Maureen Stanton’s new book, “Killer Stuff And Tons Of Money,” examines the inner workings of flea markets and the antiques circuit. Stanton also takes a close look at the venerable swap meet and flea item reality show, “Antiques Roadshow.” In the following excerpt from her book, she describes the not-for-broadcast underbelly of the program, telling the story of what happens to the people who do not get a big payoff on national television. Stanton also spoke at length with FleaMarketZone.com in a previous interview about the flea market business in general as well as about reality television trends.
While the chosen few hit pay dirt on “Antiques Roadshow,” for the majority, the experience seems anticlimactic, a dud date. Many guests were no longer “happy as clams.” After driving from all points in Pennsylvania and beyond, carting their objects for blocks, waiting two hours, they finally make it to the appraiser, who, 99 percent of the time, dispatches a cursory summary. Some guests leave immediately, but others stand around stunned, a bit dazed. It’s over so quickly, and they did not “get rich” on “Roadshow.” For these folks, there is the consolation prize: the “Feedback Booth,” a sort of post-traumatic debriefing station, a “last-ditch effort to get on TV,” [publicist Judy] Matthews says. The Feedback Booth looks like a beach changing tent, a small curtained area away from the main set. People step inside and position themselves in front of a little peephole that frames them. They have ten seconds to audition for a cameo. Anyone leaving the appraisal area can stop by the Feedback Booth, and as the day progresses the line grows long. “We get hundreds of these,” Matthews says.
A guy wearing a Civil War hat and carrying two handguns poses them across his chest. A woman steps in with her porcelain pot, worth very little, asks the camera guys, “Should I do a Vanna?” One of the two camera technicians, local contractors, gives her the signal, and the woman says, “Our item wasn’t worth very much, but we had fun anyway.” The other camera tech — out of the view of the people being filmed — cracks up. “The people with the big money are all happy, the others are all frowning. ‘Yeah, we had fun anyway. Yeah, we drove four hours and stood in line for another two and this thing is worth fifty cents, but we had fun anyway.’ ” The camera guys position and tape more people, joking all the while. “Yeah, the stuff is worth ‘sentimental value.’ ”
A fiftyish, well-appointed woman stands in line for the Feedback Booth with her genuine whalebone lampshade, which looks like a birdcage made of bone, or an elaborate corset. The appraiser told her nobody collected those anymore, but she didn’t believe him. She tells me that one of these lampshades “sold for $40,000, and here it was appraised at $4,000.” I say, “That’s not bad,” and she says, “But it’s not $40,000!” I ask her how much she paid for the lampshade. “Nothing,” she says. She’d hauled it out of a trash can. The bitter woman lines up for the Feedback Booth, following a man who holds up a calendar from the desk of Fidel Castro, valued at $1,500. “Any minute now this could be worth a whole lot more,” he says.
When I ask Judy Matthews if she thinks most of the people are disappointed with the “Antiques Roadshow” experience, she says, “They don’t seem to mind. It’s like everyone was toking up before they got here.” Certainly at least a few people are still clam-happy. In one Feedback Booth cameo in 2007, a woman gushed, “This is our lifetime dream. I’ve waited ten years to come to ‘Antiques Roadshow.’ ” Perhaps Matthews is right; perhaps the disappointment I sense is my own; I expected to witness a transformation like at Lourdes, an exaltation. But as appraiser J. Garrison Stradling said of the “Roadshow” when I saw him at York, “You see an awful lot of crap.”
An even cheesier final hurrah for disappointed guests is the “Wheel of Fortune” by the exit doors. The show’s sponsor, Liberty Mutual, has set up the wheel to give away promotional items. It’s surprising (or maybe not) how many people (including me) stand in line to spin the wheel — a winner every time! — to get a Liberty Mutual T-shirt, chip clip, pen, mug, the most craptacular of advertising garbage, the very antithesis of antiques, but in the end, something for nothing.
Credits, with thanks: Excerpted with permission granted by Stephanie Gilardi of The Penguin Press. Photos of a feedback booth and of ladies on line at a show taping by Sarah Rose on Flickr.