Liars, Losers and the Lessons of ‘Antiques Roadshow’

When a writer of my age (42) and sensibilities (vaguely anarchic) is tasked with reporting on PBS’s long-running hit “Antiques Roadshow,” his first impulse is to lengthen the sentences, ramp up the pathos and do his best impression of Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. Unfortunately for me, but perhaps to your benefit as the reader, I was accompanied to the “Roadshow” by my parents, who are both in their 70s and not particularly interested in seeing their middle-aged son trying to resurrect the ambitions of his literary youth.

The premise of “Antiques Roadshow” is relatively simple: A person brings an antique item — often something they found in their parents’ attic — to the show, where a rotating host of appraisers ask them to tell them the object’s story, which usually winds through a family lineage (the most common phrase on the show might be “my grandfather was an avid collector of …”) and includes some noncommittal, open-ended declaration, like “and it’s been sitting on top of our fireplace ever since.” These mostly strike me as the whitest of lies — surely, at some point, the person put in some time to Google the mysterious and ancient-looking heirloom.

We weren’t all that innocent, either. My parents have an ancient Chinese scroll they wanted appraised. Part of the scroll is made up of two colophons, which are calligraphic accompaniments to a painting that are usually written and signed by the painter. The other is a landscape painting. My mother, in true “Antiques Roadshow” fashion, found this thing in a thrift store. After some close examination, my parents realized that it might be very old. After quite a bit of digging and some consultations with experts, they determined that it was indeed very old. There is not yet an agreement on how old it is — the process of authenticating ancient art can be highly subjective and open to debate — but estimates indicate it’s from sometime in the late 17th century. Intriguingly enough, the calligraphic part of the scroll carries the signature and seal of Dong Qichang, a very well-known painter and calligrapher who was active in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The mystery of this scroll has been occupying my parents for the past couple of years. My wife, in the hopes of finding some resolution for all this, entered us into a lottery for “Roadshow” tickets and won. Our strategy was to play a little dumb — it’s true that we have no real idea what this thing is worth, but my father has tracked down a few academics and museum curators to give their assessments — but I told them that they should keep the story simple, and as truthful as television would allow. If they were asked, for example, if they had ever had an expert look at the scroll, they should just pretend not to have heard the question or quickly change the subject. That was my job — I was the guy who was there to change the subject.

Which is all to say, there was something both decadent and depraved about “Antiques Roadshow.” This episode was filmed at Filoli, a country estate built in the early 20th century by one of California’s gold mining barons. Today the site is a museum of sorts, with dozens of acres of well-kept gardens filled with camellias, daffodils and wildflowers. If you’ve seen the film “Harold and Maude” and can recall the gigantic, austere house where Harold plays grisly pranks on his mother, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how these California Gilded Age-style mansions make you feel an even mix of revulsion at their garishness and appreciation for just how well the garishness has been executed.

The crowd of liars, mostly between the ages of 65 and 95, was in good spirits as they dragged their curiosities between a series of tents set up all around the estate. It wasn’t quite a pilgrimage, more like a music festival for the Lexus-driving fans of Eckhart Tolle. At every cluster of tents, there was a television setup with lights and sound equipment and a series of cameras.

In our quest to make it in front of one of those cameras, we had to first present our scroll to a preliminary screener who then directed us to the Asian art tent. We were introduced to an appraiser named Lark Mason III, the son of Lark Mason Jr. of Lark Mason Associates in New York City, which is something I learned when the youngest Lark introduced himself with, “My name is Lark, my father’s name is Lark, and my grandfather’s name is Lark.” This was all great theater. My mother handed him the scroll, which he unfurled and began to read in Chinese. He asked my parents if they knew what the scroll said, which they said they did not. (It’s unclear to me if they were lying about this.) While scrolling, Lark III went through the usual litany of questions: Where did you get this? How much did you pay for it? Do you know what you have here? But once he got to the painting part of the scroll, he suddenly stopped, and a look of concern fell over his face. “Excuse me,” he said. “I need to show this to someone.”

We had him! Lark showed the scroll to an older appraiser, who quickly went through and whispered her assessment to Lark. The only words I could make out were “colophons” and “apocryphal,” which weren’t great signs, but then Lark came back and said that he needed a producer from the show to come by to take a look and could we please wait nearby.

I texted my wife and tweeted that we had made it through the first round. For the next 45 minutes, we sat in the hot sun and waited. Our little perch was next to the Native American tent, and I watched as a procession of old people emptied out boxes of moccasins and arrowheads. Nothing seemed to be worth all that much, but everyone was happy just to be in the presence of the appraisers they had seen on television.

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.


Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”