Of all the TV shows for me to go on, I’ve always thought the perfect fit would be Antiques Roadshow. Just think—having your possessions honored on national TV. What a vindication for your level of taste. Everybody oohing and aahing over your vase or ottoman or Civil War musket, and then being told that it’s worth $50,000. It doesn’t get much better than that.
So when I heard that Antiques Roadshow was taping right here in Sarasota for three shows that will air in 2019, I started scheming to get invited as some sort of journalist. It was easier than I thought. They welcomed journalists and treated them like VIPs. And, as if in answer to a prayer, they even let you, the journalist, bring in two items to be appraised.
For the next week I paced around the house, critically inspecting all the junk I’ve collected over the years. Which might do the trick and get me an on-the-air spot?
I considered very seriously Mary Magdalene. It’s a Mexican painting dating back to 1800. But it’s so incredibly gloomy—a woman with a pained expression holding a skull—that I could see the appraisers avoiding it. Then there’s that part of a circus wagon I got at a garage sale for $30. At least I think it’s part of a circus wagon, which makes it a little risky. You don’t want to be made a fool of.
In the end I decided on my two items: a small round table, barely 20 inches across, that’s from the tourist-class smoking room of the SS United States, the famous ocean liner. I got it at the auction when they sold off the contents of the ship back in 1984. It had everything—style, history, unique-ness.
As for my second item, at the last moment I grabbed a fan that was doodled on by a famous artist. I bought it at a silent auction at the Ringling Museum Governor’s Ball back in 1997; since the show was being taped at Ca’ d’Zan and that’s where I got the fan, well, it was just too perfect.
The big day arrived. I must say Antiques Roadshow is very well organized. They had 3,000 people show up, each with two items to be appraised, and the whole thing ran like clockwork. The first thing I did was find my way to the press tent, where I was put under the care of a guy named Jim, who was going to be my escort. Each journalist gets his own PR person for two solid hours, which is incredibly generous and virtually unheard of.
Jim led me over to the furniture appraisers, who were located in that little gold ballroom on the ground floor of Ca’ d’Zan. About six or seven appraisers were sitting behind a table. When we got there, things were a little slow, so one of them—a very nice woman with straight gray hair and a cashmere sweater—took a look at my table.
She asked me what I knew about it and I delivered the whole spiel. She didn’t seem to know much about the SS United States, so I gave her a detailed history of the ship, how it was the fastest ocean liner ever built, how it crossed the Atlantic on its maiden voyage in three-and-a-half days with Margaret Truman on board in 1952. (She led a conga line in celebration, all around the promenade deck.)
The lady started taking notes. Then she went over to confer with several colleagues, in whispered tones. They then gathered around a computer. I nonchalantly strolled over to admire the view out the window and found that if I turned just so I could see the computer screen; and yes, they were looking at pictures of the ship.
The lady asked, almost apologetically, if she could talk to a producer about my table. Sure, I said, as coolly as possible, all the while thinking, Bingo! My little plan is working like I never dreamed possible.
There ensued an hour of agony. Would they choose me or would they not? Another appraiser came and talked to me. Then a producer. Then another producer. I sat there as calmly as possible as a steady stream of townspeople (plus those who drove in from Arcadia and Bonita Springs) walked in with their items, sometimes in a shopping cart, sometimes in a little red wagon, sometimes just lugged under the arm. Things like oak rockers and Eastlake side tables. Soup tureens. Paintings in poor condition. How ordinary they all looked.
Finally, the gray-haired lady came back. They had made a decision, she said. After much careful consideration they would not be featuring my table.
I felt like I had been stabbed in the heart. “Why?” I asked in a sort of wail.
“You know too much about it.”
What a fool I’d been. Now I saw what was really going on. They didn’t want some fussy old man who’s dying to show off his table. No, they want the country bumpkin who doesn’t know what he has, the rube who found the Rembrandt in Grammy’s attic. I played this all wrong, and now it was too late.
Perhaps out of sympathy, they transferred me to another PR person, Hannah, who I got the feeling was the one who handled the problem cases. Shall we complete the tour? she asked. Perhaps meet an appraiser?
“I’ve met an appraiser,” I said grimly.
“Oh. Well, perhaps we should go out on the terrace.”
“I have another item,” I reminded her.
“Oh, yes. Well, let’s get that out of the way. I mean, let’s get that appraised.”
So we went to Decorative Arts, and I gingerly removed the fan from the plastic grocery bag I keep it in and opened it. I must say there was a “wow” moment, from me, anyway. There it was, covered on both sides by the most charmingly eccentric drawings and designs by Kenny Scharf, the famous Pop artist who was—almost—right up there with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The appraiser’s eyes grew wide. It was happening again!
“What can you tell me about this?”
“Not much,” I said, choosing my words very carefully. I explained how I bought it at a silent auction right here at the Ringling. I was the only bidder. I paid $500. I figured, oh, well, it’s for the museum, and I ended up with this weird fan.
“Do you display it?”
“No, I keep it in my sock drawer.”
“And what do you know about Kenny Scharf?”
As we waited for yet another producer, Hannah seemed amazed. “This is unprecedented. I’ve never seen this happen before. They were interested in both your items!” My reaction was a little bit different. Of course they were. Why wouldn’t they be? And now that I was on to their little tricks there was no stopping me.
There was another hour’s wait, but this time the vibe was different. I got the feeling the appraisers were fighting over who got to go on camera with me.
We finally went up to Mable Ringling’s bedroom to shoot our scene. My appraiser was Meredith Hilferty, a very attractive young woman who made a good foil for me, like Beauty and the Beast. By now I understood the rules of the game. The appraiser is the star. She must shine, or they won’t use the segment. She must have all the information, all the fascinating details. And Meredith did. She explained all about Kenny Scharf and then delivered the long-awaited estimate: $3,000 to $5,000. I think I said “Wow!” although I was really thinking, “Is that all?”
I drove home exhausted but exhilarated. Just like Donald Trump, I’d finally made my mark on reality TV, the great, golden art form of our era. What’s the next mountain to climb? House Hunters International? The Great British Baking Show? RuPaul’s Drag Race? There was just one loose end floating around in my mind.
Anybody want to buy a fan?