Behind the Scenes: How people get on Antiques Roadshow

“Is it treasure or trash?” they wonder.

If you’ve ever watched the popular PBS series Antiques Roadshow you’ve likely wondered just how the hopeful attendees bearing an item – a family heirlooms, a piece of old furniture, or something picked up at a garage sale just because it looked interesting – are chosen to appear on camera with the men and women who will describe its history and give an appraisal of its value.

Between 50 and 60 of the show’s fans found out just that at the Germantown Cricket Club on Sunday, November 13, as they listened to Dr. Donald H. Cresswell, co-owner of the Philadelphia Print Shop at 8441 Germantown Avenue, as he presented “An Insider’s View of the Antiques Roadshow,” sponsored by the Germantown Historical Society.


Behind the scenes

Cresswell’s a Roadshow veteran he’s done three shows a year for the past dozen years – and had plenty to share with the appreciative audience. He presented his insights in the form of answers to the most frequently-asked questions he’s received through the years, the first of which was, “When is Antiques Roadshow coming to my city?

That depends on whether a town has a convention center or showroom capable of handling from 5,000-8,000 people, because the show’s popularity has grown enormously since it began in 1997. “The very first show in Boston maybe 300 people showed up,” said Cresswell. “They did Philadelphia the first year, about 800 showed up. Tickets were on a first-come, first served basis.”

People started camping outside before the show. “It was like a rock concert,” he said , “and that was OK as long as we only had a couple of hundred. But in Baltimore the line went around the building once, then twice, then across the Interstate there in the Inner Harbor. The state police went ballistic.”

Now admittance is by means of a lottery. Winners get timed tickets good for one hour. When they enter the showroom their items get a preliminary look and they are directed to one of the groups of appraisers. “There are 60-80 appraisers at every event,” said Cresswell, and they are grouped according to subject matter – books, furniture, paintings and the like. Cresswell’s specialty is prints.

“For the most part it’s a friendly, outgoing crowd,” he said. High on his list of favorites places that Antiques Roadshow has visited is Grand Rapids, MI, “ … simply one of the nicest places and the people were just great – really nice.”

It may not be a long day for the attendees, limited by their one-hour tickets, but for the appraisers it’s a long day. “I sit at a table with three other appraisers. We’re busy from seven (o’clock) in the morning and we don’t get out of there until eight or so in the evening,” Cresswell said. One criterion for a Roadshow appraiser is simply stamina – the ability to do the 12-hour-plus event interacting with literally hundreds of people.


How people get on Antiques Roadshow

Out of each show’s thousands of attendees, only 60 to 70 people are chosen to be filmed for the show. Three TV shows are put together out of the day’s clips in every city.

An appraiser examines the items brought to him and then, said Cresswell, “I have a choice. I can make an appraisal right there, but if I look at it and decide this is interesting and the people are presentable” – he has had people approach his table wearing T-shirts with obscene words – “I can ask them if they want to be on TV. I don’t tell them anything else.”

If they say yes, Cresswell summons a producer who makes the final decision as to whether to film. Attendees are then sent to a professional make-up person – “We don’t want any shiny noses,” he said, and he gives his appraisal to them for the first time before a camera. All the on-air responses to appraisals that viewers see, the “Oh my gosh” and “Really? I can’t believe it” parts of the show are true first reactions.

They don’t always say yes. Cresswell had one woman in Texas – “a little old lady wearing a cowboy hat and Western clothes” – who had brought in a very valuable Italian atlas from 1592 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus to the New World. Despite Cresswell’s attempts to convince her, “She didn’t want to go on TV. I realized that she was afraid of being embarrassed by being told it was just a reproduction. “ Finally, he said, she demanded, “Look, just tell me what it’s worth, buster.” He did and she immediately changed her mind, but too late.


Strange but true experiences

Cresswell had an odd experience once in Minneapolis where, he said, “Eight people came up to my table with a picture of the Shroud of Turin. There must have been a really great salesman there about 50 years ago.”

The show is produced by public station WGBH in Boston which handles all production details, including some you might not think of. “We see lots of pistols and rifles, “Cresswell said. “Sean, a New York City detective, examines them all to make sure they don’t have a firing pin. Once somebody brought in a live hand grenade – they called the bomb squad.”


What the appraisers get out of it

Antiques Roadshow appraisers aren’t paid for their work though Cresswell acknowledged that they get valuable publicity from the show. “The day after I’m on, the phone at the shop will ring 40 times and we’ll get plenty of e-mails.”

Neither he nor any of the other appraisers ever purchases what they evaluate for the show. “Common sense and ethics says you don’t buy what you’ve appraised. They’re very strict. If I gave my card to somebody they’d kick me right off the show.”

After the show, attendees lined up with small hand-held items to be examined by Cresswell and a number of other volunteer appraisers.

Laura Beardsley, director of the Germantown Historical Society, said, “I’m thrilled about this – so many people came out. It’s all that I wanted it to be. Germantown is such a historic place and so many people who live here care about history – this let them come out and share their enthusiasm.” All proceeds from the event will support the Society’s museum and library.


Antiques Roadshow airs on WHYY-TV Mondays at 8 p.m and again Thursdays at 9 p.m.

Tonight (11/21/11) See the conclusion of the Roadshow visit in Atlantic City, N.J.


See Don Creswell in action – In the video below Creswell appraises a rare 1864 Abraham Lincoln Proclamation Print during an Antiques Roadshow visit to Madison, Wisconsin. The episode aired on February 15, 2010 on PBS. When the video starts fast-forward to 38:08 for his segment.

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