'Antiques Roadshow' drives into the desert*

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Nine years ago, when "Antiques Roadshow" last visited Palm Springs, several of the hopeful treasure hunters were gratified. A Clyfford Still oil painting was appraised at $500,000, a Joseph Stella painting at $250,000, a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot" for $250,000 and two Tiffany lamps for $130,000.

Until this season, "Roadshow's" 21st, no single tour stop had yielded as many items valued in the six figures.

Last summer, "Roadshow" returned to the desert for a long day's taping of what would become three broadcasts that will air on local PBS station KOCE starting Feb. 20. Shortly before the production trucks arrived, Marsha Bemko, the show's executive producer, was happy to bring the 70 crew members here, and not just because of the region's renowned trove of Hollywood memorabilia and midcentury modern furnishings.

"We look forward to being in Palm Springs," she said, "because it's the only convention center in the nation with carpet. I'm praying it's still there."

Although Bemko, who has been affiliated with "Antiques Roadshow" for nearly 20 years, travels in the rarefied world of art and antiques, in conversation she's more earth mother than culture snob. Any regular "Roadshow" viewer understands how a piece of crap can have as much value as a signed Picasso, and Bemko is a big reason why. She's all about the story, not the loot.

When I spoke to Bemko in July, midway through this season's tapings, her favorite treasure so far wasn't particularly valuable ($600), but the tale it told was priceless.

It was brought to Orlando, the first stop. "It's a peach can label," Bemko recalled, "with a letter on the back written by a U.S. soldier in World War I France in September 1918." The writer praised the Laura Brand Lemon Cling Peaches, which cost about $1.26, expensive for the time. The peaches, the GI wrote, "are worth fighting for."

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"Finding a good object is like finding a [winning] lottery ticket," said Bemko, who lives in Boston and, it amuses me to report, is a self-described "season ticket holder" in that city's lottery. "I can't stop now," she admitted, then gracefully segued back to the topic at hand. "But I did hit the lottery today -- we just found out 'Antiques Roadshow' is nominated for our 14th prime-time Emmy."

In 2008, Sam was one of the 5,000-some ticket holders for the Palm Springs "Roadshow." The Pomona College history professor [show producers request that reporters not use surnames of people who appear on the broadcast] was tagging along with a friend who was keen to know if his posters and Native American rugs were worth anything. Sam figured he might as well bring a few pieces of baseball memorabilia he's owned since he was a kid in Hawaii, where his father was an umpire for big league games including the Dodgers.

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"My turn came," he recalled, "and the appraiser [Leila Dunbar] ... looked over the collection and disappeared behind a curtain for what seemed to be a long time -- 10 or 15 minutes." Three hours later, he was being taped as a featured part of the broadcast, with his stuff valued at $6,000 to $10,000, largely because he possessed one of the last photos of Jackie Robinson in a Dodgers uniform, posed with Roy Campanella and Sam's 10-year-old self, signed by both.

Later, Sam's complete collection was appraised for $30,000 to $35,000.

These days, Sam notes, "I'm more famous for [those few minutes on "Roadshow"] than for the three books I've written."

Karl, a 40-year resident of Palm Springs who must live in an enormous house, also attended the 2008 taping. He's a CPA who collects art, guitars, toy trains and soldiers, Civil War memorabilia, flags, guns ... Although he was contacted once by "American Pickers," that show declined to feature his stuff, he said, because it "was too well-organized."

"Roadshow" fans know the value of organization, of provenance. The documents Karl brought from the archive of John E. Wilkie, who was head of the U.S. Secret Service at the turn of the 19th century, appealed to the show's producers. Karl became custodian of the archive, he recounted on the broadcast, when a friend told him, " 'I know you collect things. I have a bunch of old papers. ... If you want them, you can have them. Otherwise, I'm throwing them away.'"

Karl, who can't not collect stuff, looked it over, and when he saw an engraving signed by Teddy Roosevelt, told his friend, "I'll take it."

The lot, including Wilkie's Secret Service badge when he protected President McKinley, was appraised at $10,000. Later, that figure was revised upward, when the badge alone was valued at that amount.

As always, tickets for this year's Palm Springs' "Roadshow" sold out (actually, they're free, but allotted randomly by application; 11,768 people applied for the 3,000 pairs of tickets available in Palm Springs). Approximately 10,000 items were appraised by about 70 experts on that Saturday in August.

I asked Bemko if there was anything about the desert climate people should know regarding their heirlooms. "You are lucky to have dry air in the desert," she replied. "You are unlucky to have dry desert air."

Your degree of luck depends on your heirloom; dry is good for preserving paper (books, documents, some art), but bad for wood, which cracks in arid conditions. Bemko's rule of thumb for preserving the things you love: "Consider whatever it is to be like you -- if you're comfortable [in your environment], it is too."

Items to be appraised are divided by category, and although geography sometimes drives longer lines for certain categories than others (Civil War memorabilia in the South, Native American artifacts in Arizona), generally all 24 are represented at each stop. "Good stuff has feet," Bemko said. "We see the stuff mom said to keep."

At the crowded Palm Springs Convention Center, tribal arts expert John Buxton explained that when an appraiser thinks an object is air-worthy, he or she pitches the story to a staff "picker" without indicating to the owner what the item might be worth. The dollar figure isn't revealed until the end, for maximum TV drama. "It's reality TV," he said. "You want guests to have an unpracticed story and reaction to the value announcement."

Anyone whose object is being considered for its TV close-up is sequestered in a green room while the research is completed and other experts consulted.

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Appraiser Peter Loughery from Los Angeles was a popular fellow in Palm Springs, as his expertise is midcentury modern design. He was standing among some tulip pedestal chairs by Eero Saarinen and a classic glass-and-walnut boomerang coffee table by Adrian Pearsall when another appraiser, Arlie Sulka, walked over to ask his opinion about a filthy glass vase someone had brought. Appraising might be a fine art, but sometimes its tools are rudimentary: Loughery spit on the vase in search of a signature.

One ticket holder, Amy, had traveled here from San Francisco. She has entered the ticket lottery for all 21 years and never scored until now. Last year, however, she traveled to the taping in Little Rock, Ark., where her parents had secured tickets as local PBS boosters. At a pre-taping cocktail party there for donors and volunteers, she watched Bemko's demonstration, and listened to several of the show's appraisers talk about their categories, including Nicholas Lowry, the poster pro who, as any "Roadshow" watcher knows, speaks with authority and dresses like a carnival barker. Amy, an admitted appraiser groupie, loved them all.

In Palm Springs, her 19th-century Japanese kabutowari (sword) had been carried by a soldier who gave it to her husband's grandfather in an act of gratitude for saving a kid from drowning. Or something; it was a convoluted tale. The weapon was valued at $350, but she uses it "to keep my children in line."

I found Libbe from Tujunga in line waiting her turn to be filmed in the "Roadshow's" feedback booth. She has entered the ticket lottery "three or four times," but had gotten lucky only now.

Libbe brought a signed copy of "Dandelion Wine" by Ray Bradbury, along with some of his correspondence. It was appraised at $1,000. Cool, but what I really liked was her earrings. "Seven bucks," she said. "Flea market."

If you watch the Palm Spring "Roadshow" segments later this month, expect Hollywood to appear in the form of Archie Bunker's plaid jacket, and in 2008 encores by Elvis and Marilyn. I'd tell you their stories, but they're still secret. Stay tuned.

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Photos: convention center, peach label, Peter Loughery, Archie Bunker's coat by Meredith Nierman for WGBH, (c) WGBH 2016; Dodger baseball by Jeff Dunn for WGBH, (c) WGBH 2008.

*Added:
local PBS station that airs "Antiques Roadshow"


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