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Inside Antiques Roadshow

Antiques Roadshow, which is still underway as we speak, is a pretty fascinating human phenomenon. It's definitely the most interesting thing I've ever witnessed at the Knoxville Convention Center.

I wasn't sure I was going to get to attend, but a few days before the show, the producers offered me a pass. At AR's suggestion, I rummaged around at home and brought a couple of curios, chosen more for peculiarity than likely value.

One is a tarnished brass baby gleefully taking a joy ride on what looks like a tiny tusk; my wife and I found it in the old Westwood mansion on Kingston Pike a couple of years ago, when it was first emptied, and an heir told us we could have it.  

The other was a German-language Kafka novel, Vor dem Gesetz, or "Before the Law," usually included as part of "The Trial." I found it about 20 years ago, at lunchtime, on a sale table of a used-book dealer on Church Avenue. Everything on the table was 50 cents or a dollar. I remember the owner's slightly supercilious sign said, "Great Deals (as far as you know!)." When I saw it was published in Berlin in 1934, I had to get it. Kafka was Jewish. The book was politically subversive. The Nazis would have burned it for either reason. Ever since then, I've been wondering if it were rare.

They told me I'd get a press escort, and mine turned out to be our old Metro Pulse colleague Paige Travis, who now works for ETPBS. We descended to the big exhibition floor. I have to say, I was surprised by the amount of ordinary-looking stuff people were bringing in. Especially framed artwork. Some of the paintings I saw, lugged by affluent, educated-looking people, looked as if they might have been purchased at the Clinton Highway Walmart this morning. But you never know. Maybe they turned out to be right. Maybe they're all wealthy now, and can buy their own Walmart.

The scene looks better on television. The floor was divided kind of haphazardly by screens, with some brightly lit areas, and some almost dark areas. The show-ender, the Feedback Booth, which I'd always pictured a place near the exit, was just a small, kind of forlorn-looking blue-curtained enclosure.

The visitors trudge along in their long lines, some of which snake around in hairpin turns, with their wagons and carts and dollies and bags, while staff set up the brightly lit stages in the middle in a big circle like an old-fashioned circus. It's a surprisingly large, brightly lit area reserved for the camera work periphery and guarded by local staffers. Antiques Roadshow makes for an unusual sort of theater in which you see center stage, backstage, and audience, all at once.

First we first checked in at a triage table, where, after puzzling over my baby-on-horn object, suggested the Metalwork table. There, I met a guy I recognized from the show, Eric Silver, from New York. He seemed puzzled by my weird little baby, said he couldn't tell what sort of metal it was composed of, but that what I'd presumed was a horn was actually wood. He had no further clue about it except that it looked ca. 1900, a "turn of the century novelty" of nominal value. But he was a metalwork expert, and nobody would claim this was a piece of metal art. Maybe an expert in children's lore--maybe it's an illustration from a story or poem?--would have known more. On the show, the experts seem to know everything, but of course the segments we see concern the minority of objects they choose to talk about.

For the Kafka book, I talked to Ken Gloss, a somewhat less gregarious fellow from Boston whose face was not as familiar. He looked at the book's title page, and on a laptop--almost all the experts use laptops now--found copies of the book online for sale from $30 to $300, a wide range, he noted. Noting a "condition issue"--the spine's flaking some--he said it would be at the lower end of that scale, probably $50 or less. To me, the most operative condition issue was that it wasn't burned. But he said 1934 was before the wholesale bans on such things, a lot of them were published, a lot of them got out unburned, and that there seemed to be a lot of them out there today. So it's no rarity, though it may be worth 100 times what I paid for it. I wish that book dealer were still around for me to gloat at. I miss that place.

I kept seeing friends, across the way. Cindy, who was among the minority who were filmed, brought some Joseph Delaney nudes and found they were all worth quite a lot. Ian had a popular 1920s print of a music scene known as "Beethoven's Death Mask." Julie brought in a 2,000-year-old Egyptian urn that turned out not to be very rare.

It's a little surreal. I kept nodding and waving to people I knew, before realizing I didn't know them at all. Leigh Keno, Lark Mason, Wes Cowan, Noel Barrett, and Mark Walberg himself, these are all people you feel as if you know well, if you watch the show, because they're all on TV every Monday. And here they all are, right here in the Knoxville Convention Center on World's Fair Park. I'm not sure there have ever been so many TV celebrities in one place since those crazy country-music jamborees they had at the Civic Coliseum in the '60s.

This is what we built this thing for, 10 years ago. I'm told the AR folks have complained some about it, that it's much more up-and-down than most convention centers, but I was proud to hear that. This is an up-and-down city. And I suspect we'll learn more about our hometown sometime next year, on PBS.

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