Sunday, November 2, 2014

Appraising the Antiques Roadshow

The Antiques Roadshow is one of my favorite shows on television.  What I most like about the show is its willingness to look at art and antiques through the lens of the market;  I suspect that like a vast majority of its 13 million weekly viewers, I am most interested in the monetary value of the objects presented.  While the background of the objects, their makers, milieu and aesthetic qualities are deeply appealing, I admit that I might not watch as religiously if each segment didn't end with each the expert’s declaration of their opinion of the value of the item(s) discussed and I enjoy trying to guess the value before it is announced. The engaging, well-produced show harnesses our fascination with monetary value to highlight history and artistic skill and deserves the many awards and honors it has received, and as a professional in the field of art, I appreciate the interest it has without a doubt generated in collecting and treasuring our shared cultural heritage.

Lark Mason with  a set of rhino horn cups,
appraised at $1 - $1.5 Million, one of the records on the show

Like anyone who watches a TV show that covers their area of interest, however, I have a few very pointed criticisms.  This is not unusual.  I have a friend who refused to watch The Sopranos because it reinforces negative stereotypes of Italian-Americans, and my physician sister cannot abide any medical drama because none of the interns or residents ever looks tired.  Unlike these fictitious shows, however, the Roadshow deals in reality.  Unlike most reality TV shows, this one, I think for many viewers, rings true. The experts are able to convey enthusiasm and authority, the owners who bring the pieces in are obviously everyday people, the setting looks like a trade fair with which we are all familiar, and after all it’s public television –it can be extremely hard to remember that it is still a TV show.

Reading a few online ‘behind-the-scenes’ articles about the show, and in discussing it with colleagues, a few of whom are actually experts on the show, I have come to understand a bit about how the show is put together.  Attendees are sorted into categories immediately upon entering the venue and then wait on long lines to see the relevant expert.  Interest in the show is so intense that tickets are distributed by lottery.  Approximately 3,000 people come to the typical event in a day, each of them bringing two things to be looked at.  From this hoard, about 90 items are selected for individual presentation, with the appraiser making a pitch to one of the producers, who then decides if it is worth taking the time to shoot a piece.  It can be an ‘over the shoulder’ segment, which is less time-consuming, but with items of particular interest, the owner, after signing a waiver  is brought to a green room in anticipation of a one-on-one with the expert.  Everyone is wildly busy, so it may take up to 4 hours for the owner to get in front of the cameras.  While they wait, like talent on any TV show, they are given food and drink and a comfortable place to sit.  Since the show prizes the reactions of these people when the expert does ‘the reveal’, they are kept apart from each other, lest they learn anything more about their piece.  At that point, they know something is up, but, as regular viewers know, their works can sometimes be used as a teaching moment, explaining why something is a fake. 

 The "Green Room" at a recent venue

While the delay, in part, allows the camera guys and producers to do their work, there is also a private area in the arena where the expert can do research, both on the internet and by consulting books.  They almost always have some off-site support as well: assistants or a team back home that have additional resources handy that can help with comparables and to provide information that can be presented on air.  They may also call on the opinions and insights of their fellow experts at the venue.  Finally, especially in the case of furniture, many objects have been submitted in advance (this is often to alleviate the hassle of moving heavy objects in if they are not that interesting), which again gives the presenters time to put together an engaging story about the art and to give an informed opinion of value. Naturally, the owner is not aware of any of this work; it is their reaction which we all want to see. When it is at last show time, object and owner are brought before the camera and the magic is made. 

While this makes for great television, it at once glamorizes and diminishes the work that an expert does.  The viewer is given the impression that experts know off the top of their head where and exactly when a maker was born and died.  The presenter seemingly woke up knowing which two sailboats competed for the America’s Cup in 1906, or can look at a necklace and tell at a glance how many carats of diamonds are in it, as well as their color and clarity.

I don’t for a second question these experts.  They are on the front-lines, looking at thousands of works a day, honing their eyes and knowledge.  There is no question in my mind that they could probably speak almost as well about most of the objects without doing any research at all.  And of course, many times you hear them say that they ‘did some research’ or ‘consulted with their colleagues’.  So I am not accusing them of lying; it is really more a function of how a TV show is made.  I suppose when we watch a cooking show and a perfect pie pops out of the oven the moment after a raw one is put in, or when the cook grabs a handful of chopped ingredients without showing us the chopping, we all inherently understand that the boring stuff has been glossed over.  Who wants to see an expert referring to online price databases or looking through a hallmark book of old silver?

My issue here is that it gives the impression that expertise is innate and effortless.  By excising almost all references to the nitty gritty, the Roadshow runs the risk of making the process of appraising seem capricious. I don’t want to overstate the case, but I do feel there is a tendency towards privileging the expert on the show, that it sometimes feels as if the expert is making a pronouncement rather than expressing an opinion.  When the expert is seen to be able to bestow a value without having to consult anything but their own mind, we are getting very close to making the whole thing seem subjective.

I am also convinced that the show engenders an expectation that experts can produce immediate, credible opinions of value.  My evidence here is hardly scientific, but I have heard from numerous dealers and appraisers that they have been shown an image of a work of art on a phone and been asked for a value.  The phone-holders are invariably incredulous when their request is declined.  Nobody wants to hear that appraising art involves drudgery.  (I should also note that people paying appraisers by the hour are especially adverse to the idea that the process can be time consuming).   By making appraising seem subjective, effortless and immediate, Roadshow does the field a great disservice.

I hasten to add that I don’t blame the experts on the program.  It is the producers who are making this happen and they are doing so in order to make a TV show which 13 million people enjoy.  I get it.  But would it be so hard to have some cutaways to the experts conferring with each other, talking on the phone to their offices, looking over each other’s shoulders at laptops, deep in discussion while looking at comparables?  Or maybe have a very short segment behind the scenes about how it all works?  I don’t mean to suggest that as a TV show, the Roadshow has a responsibility towards the field of appraising, my point is that it might be a better show if they gave us all a glimpse of just how amazing these experts are.  They don’t just know an awful lot, they have research skills, they are able to direct other people to help them, they are able to network and build collegial relationships with other experts.  I think we would all be more impressed, not less.

My other concern with the Antiques Roadshow is much more serious.  I feel that the values presented are misleading.  In the course of one show, a viewer might hear “I would say a conservative auction estimate would be…”, “In a retail shop, I would not be surprised if…” and “As an insurance value I would say that this is…”   This is not surprising.  Some of the experts work at auction houses, others have retail shops and still others are appraisers who do a lot of insurance work.  But there is never any explanation of what these various values mean or how they differ.  Whatever number(s) the expert gives is displayed along the bottom of the screen at the end of a segment.  Again, this is not the experts fault; after all, they clearly state exactly what value they are giving.  But I fear that these distinctions get a bit lost in the shuffle.  The Roadshow audience is probably very sophisticated and no doubt picks up on these differences as I do. Nonetheless, I think the practice of flashing a value without stating what sort of value it is crosses the line between making a fun TV show and distorting the reality it purports to convey.  For of course, an insurance value is pretty close to what would be asked in a retail shop…but not quite.  Insurance values usually encompass sales tax and/or shipping, as well as any framing or other charges for creating a pleasing manner in which to present a piece.  Auction estimates might be wholesale, or not. 

The expert's value is displayed along with the show's 
trademark treasure chest and sound of coins clinking.

What all of these values encompass is the commissions due the seller.  In almost every instance, in my estimation, the owners stand to gain at least 20% less than the value stated on the show.  For items below $5,000, I would say it is probably more like 40 – 60%  less.  Again, a lot of people probably know this, but judging by the reaction of some of the owners, I am not so sure.  The guy who has a vintage toy  for which he paid $500 and who is told to insure it for $800 looks delighted, but I imagine he will not look so happy when he is offered $325 when he tries to sell it.  I suppose the owners will find out soon enough about the spread between the bid and the ask if they don’t know it already, but the rest of us are left with the impression that anybody, not just an insurance company who collected premiums and made a commitment to pay if the item were lost, would buy that toy for $800.

The problem with all this is that it makes everything seem worth more than it is, or should I say, it tilts towards the most optimistic notions of value.  On one level, who cares?  It’s just a TV show.  And who is harmed if we choose the highest possible value when thinking about a piece?  In my view, it is the dealer who actually has to sell the work and make a living that takes the hit, which serves to undermine the public’s confidence in the entire art profession.  Commissions are extremely high in the art market.  There are a lot of reasons for this.  For one thing, it is hard to sell art…it takes time as well as having a large network of buyers, and a seller needs a context in which to do so:  an art fair, or a gallery, all of which takes money.  Furthermore, art needs to be insured as well as transported and shipped properly.  People who deal in antique clocks have to spend at least 4 hours assembling and disassembling each clock for display at a fair—think of that the next time you see a booth with 18 different clocks on display.

Almost always on the program you will hear the expert ask if the person has had it appraised before.  Occasionally an owner will say “My wife had it appraised 15 years and the appraiser offered her $1,000 for it so she knew it was worth more”.   This stands to reason.  Someone in the business of selling art will naturally offer less cash upfront than what they can sell it for later.  More often than not, the expert on the show comes up with a value that is worth way more. This perpetuates the notion that the art world is just a giant confidence game where the little guy is going to get screwed. (There are actually a lot of informed insiders who think the same thing, but that’s a topic for a different blog post!).   In other words, by contrasting what someone would actually have paid in the past with what you should insure something for now without any nuance, the show does a great disservice to the very profession it seems to celebrate. 

I should also note that this anecdote (which is based on my memory of a number of segments, I am not referencing a specific one here) is typical in that ‘appraisers’ are usually made to look unscrupulous.  The field of appraising has become increasingly professional over the years in response to situations such as this.  It is wildly unethical for someone to approach an owner as an appraiser and to then offer to purchase or take on consignment a work of art without disclosing that they have switched roles.  An appraiser has a fiduciary duty towards their clients which would not allow them to enter into a different sort of agreement with a client without making them aware of the change.   

Obviously, there were the bad old days when unethical behavior was more commonplace than it is today.  But the field now has strong member organizations that look after the profession.  It is thus unfair that the program more often than not refers to anyone who previously gave a value as an ‘appraiser’.  It may well have been that the person was a dealer.  I may be splitting hairs here, but all of the presenters are experts and should be very precise in the language they use and they should ask the owners to be specific about who exactly it was that gave them a value previously.

My suggestion regarding the various valuations used interchangeably on the Roadshow is that the experts ALWAYS quote marketable cash value…that is, what is the amount that a seller would receive, net of fees and expenses, in an orderly transaction, one that allowed for sufficient time to market the work and so forth.  I suppose the lower numbers might be less compelling on one level.   If they liked, they could then quote the retail or the insurance value so we all understood exactly what the piece was worth, in the expert’s opinion.  I know the program is entertainment, not a public service documentary using real-world examples about how values are arrived at in a USPAP compliant appraisal report.   But it would be more real.  Is not that what the Antiques Roadshow is supposed to be?  

John Tett, “What Happens Behind the Scenes Before an Antiques Roadshow Appraisal?”   AV, March 25, 2014

Bonnie McCarthy “Behind the Scenes at the Antiques Roadshow”  Huffington Post, October 2, 2013