Sunday, 16 September 2012

Hitting the

A couple of weeks ago, Sasha and I received a notice in the mail alerting us to the fact that the Antiques Roadshow would be filming in the square outside our apartment on September 13th. I got all excited and contemplated going down with one of my antiques, and then I promptly forgot all about it. Then, on the evening of the 12th, we looked outside and saw people setting up lots of little garden furniture and umbrellas and decorative trees, and we remembered what was afoot. Looking out at all the hubbub, I made my decision: I would get up early and try to beat the crowds, or I wouldn't go down at all. Time is precious, and I just didn't want to waste away hours of my life standing in a line.

For a couple of hours the next morning, I watched the AR staff run errands and set up their cameras and hold organizational meetings, and I saw absolutely no signs that any crowds were amassing. Even at 9:15, 15 minutes before the grounds opened to visitors, there was no line. I became complacent, and I let down my guard, and the next time I looked outside I saw a huge queue of pensioners waiting to get in. I'd missed my chance.

From my position on high, I could roughly work out how the system worked. Anyone could wander into the "valuation" area in order to spectate, but if you had an antique that you wanted to show to an expert, you had to talk to someone at the main desk. This meant that there were two lines: one that you waited in before having someone check over your goods and wave you through to one of the experts, and one that you waited in in order to actually gain access to the experts. Each of the little garden tables had 1-2 experts, divided according to area of specialty; one table was for antique books, another for military goods, another for jewelry, and so on. Things that didn't fit any particular category were directed towards the "miscellaneous" section, comprising 4 tables rather than the single table devoted to each other type of good. Unsurprisingly, this was the section with the most people and the longest wait.

This is what the scene looked like from above. You can see all the camera equipment down in the front center; in addition to the massive cameras, there were also light-reflecting screens and a big umbrella that, I assume, shaded the TV monitor so the director could see what was being filmed. This setup moved a few times during the day in order to take advantage of the sunlight, but it was consistently used for the really exciting finds; here you can see an expert discussing a couple of paintings. There were also smaller camera units that would be rolled over to the experts' tables in order to do some occasional "spot filming."

Even though I'd decided not to go down if it was going to involve waiting in a line, I wrapped up my editing assignment for the day unexpectedly early, and so I thought...why not? How could I possibly watch the Antiques Roadshow being filmed outside my own apartment, and not go down to participate? Like the running of the Olympic Torch, it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I didn't want to kick myself later for missing out. 

The hard part was choosing which of my antiques to take down. I have several lovely things, all of which a) I was hoping to learn the history of, and b) I thought would be of interest to the experts. This included my Asian silk screen, my lap desk, my 2 Chinese carvings, and my two Chinese hat boxes. I decided to take down one of my hat boxes--the larger of the pair, and the first antique I ever purchased for myself. I bought it for a whopping $150 just after I had graduated from college, at a time when $150 was more than I could really afford; I loved it the moment I saw it, which meant that money was no object. I've always wanted to know more about it, and I was hoping that one of the AR experts could enlighten me.

When I went down--at around 11:30 AM--the first line wasn't too bad. It ran along the waterfront, so at least you had a nice view while you were waiting. Everyone entering the line was met by the chief of security (a man with a tremendous handlebar mustache) and a greeter; the pair handed out an Antiques Roadshow pamphlet and showed you where to go.

The first portion of the wait was pretty boring. I discovered that Events Square is a dead zone for my phone, and so I couldn't get online and so some of the stuff that I was going to do to occupy my time. Instead, I popped in some earbuds and listened to music. After a while, I noticed that someone was interviewing people while they waited in line, so I took off my headphones and prepared to be questioned. Sadly, he never chatted to me. So much for my first shot at Antiques Roadshow fame.

Eventually, I made it to the front desk, where I was informed that my hat box was beautiful (tell me something I don't know!), and was given the dreaded "miscellaneous" classification. This meant that I was in for another couple of hours' waiting. By that point I had already been in line for about an hour, listening to the old ladies behind me talk about weddings and babies and the royal family; I was not sure how much more of that I could take.

The miscellaneous line was U-shaped, which was kind of painful because you could see just how long your wait was going to be; looking at the people opposite you was like looking into your future...your distant future. When I first got in line, I was positioned about where the end of the line was in the photo above. (Strangely, the line always seemed to end just about there--it never got longer or shorter.) It took me a little over an hour to get to the bend in the U, but after that our speed did pick up a little; I think some of the experts had gone to lunch early on, but by the middle of the afternoon they were all working simultaneously.

The bummer about being in line was that you didn't get to experience the real magic of the AR--the "big reveal" moment when you get to find out all the historical details associated with some random object that's been sitting in someone's attic gathering dust for the past 50 years. All of the tables were too far away for you to act as a spectator. However, most people ended up chatting with their neighbors to pass the time, and that was a pretty interesting experience unto itself. There was a group of 5 of us who got to talking about our various antiques; with a hat box, 2 old dresses, a tablecloth, a gramophone, and a selection of toys among us, we were the very definition of "miscellaneous." None of us was particularly interested in the value of our pieces (at least, none of us admitted that out loud--who knows what people were thinking inwardly!). Instead, we were all mostly hoping to find out what our items were, when they were made, and where they came from.

I was the first to finally get to speak to an expert; thanks to my handy AR pamphlet, I was later able to identify him as North Yorkshire-based Adam Schoon. To be honest, I think I was very lucky in being sent to Adam, because it turns out that he is particularly interested in Eastern antiques and had recently sold a piece not unlike mine. Also, he was very, very nice. He confirmed that my hat box is, indeed, a hat box--not a veggie steamer, as suggested by one of the people who was waiting with me in line!-- and that it is, indeed, from China (which is what the price tag said when I bought it). It was probably made in approximately 1900. He pointed out the wax customs seal on the bottom and said that such seals were stamped on all cultural exports prior to their departure from China. According to Adam, the box wouldn't have come on its own, but would originally have contained a hat. The box that he'd recently sold contained such a hat, and the pair together were worth about £1000. He said that adding a hat to my collection would significantly increase the value of the box; as it is, it's probably worth only about £150. I honestly don't care about its value, but I was relieved to hear that I hadn't been swindled. Actually, if you take exchange rate and inflation into account, the box's worth probably slightly exceeds the price I paid, so there is no reason to regret the investment.

After I chatted with Adam, I looked around for my partners-in-line, but I couldn't find them anywhere. I guess I won't know about their antiques unless they make the final cut of the show and I happen to see them on television. By the time I made it back up to my apartment, it was 3:30, so all in all I devoted a whopping four hours to the Antiques Roadshow experience. There is a lot that I could have accomplished during that time--finishing my book comes to mind!--but I don't regret going. 

My feet and back were insanely sore, but the pain was worth the fun of being surrounded by other people who love history and the preservation of beloved old objects. Antiquing is a hobby (even a passion) that does not appeal to everyone, and I don't get to chat about or pursue it with anyone except my mother. For one afternoon, I had the chance to reaffirm my membership in the antiquing community and to participate in an iconic British television show. Now I'll just have to stay tuned to the BBC to see if any part of my adventure was caught on film!

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