Is it real or fake? How much is it worth? Could you own something just as surprisingly valuable? These questions keep Antiques Roadshow viewers coming back for more week after week. The show, which portrays professional appraisals of people’s random antiques, has been running in the United States since it spun off from a similar British series in 1997. Slow in pace and sometimes boring in subject matter, it’s nonetheless a sleeper hit, garnering 8.5 million viewers a week and constituting one of public television’s largest audiences. But what’s so seductive about watching someone else show off their knickknacks? For popular culture scholar Dennis Hall, the answer is simple: The show’s “rites of appraisal” are almost religious.
Think of it: A “supplicant” (the person with the antique) approaches an oracular authority figure (the appraiser) in search of an answer (a value for their object). Meanwhile, says Hall, the audience watches voyeuristically as the show’s subjects undertake a series of familiar ritual movements.
There’s the initial interview, in which the appraiser asks about the object’s story and the supplicant’s attachment to the object, centering the supplicant and their personal experiences. Then, appraisers bring life to, or “anatomize,” the object, discussing its age and characteristics and comparing it to others like it.
Then there’s the appraisal itself. For Hall, it can go down one of two ways: Either a supplicant doesn’t know if it has any kind of value—isn’t well versed enough in the faith of antiques insiders to realize an item’s potential—and is then pleasantly surprised by its worth. Or, they think they know how much it’s worth and are either validated or revealed to be ignorant.
“This third move is central to Roadshow’s ritual character, for all of these declarations, of course, must be taken on faith, because the only genuine test of market value is to sell something,” Hall writes. The confident supplicant’s faith is confirmed, or their status as a true believer is shown to be questionable.
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Fourth, the appraiser delivers what Hall calls an “anticlimactic commentary on the significance of the evaluation”—the dreaded “It’s a beautiful piece” that seems tacked on to every interaction. Then, the final ritual—the naming of the object, along with its value, on the screen below the action—seals the interaction.
For Hall, this complex ritual helps prop up the antique market’s sense of its own importance. Viewers who don’t understand the market for, say, Art Deco jewelry or eighteenth-century folk paintings aren’t clued into the social and historical factors that give antiques their perceived value. The show educates the public on value while adding value to its objects by underscoring their personal significance and their potential selling price.
The ritual is enacted countless times on the crowded convention center floor. Week after week audiences tune in to find out if that Tiffany vase is a disappointing fake or that seemingly worthless hunk of metal is really a Roman relic. And every time someone purchases something intriguing at a garage sale or thrift store, they create more supplicants for the spectacle.