In a crowded plaza outside the NC Museum of Art, a middle-aged man named Nathan pulls out yellowed papers, diagrams, and other memorabilia from World War II, one piece of history at a time. 

“This fellow was an author,” Nathan tells the antiques appraiser in front of him, explaining the origin of a typewritten report. “He was at Guadalcanal during the third battle, on the USS Sterett.” 

The appraiser, sitting at a table with a distinctive blue tablecloth, carefully leafs through the report and then, setting it aside, unfolds a detailed diagram of the ship. The technical drawing is of the damage the ship took during battle, he explains.

“You can see all the different hits, where the mast was broken,” the appraiser says. “They were doing a forensic study of the battle, like you would do in a robbery today.”

Nathan is one of the thousands of people who gathered in Raleigh earlier this month for the Antiques Roadshow, each hoping to find out the value of their knickknacks, collectibles, and attic antiques. The long-running PBS program brings experts from city to city to assess everything from Victorian-age books to 1960s movie posters. 

“There are always surprises,” says collectibles appraiser Travis Landry. “When we were back in Arizona, a volunteer we’ve been working with [came up] and laid out her collection of Magic the Gathering cards. I’m like, ‘You were standing next to me all day and you’re just going to tell me now you got this Beta set?’ You never know what you’re going to come across.”

Solving a mystery 

When it comes to assessing the value of antiques, appraisers look for different things. Landry, who specializes in pop culture items like comic books, trading cards, and video games, has to know a little bit about everything to be able to navigate the broad category of collectibles. 

“You might not know specifically what something is right off the bat, but you look for clues, play detective,” he says. “It’s like being a doctor. You have to make your diagnosis. And depending on what the item is, you have to look at it from a different lens.”

Still, there are a few factors most appraisers seem to consider. First, they have to determine if the item they’re looking at is real or fake. Is it a genuine oil painting or a photographic print? Was it actually made in the 1920s or is it a replica? It’s amazing what they can tell from small details, pinpointing the origin based on whether a doll is made from plastic or porcelain, or how a book is bound. 

One PBS volunteer, Drew, brought in a cast-iron fire engine for an appraisal on behalf of a 93-year-old donor. Unfortunately, it wasn’t worth much. According to the appraiser, the toy was a reproduction. In the old days, he says, iron was cast in sand, so the high grain pattern on the toy shows it was made more recently. 

In appraisal, the condition is also important—if a piece of furniture is chipped and deteriorating, it’s less valuable than if it was in mint condition. Finally, the market matters, says painting appraiser Eric Hanks. 

“It’s like anything else, tastes change. Somebody gets recognition and never got it before, and so that boosts their market. A lot of factors can play in,” Hanks says. “[Recently], somebody brought [a painting] from Austria. Their dad was in Europe and brought it back. When I did a little background research … 99 percent of the auction results were in Vienna. So in that case, the relevant market is actually back overseas.”

On the road(show)

This month’s event marks the second time the Antiques Roadshow has come to Raleigh and its fourth time in North Carolina. Roadshow staff spend a full year preparing for their summer of travel, during which they visit five cities across the country, says executive producer Marsha Bemko. 

Each stop is an all-day event, with thousands of locals coming to get their antiques appraised and hundreds of volunteers and staff managing the guests and the cameras. Roadshow staff leave with hours of video footage, which then takes another 12 months to edit into 15 one-hour shows, Bemko says. The episodes featuring Raleigh are expected to premiere in the spring of 2024.

The show is known for springing surprises on people, capturing their genuine reactions to learning an antique they picked up at a yard sale may be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Those moments are engaging, but there’s something about the Roadshow that Bemko treasures even more, she says. 

“My favorite thing is the stories we learn. They come from everyman. We all care about the same things,” Bemko says. “In this world today, we need to remember [that]. We need to respect and appreciate each other’s differences. What you’re seeing here today is humanity, liking each other. All ages, all colors, all religions, all political persuasions.”

Humanity was certainly on full display at the Raleigh roadshow. People from across the state flocked to the art museum with films, furniture, and even Furbies. Items came in all shapes and sizes, from large mystery antiques lugged in on handcarts to smaller relics wrapped in blankets and beach towels. 

It was quickly evident that every person there had a story. Anne and Richard, an elderly married couple from Pittsboro, came in part to get an antique doll of Queen Elizabeth appraised.

“My grandmother gave me this 65 years ago,” Anne says. “I’ve always been an admirer of the Queen. I wrote her a letter. She didn’t write me back, but her lady-in-waiting wrote me back for the Queen.”

The couple also brought an antique cylinder phonograph, an ancestor of the record player. The device was passed down from Anne’s grandfather to her father and eventually to Anne’s son. The horn itself is beautifully painted. During the event, the couple learns it dates back to the 1800s. Together, the items are worth almost $1,000, but Anne says they plan to keep both in the family. 

Another guest, Dottie, says she also plans to hold on to a family heirloom: a beautiful diamond-and-pearl brooch that once belonged to her great-grandmother. The piece was valuable enough to make it in front of the cameras, but that wasn’t a surprise, Dottie says. Although the brooch is small, most people have never laid eyes on something with that many genuine jewels, not to mention the large natural pearl. 

“I was curious to what [the appraiser’s] reaction would be, and I got just the reaction I thought I would,” Dottie says with a laugh. “It’s pretty startling. I’m very honored that it was in my family and that somebody was good enough not to sell it.”

The brooch likely dates back to 1910 or 1915, Dottie learns, when her great-grandparents lived in New York City. They were socialites, she adds. Seeing the brooch, and hearing Dottie’s family history, it’s easy to envision a young couple living a life of glitter and glam in the roaring ’20s. Even the few small details Dottie has about the brooch paint a vivid picture. 

That’s the beauty of the Antiques Roadshow: Not the antiques but the history behind them. Holding a piece of something from a place and time that has long since passed. And, finally, hearing the stories of neighbors and friends. 

“You get really emotional with these people and their things,” Bemko says. “I already cried with a guest today. And he has a great story. I mean, ultimately we watch the show for these great stories.”

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