CLEVELAND – The looks of total disbelief at the “Antiques Roadshow” came well before we found out how much our mechanical dime-store horse was worth or whether our Mayan fertility cup was real or our wooden box represented a fine piece of Americana.
Shortly after arriving at the Cleveland Convention Center bright and early on a recent Saturday morning, the “Chosen 10” — the lucky ones whose large furniture items were selected ahead of time for taping and transported to the show — were hustled off to the side.
We looked on as the remaining ticket-holders had to fend for themselves and were herded off into Homeland Security-like lines, where their items were “triaged” by volunteers and tickets were handed out designating categories for items ranging from dolls to tribal arts.
With tickets in hand, those folks then faced a new set of lines to wait their turns for a one-on-one session with a “Roadshow” appraiser.
If their item was unusual enough, the appraiser would stop and alert one of the show’s producers to see whether it merited an on-camera appraisal.
On camera experience
Looking over the sea of humanity shuffling along with everything from antique rifles to framed old maps, I heard my name called.
“Webb. Where’s Webb?”
It was time to head to the Green Room, then off to the set to see whether the old horse my wife and I bought in the 1990s for $75 was worth big bucks.
Once in the Green Room, it was time to sign papers clearing PBS to appraise “Big Bronco” and chastise me for letting kids and adults ride the horse over the years. And then there was the matter of cleaning it with Pledge furniture polish.
I was ushered onto a carpeted area and told to stand by Big Bronco’s head.
I was a bit star-struck and marveled at just how big the TV cameras were — no wonder they add 20 pounds, considering they each are about the size of a Prius. I looked like a disaster next to Big Bronco with his Pledge shine glistening under the bright TV lights.
Our appraiser, Brian Witherell of Witherell’s Auction House in Sacramento, was tan, snappily dressed and camera-ready.
The next 15 to 20 minutes flew by. I am told that I wove the tale of how we bought Big Bronco at a garage sale for $75 and had to push it through the streets on a dolly to get it home. To be honest, it was all a bit of a blur.
At one point, Witherell held up an invisible dime to demonstrate how Big Bronco would roar to life in the old days. The mechanism doesn’t work anymore, as the horse has to be plugged in to work. But through the “magic” of television, Witherell’s invisible dime made Big Bronco come to life. I like to think Witherell has special powers, but I suspect it was a crew member off to the side who flipped a switch to an extension cord.
With the immortal words — “Have you ever had it appraised?” — the moment of truth had arrived.
I answered no.
Witherell said the kind of words every “Antiques Roadshow” watcher loves to hear.
He talked about what great shape Bronco is in and how its wear marks from generations of kids climbing on it since it was manufactured in Chicago in 1950 “talks to us.”
He gushed that it is a great example of these dime-store rides that were popular at the height of America’s love of cowboys and the West.
And the value? Anywhere from “$1,500 to $2,500,” depending on the auction.
Not bad for a $75 investment some 25 years ago.
Ancient, but common
Next up was the supposed piece of a Mayan fertility cup that I bought for $12 at a flea market in Youngstown, Ohio, when I was around 12 years old.
It turns out the small stone head originated in central Mexico and is pre-Columbian — and likely 800 to 1,200 years old.
Appraiser Bruce Shackelford, who specializes in tribal arts, said it is likely a depiction of Xipe Totec, the life-death-rebirth deity also known as the god of agriculture.
My brain is thinking, “Woo-hoo! Sell it, baby!” but my ear is hearing Shackelford sigh and say this artifact is as common as a $2 bill and worth about as much. It seems you can hardly walk through a field in central Mexico without stumbling across one of these, so the value is anywhere from $3 to $5. Shackelford said a number of them seem to show up at almost every “Roadshow” stop. He said someone once brought in an entire box full of them.
Truth be told, “Roadshow” producers say, the average value of the treasures brought in by the thousands at each of the television program’s stops is under $100.
The last stop, and our last hope for that missing American treasure, was at the Decorative Arts table.
We brought along a wooden box that had belonged to my grandmother Kathryn Brown, who lived to be 102. She said it had belonged to her aunt and dated to the late 1890s.
Turns out Nana was right; it did date to the late 1890s.
Washington, D.C., appraiser Reid Dunavant said making these decorative boxes was popular from 1890 to the start of World War I.
He said you could mail-order stencils that were placed over cigar boxes and the like, then a small tool was used to burn the image, usually floral, onto the wood.
Dunavant said these boxes are now worth $40 to $60.
So, we aren’t millionaires.
We own a horse that is worth about what it weighs, and a box that holds more sentimental value than cash.
And we have an ancient Xipe Totec head, whose value is far less than it cost to park downtown.
But, hey, we got to be part of a show that has become a bit of a national treasure in its own right, and that has to be worth a box filled with Xipe Totec heads.