Antiques Roadshow

Ar This is one of the mysteries of popular culture.  The Antiques Roadshow gets 10 – 11 million viewers a week.  This makes it the pride of the PBS fleet. 

Just to put this is proportion, let’s point out that network TV thinks 8 million viewers is a great showing.  Cable is impressed with 4 million.  Eleven million on education TV? Astonishing.   

And there more.  People call the Antique Roadshow a "guilty pleasure." And this means few people admit to watching it.  People don’t talk about it around the water cooler.  There is almost no "buzz."  This means AR got to it’s massive popularity with very little word of mouth.  And that makes it huger still.

Apparently, AR has arresting properties.  It’s just plain fascinating, in the words of one blogger, "compulsively watchable." 

But why?  On the face of it, this is "talking head" television of the worst kind.  And it’s about "old things."  Shot in a church basement or a high school gym, the production values are virtually nil.  There are no special effects.  No beautiful people.   No car chases.  No athletics.  No scandal.  No titillation.  No sex.  No sizzle of any kind.  It’s people talking about something carted out of a garage or an attic.  Very low amperage.  Under normal circumstances, this would be barely enough to sustain consciousness let alone a TV show. 

I clipped a couple of quotes from the blogosphere and these help.

1) There is a sense of demographic trespass. 

I don’t know what it is about that show but i watch it all the time…and i mean actually watch it, not that i just have it on as background noise. and i enjoy it. no…i’m not 70 years old.  (Amy)

2) some sense that this show can be joyful

I don’t actively seek this show out.  But if I turn the TV on, and PBS is Antiques Roadshowin’ it up, I CANNOT RESIST.  I must watch, and squee at the things that turn out to be worth huge sums of money.  And then!  The people are so happy!  And it makes me happy to see that.  A lady just brought in a painting she’d bought for $400 and had restored for $600-900.  AND IT TURNED OUT TO BE BY ONE OF THE FIRST HAWAIIAN ARTISTS TO PAINT IN A WESTERN STYLE, AND HE ONLY DID LIKE 5 OR 6 PAINTINGS.  AND THEN IT WAS WORTH $100,000-$150,000!  And it made me happy, and she cried, and I cried on the inside out of happiness for her. I’M WEIRD. (Joie)

3) some sense that the show can level those who are arrogant

the BEST part is when some uppity person comes in and they think they have something rare and valuable worth thousands of dollars and they give them the (incredibly polite) smackdown that its worth about $2.75.  (Steve Betz)

4) some sense that the show combines the everyday and the historical as well as the expert and the civilian. 

I think it is the fact that there is so much lost history that is rediscovered by everyday people.  (Cubsfan)

5) it sounds as if the show amuses when its  staid exterior is punctured by participant loss of control

I […] take pleasure in watching people throw hissy fits because great grandma’s momma’s daddy’s pocketwatch was a fake and actually created in Japan about 1972.  (Grunt)

But surely this just begins to scratch the surface. 


Amy.  2006.  guilty pleasures.  Live Journal.  January 22, 2006. here

Bly, Jenn.  2007.  Naked Mole Rat.  Moonlight Masquerade.  December 03, 2007. here

Betz, Steve.  2007  Comment on Is This a Guilty Pleasure.  September 17, 2007.  here

CubsFan.  2008.  Treasure Found.  Cats, Cubs, Bears, Battlestar Galactica. here

Grunt.  2006.  Stop the Insanity.  Two Pink Flamingos and a Doubly-wide. here

Joie.  2007.  Is this a quilty pleasure.  Wish I was an English muffin.  Sept. 16. 2007.  here

33 thoughts on “Antiques Roadshow

  1. jkh

    AR is great. tv at its best. – such an intimate showcase of fundamental concepts like love, hope, beauty, joy, history, family, treasure hunt, cinderella, greed… and in the end it is about the love that redeems all.
    tv at its best. – one of the few un-guilty pleasures the box can bring.

  2. katy

    I do not believe the draw is old things. It is pure reality. Just like American Idol. We cringe when Simon hates the piece and feel warm and fuzzy for the contestant if they are humble when Simon loves them. Same emotions evoked on Antique Road show. It’s just a little more acceptable to watch reality TV bought to you by PBS. Your guilty pleasure isn’t quite as dirty.

  3. Rick Liebling

    Here’s a couple of reasons I like it / think that it does well:

    1. Unpredictability – You have absolutely no idea what items are going to be discussed. Toys, art, books, clothes, furniture. Every episode has a couple of items you are going to be interested in.

    2. It’s possibly the only “reality show” on television that doesn’t insult the viewers intelligence or try to crassly manipulate your emotions. They never build it up, and build it up and then say, “and the real value is… going to be revealed after this commercial!” They don’t have fake contestants who are going over the top because they are on TV and hope to leverage their 10 minutes of fame. Believe it or not, I think there is an audience out there that doesn’t want to watch morons embarassing themselves on television.

    3. Americans, I’m guessing more than any other country, love collecting things. I mean LOVE collecting things. And if you are a collector, and it doesn’t really matter what you collect, you are an obsessive. This show was literally made for you. 11 million viewers? That’s probably about 10% of the hard-core collectors out there.

  4. Dino

    I was thinking something similar last night as I watched American Idol (yes, another guilty pleasure).
    The combination of voyeurism and the moment where the rubber hits the road (are you really any good? is that desk really worth anything?) is so compelling.
    Think also of the real estate show where the hidden camera records uncensored opinions of people viewing a home and laughing at the rug colour and furniture. Who doesn’t like to watch the poor couple cringe as complete strangers rip their taste to shreds?
    The truth really does hurt, and while we normally shy away from putting our feet to fire to get an honest appraisal of ourselves or our things, it’s too compelling to watch others go through the ordeal for us to ignore.
    Another extreme example is that lie detector show. Naked, raw authentiticy complete with possible and utter humiliation!

  5. Rick Liebling


    Couple of differences however – Idol is much more lowest common denominator. Also, nobody knowingly brings an item to AR they know is a cheap Kmart item, just to ‘get on TV’. And perhaps more importantly, if they did, AR wouldn’t devote 1/3 of their show to these attention-whores.

    The other shows you reference will likely last a season or two at most. AR kicked off in the US in 1997. There is something deeper to its popularity than the possibility of humiliation. In fact, I think most viewers want to see all the people on AR ‘win.’ There are no villains on AR. No psycho contestants, no mean judges. It’s unlikely that people are rooting for one person and not others.

    I think it’s a case that AR found its niche. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (B. Spears, Deal or No Deal, P. Hilton), there is a segment of the US population that is interested in detail, intelligence and thoughtfulness and doesn’t feel the need to have their entertainment presented at breakneck speed.

    In a constantly changing world, harking back to a simpler time also has some appeal. Plus, it does have that voyeuristic frisson of instant riches v. disappointment.

    While I’m sure the show does well with the 50+ crowd, I bet a surprising percentage of the audience is in their 30s. I think that’s because it’s not just a show about antiques. It’s an extremely well done show about antiques. Quality, regardless of format or content will draw a crowd.

  6. Dino

    Can’t argue that there is a distinct difference in tone between AI and AR 😉

    I guess I am just seeing some similarities in that they both ultimately revolve around answering a simple question in front of millions of people. “Is it good or is it crap?” That’s pretty juicy, whether it’s a bad cover version of Alicia Keys, an ugly kitchen or the grandmother’s desk.

  7. Jim Dingwall

    Grant: Pop culture has become so confrontational these days — if it’s not in your face it’s invisible. Except to 11 million viewers. What strikes me about the Antique Roadshows – Canadian and American versions – is the civility of everyone involved. The interaction between the antagonists — owners and experts — becomes strangely compelling when no one is yelling at the top of their lungs, and a very subtle drama ensues where the characters quietly present their cases, without posturing and shouting, and each listens attentively to each other with no thought of confrontation. All the while, the dramatic tension builds as we move towards the climatic moment when the value of the object d’art is revealed. And when that happens, either a pleasant monetary surprise or a sad revelation is usually brushed off with the assurance that financial gain was not the objective and there were no thoughts of ever, ever selling for a profit great-grandmother’s “thunder bowl” chamber pot that’s been in the family for years. Meanwhile, as an audience member I’m watching all this, loving the dignified suspense, trusting my superior ability to recognize attic junk from antiques and yet, fear the revelation that someone’s prized heirloom that I believed to be priceless is destined for the landfill rather that the Smithsonian. How could I be so wrong! In its way, this is very interactive television, dramatic, amusing and as ironic as a Jane Austen novel.

  8. Rick Liebling


    Personally, I like both shows and while I see your point, I feel there is a subtle difference. On AI, the quality of a performance can be debated, and often is by the judges. That’s a central premise of the show and the source of its tension. That’s interesting in its way, but is different from AR. On AR, we don’t have multiple judges debating the value of an object, we don’t even have the ‘contestant’ arguing against the judge. The item is worth what it is worth. That results in a different type of satisfactory resolution.

    Jim, your comments are spot on, well said.

  9. Ken King | King Marketing

    In Canada, we’re exposed to three versions of the show – the original UK series, the PBS series from the US and the CBC series in Canada. I haven’t seen much of the Canadian version, but there are a couple of interesting differences between the UK and US versions:

    Reactions – the British stiff upper lip is in full evidence: with the sound off you’d never know if they’d been told that they are in possession of the holy grail itself or a petrol station premium. In the US, elation/disappointment is writ large across their faces – I swear that I’ve seen eyeballs roll back to display dollar signs.

    Valuations – Related to Rick’s point above, Americans’ love for collecting seems to have driven valuation through the roof, especially for Americana. A silver mug that can be traced back to King Charles I is valued at 600 pounds; a buckskin jacket from the late 1800s belonging to an unknown infantryman goes for upwards of $100k.

  10. Anonymous

    I have an old bedroom suit and I have tried to find out about it. Years ago my class at school visited a museum in Richmond Indiana and there was a tiny set just like it. I called them and the little models have been stored so they couldn’t help me. Can you?

  11. yagle

    Please, can you help me identify my bedroom suit. The only other that Ive seen was in a museum years ago and it was a miniature set. Thanks

  12. Tom

    Much of the elation/disappointment surely has to do with discovering that an artifact from your past is more/less than expected. “Oh, Grandma’s old apron is worth how much?” AR is merely a vehicle for people to rediscover part of their past and learn something new about it. I use the internet in a similar way. Sometimes an old song from childhood or the memory of a particular game I used to play will pop into my head. Before the internet, such thoughts were quickly brushed aside as irrelevant or mere wistfulness. Today I can nearly instantly find out who wrote the song, what the lyrics actually are or buy a childhood game on ebay. Sure it takes some of the mystery and magic out of childhood/past memories, but it also helps unlock other memories that were tied to that particular song, game, etc. The artifacts of your past, previously locked in mind are made more clear—you learn something new about an old thing and that causes you to reexamine it and revalue the past, which is generally a good thing, but can have sobering effects.

    Your excellent post also reminded me of this:



  14. david lewis

    i have a world war 2 army chest that was my grandpas when he was in ww2. its 14 inches tall by 40 inches wide . any idea what it is worth?

  15. edward robinson.

    sir, ive got a cast iron coca cola money box
    in the shape of a boys head,its about nine inches
    high and white in colour its got a tin lid on its
    forehead and nobody seems to know anything about it, can you throw any light as to where it comes

  16. edward robinson.

    sir im a poet and ive got some of my poetry books
    in the british librarys date base all around the world,,ive just written a poem about my addiction
    to auction houses so ive written the first verse
    in the hope that you might like to read the finished poem…
    the house of dreams.
    to the house of dreams i went last night
    a greaat believer in second sight
    and there i stood with my magic wand
    that`s sometimes called a catalogue..

  17. mac

    I have a Army Prayer Book from the Civil War. It is very small (2×3″ maybe) good condition. Any ideas?

  18. margot

    I have a 14″ china plate painted around the rim with butterflies.On teh Back it says B & Co. France, and teh illistrators name I. Hetrick 1914.

    Does this sound familiar to anyone?

  19. lynne

    my gran has well over 1000 salt and pepper dishes that she has collected over the years from all over the world, when she passes away i have to get them could you tell me any information on the value or any information on collecting such an item.

  20. vicky vaughn

    swedish crafts-dala horse
    i got them around earley 1970 seen them on line for 465.00 can you tell me any thing about them

  21. Craig Ballard

    We have an Italian Armoir with 6 lables that seem to be the signature of the designer. Can you tell me anything about what this information might mean: Brenna Francesco & Figli, Premiata Industria Mobili. Signature: Lig. Dousdio Egidio. I would appreciate any information you have.

  22. Michelle

    I have what I believe is an original Milton Caniff strip that he did for my step father in 1942. It says to Walter Michaels who lived this history as it was being made. Can anyone tell me how I would get this appraised?

  23. coreen Ceder

    I have a Farber & shelvin Inc. hand wrought 1751(not sure if it is candy dish) 9″x 9″ rose encraved.Not sure of the material it is made from (looks like silver, but is not tarnished. Could you please tell me what it is? Is 1751 a date or model or serial number?

    Thank You

  24. Sally

    I have something that my sister found in Southern Illinois in a field after the flood of 1973 that we would like to have identified. It is a wooden carved head. It looks as if it might be african. I could take picture of it and send, but who do I send it to?

  25. Ian Sutherland

    I have inherited four antique fire engine models with room for only one !
    One is cast iron probably 19th C drawn by three galloping horses – which gallop when it is pushed ! Three are sheet metal about two feet long one named ‘KEYSTONE – Water tower”, with wind-up hoist and tank. Other two similar with ladders.
    These are earl;y 20th C perhaps twenties. Engined with rubber tyres.
    Would appreciate guidance on who might be interested and for an appropriate auction house. Ian Sutherland

  26. Ian Sutherland

    I have inherited four antique fire engine models with room for only one !
    One is cast iron probably 19th C drawn by three galloping horses – which gallop when it is pushed ! Three are sheet metal about two feet long one named ‘KEYSTONE – Water tower”, with wind-up hoist and tank. Other two similar with ladders.
    These are earl;y 20th C perhaps twenties. Engined with rubber tyres.
    Would appreciate guidance on who might be interested and for an appropriate auction house. Ian Sutherland

  27. Jess

    I am in trying to find out how much a family heirloom is worth, please help me if u know anything about a “black santa” Comic strip character from the McCormachs with a letter stating it is at least 70 yrs old in 1984. Please contact me via email at Thank you very much

  28. k dummer

    i have about 50 i inch lead toys they seem to be factory workers of some sort some are on high backed stools file cabinets men are in dark green shirts they look like work clothes any ideas as to what they may be from i bought them at a garage sale about 30 years ago

  29. k dummer

    i have about 50 i inch lead toys they seem to be factory workers of some sort some are on high backed stools file cabinets men are in dark green shirts they look like work clothes any ideas as to what they may be from i bought them at a garage sale about 30 years ago

  30. Miss Debra Kilty

    I have in my possession an army prayer book no date but has these initials 601 Hy. (M) A A BTY R.A and a christamas hymns and carols sheet dated 1945. Ate these of any value and where shoulds I go to get them valued if so.

  31. Doug Wright

    I have a ww2 placemat date on it is 23-1-1943 it is white satin with red trim and pictures of a large red lion. The other dates are as follows Ttunisi 8-5-1943 Capo Don 12-5-1943, also El Alamein,Tobruk,Bencasi,Tripoli {the last 4 have no dates} it also has pictures of fighting men, camels &a jeepand it lookd like a mousic the measurments are 16 by 13 in. w/cloth backing. Could someone please help me. I can not find it anywhere.

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