feeling, others will find that valuable too.
Vollis Simpson is 93 years old. I think. I asked him three times and each time he gave me a different answer. It really doesn't matter. He's old. Biblically old. A couple of years ago, I sat with him at what looked like a burnt out gas station at some desolate crossroads deep in the woods of North Carolina. It may actually be where Bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil. It was about 99 degrees but I stayed cool from the breeze of mosquito wings.
I sat there on a rusty tractor seat waiting for the camera to be set up to shoot, totally fascinated by this guy. Vollis used to work as a welder back in the 50s and 60s. While he's been retired for decades, he's never stopped working. He has a look in his cataract-covered eyes that glows like a teenager. He is passionate about...wait for it...whirligigs. These are folk art iron and tin pinwheel-like contraptions that Vollis builds at his shop. And he doesn't stop talking about them. Not only does he have a shed full of about a hundred handmade brightly colored whirligigs for sale, he has taken his passion to enormous heights.
Across the road is a field that is home to his giant whirligig garden. On top of 30-foot telephone poles are at least a dozen giant iron whirligigs—all created by Vollis Simpson. Imagine an actual-size locomotive engine with a coal car in tow made out of scrap street signs and I-beams. When the wind blows, (and man could we use a breeze right now) the wheels turn, the bell clangs and the entire 40-foot train rotates in the direction of the hot breeze. It's part junkyard art and part engineering marvel and it's all built by Ole' Vollis.
How on earth did this old man get these huge structures built and perched on top of telephone poles? He did it with lots of help because he cared about it at such a level that others began to care to. Now these iron mega-whirligigs are a source of pride throughout the state of North Carolina. People drive from other states to watch them turn in the Carolina breeze. All because Vollis thought they were cool. He cared enough to create and preserve these rusty relics and, because his passion has no other agenda, it is contagious. People pay good money for table-sized, tin original Vollis Simpson whirligigs. The toys are not particularly amazing. He is. He's the value. He cares and so do I. Now, hand me a glass of sweet tea Mr. Simpson and finish telling the story about how you "catched yourself afire" while welding stuff.
Until I started watching and then hosting Antiques Roadshow, I wasn't sure what "Provenance" was. I thought it was in Rhode Island. Also "Patina." That's a Roadshow favorite word. I like to play a drinking game where you take a shot every time an appraiser mentions "Patina."
"Provenance" is defined as the beginning of something's existence; its origin. And depending on that history, it can really make something valuable. I've learned that having a signed letter by Abraham Lincoln is cool but not necessarily as valuable as you think it should be. If, however, that letter from Lincoln is to a 19th century version of Ticketmaster requesting box seats for a play at the Ford Theatre, then you've got a six-figure find. That's provenance.
While we typically view provenance as something from the past, I like to think of it in terms of the future. Provenance is born in every minute. That moment will either grow in value or it will depreciate and become unimportant. So as I go through each day, and especially when I'm on the road with my Antiques Roadshow peeps, I try to remember that each day, I begin a new provenance. It may be a friendship, a business venture, or simply a thought that, in time, will grow in value. I have learned that my daily choices are investments in my value. And I want to be of worth to others.
I'm reminded of this responsibility often on the Roadshow. When I'm shooting on the appraisal floor, I'm surrounded by thousands of attendees who are all pumped to be there. You can see them in line behind me trying very hard no to look directly into the camera because my producer just scolded them. I love hanging out with everybody, but there are times when I get cranky and forget where I am.
And then it happens. Somebody pushing an older and obviously very ill family member in a wheelchair comes up to me as I rush back to the green room for a make-up touch up. When the wheelchair passenger sees me, they light up and ask if we can take a picture together. So I stop my trip down Vanity Lane long enough to pose with a loyal fan who then says with excitement, "Thanks so much Mark! This day was on my bucket list!" Now I'm right back in the present — aware of the gift today is and the provenance that this moment will become for her and for me. Infinitely valuable. Uninsurably priceless. We laugh about that "bucket list" cliché now. But when you're reminded we're all gonna have to kick it sooner or later, it's not such a cliché after all. Everything you do and say immediately becomes your provenance. Make it have lasting value.
So, what I've learned is I will never be an expert on antiques. I will never be able to tell you if Ben Franklin once sat in that chair, or if it's from Ikea circa last Tuesday. But thanks to the people I meet on the road, I am beginning to learn what is truly valuable — and as long as I don't ruin the patina that value will grow. Patina. I said it. Now you have to drink.
Article courtesy of The Huffington Post.
Mark L. Walberg hosts ANTIQUES ROADSHOW