Why Antiques Roadshow is the Best/Worst

I am a bit hesitant to publicly admit my soft spot for Antiques Roadshow. But I have a blog now, so I guess it’s time to divulge some of my dirty secrets. When I was pregnant, my husband and I would look forward to Monday nights because Antiques Roadshow was on. He taught a writing class at a nearby college on Monday evenings, and I would have dinner ready when he came home. We would eat in front of the TV (don’t tell anyone), learning about odd treasures from people’s attics in Toledo and Tucson and Tampa. There was something bizarrely relaxing about this weekly ritual of ours. Though we have since abandoned our ritual, I still have a fondness for the TV show.

What other popular TV show allows you to listen to intelligent people talk about historical objects? On a recent episode one of the show’s experts excitedly told a man in Bismarck all about the Hardanger fiddle his ancestor had brought to the U.S. from Norway in the nineteenth century. Have you ever heard of a Hardanger fiddle? I certainly hadn’t, and I loved learning about this unusual object so distinctive to a particular time and place. It was very beautiful, with mother-of-pearl inlay decoration around the perimeter of the instrument. And it was wonderful to hear about this man’s distant relative who once owned the fiddle—to contemplate his life and his motivations for moving to the U.S., and the fact that this fiddle was meaningful enough to him to bring along. That’s what I think I love most about the show: the combination of unusual historical objects and the stories that go along with them.

Sadly, the show is punctuated with a steady rhythm of a cash register’s ching. After the expert gives us interesting information about the object being discussed and we hear the unique story from the person who brought in the object, the value of all of this is reduced to a ca-ching: “At auction this could go for anywhere from $X to $X.” Often this statement is followed by a giddy laugh or an (uncomfortably) ecstatic swoon from the owner. “I’m rich!”

I understand that we live in a consumer world and people want to know the monetary value of their one-of-a-kind possessions. What’s more, the curiosity about an object’s value is what drives people to bring their treasures to the show, thereby allowing the show to exist. And I know appraisals matter for a variety of reasons. Still, the show’s emphasis on this point bothers me. The subtext seems to be something along the lines of “Yes, yes, this is a unique work of art that provides insight into the Indian Wars, but who cares about that? Let’s figure out how rich you might be! The only reason we care about this object is because it’s valuable.” It seems to undermine all of the thoughtful dialogue that has taken place immediately preceding the “ca-ching,” which is really too bad.

I’m sure that a lot of this has to do with the need to appeal to a broad audience. To provide the hook for the mainstream, which is not interested—or only passingly interested—in antiques, the show appeals to our universal love of money. I understand the reality of that and it certainly does not deter me from watching the show. I just wish the proverbial drum roll would come before the informative discussion about the antique, rather than before the “ca-ching.” I guess I’m a hopeless romantic.

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