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Staving Off ‘Roadshow’ Scandal

Eric J. Plosky

Most of us have heard stories of the lucky guy who found an original, mint-condition G.I. Joe in his attic (or of the poor schmuck whose mother unwittingly threw out a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card). It’s exciting to think that thousands of dollars may lurk somewhere in our piles of old crap.

Enter “Antiques Roadshow.”

As is well known by now, the popular PBS series travels the country with a passel of antiques appraisers in tow, evaluating on the spot trinkets ranging from Tiffany jewelry to ancient Chinese pottery. There’s a certain level of excitement in watching a bow-tied expert describe in detail the history of some knickknack, some significant entertainment in watching a frowsy Midwesterner leaning over the table, waiting to hear the final analysis. Will the alleged Steiff teddy bear turn out to be the real thing, or a cheap knock-off? Is it worth a hundred dollars? A thousand? Ten thousand?

One famous segment involved a rather nondescript sword brought onto the show in 1997. The owner claimed to have used it, in his youth, to slice watermelons. Appraiser George Juno excitedly declared the sword a remarkable Civil War find worth $35,000, and instructed the bewildered owner to handle it in the future only while wearing white gloves. This was classic “Roadshow” -- an unassuming piece of rust, brought in by an owner who figured “What the hell; guess I’ll see if this is worth anything,” turns out to be a portable Brinks truck.

Trouble is, that quintessential segment was faked. The Boston Herald recently investigated; turns out, the appraiser had orchestrated the entire appraisal. This wasn’t Joe Q. Public stumbling onto an attic goldmine; this was a scheme by a businessman to cook up some free publicity for himself.

Bang goes the myth of “Roadshow”? Is the Juno incident tantamount to the “Twenty One” game-show scandal of the 1950s, which revealed that contestants had been prepped in advance?

It seems valid to compare “Roadshow” to game shows; both depend upon the notion that viewers can see themselves in the chair, ultimately walking away with vast quantities of cash. In many ways, “Roadshow” is even more appealing than ABC’s hit Regis Philbin show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” --though “Millionaire’s” questions are mostly moronic, it still seems inaccessible to viewers who may nonetheless watch an episode of “Roadshow” and then eye the family heirloom in the china cabinet.

When the curtain is unexpectedly drawn back, and the magic-making proved false, there would seem little reason to continue watching the show. Motivated to keep its hit alive, and prodded by an embarrassed sponsor, the Public Broadcasting Service soon moved to declare the sword incident an anomaly; PBS severed its contact with appraiser Juno, and went as far as to edit his appearances out of videotapes and reruns. “[We are] committed to protecting the reputation of ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and maintaining the trust of viewers, public TV stations and funders,” said Peter McGhee, an executive at Boston-based station WGBH, which produces “Roadshow.”

Can we believe him? Just last week, the Herald reported that WGBH had pulled another segment; this one, due to be aired soon, involved a 17th-century Milanese helmet supposedly worth $250,000. A general “Roadshow” crackdown is now underway to make sure that the Grover Cleveland correspondence and cast-iron 1890s penny banks brought on the show really are hidden treasures, not publicity stunts.

I hope PBS is able to pull “Roadshow” from scandal quicksand. After all, I’m only watching to see if any of my old crap might be worth thousands. If some rube from Dullsville can trot out a dusty old chair that turns out to be worth ten grand, there’s hope in all our attics.