Updated: Jan 8, 2019
People came to Pittsburgh from all over the Midwest and East Coast, hoping their treasures would be selected for the Antiques Roadshow segments that will appear February 13, 20 and 27 at 8 p.m. on WQED.
If your house is overflowing with antiques and collectibles gleaned from years of standing in lines at estate sales and auctions and prowling though antique stores and flea markets, perhaps, like me, you’ve conceded there is no room to display one more thing. If so, I’m betting that like my husband and me, you instead get your “fix” by watching The Antiques Roadshow. We tape every episode and often watch two or three at a time, playing a guessing game about how much things are worth. We give ourselves the high five when we are a) right or b) find we own something worth more than we paid for it (which is just about everything except the Persian rugs the cats have destroyed).
So when we heard the Antiques Roadshow was coming to Pittsburgh, I requested press credentials for me and my husband, who sometimes pinch hits as my photographer. The instructions suggested that members of the media bring something to be appraised—that would be the best way to see how the show works. I took a framed drypoint etching of a bird dog I bought for $85 at The Meadows and three framed photos by Luke Swank, a professional photographer who documented Pittsburgh from 1930 to 1944. The black and white photos once belonged to my late aunt, who headed advertising for Spear’s, a downtown department store from 1915 into at least the 1950s. I assume she worked with Swank, and that the photos were a gift.
Through our mtl Facebook page, I tried to find Mt. Lebanon people who were among the 2,000 people selected by lottery from among 20,000 applicants to have their work evaluated by one of the show’s 75 appraisers. No luck. It was a pleasure, then, to arrive at the convention center and find that our media host was none other than Ted Sohier of Barth Avenue—the voice of QED-TV. Like the other 150 volunteers, Ted was wearing a blue “Roadshow” polo shirt and a smile. As he guided us through the huge but orderly crowd, it became clear why there were so few people from Mt. Lebanon. Because the Roadshow was visiting only six cities for the 2012 season, the “chosen ones” had come from all over the Midwest and the East Coast, hauling everything from lamps and silver teapots to kids’ wagons to tall clocks up the escalator to the second floor, where the lights, action and cameras were set up in the center of the room surrounded by several dozen appraisal stations.
“Everything is on the up and up at the Roadshow,” said Sohier, the afternoon operations manager for WQED, where the three Pittsburgh episodes will air on February 13, 20 and 27 at 8 p.m. People who are selected to appear on the show do not learn the value of their items until they are on camera, so their shock and awe is genuine. They are not allowed to sell their items while they are at the Roadshow, nor are appraisers allowed to purchase items at the show (although they may leave their cards at a table somewhere; I never saw it).
When we arrived for the afternoon session, the appraisers had already found some great stuff, Sohier said—a $250,000 painting and one of the finest pieces of 20th century furniture they had ever seen—no value placed on it yet, as it would be taped for the show. Sohier said that it is up to the appraiser who finds an interesting piece to convince the show’s producers that the item (and its owner) are good candidates for the live tapings.
What the producers are looking for, he suggested, is not only an unusual or valuable item, but also “a good story.”
My husband and I took tickets for the “prints” and “photography” lines (you get a ticket for whatever category you’re in—toys, paintings, furniture, sports memorabilia, whatever) and being media, we got “cuts” toward the front of the line. As I waited, I ran into an exuberant Doris McBeth of Neulon Avenue. McBeth, who came to the Roadshow with her friend Mary Ann Kelly, had already gotten an appraisal and was pleased to report that the antique tobacco box she bought for a song many years ago en route to vacation in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, was worth nine times what she paid for it. McBeth was not picked for the show, but she was having a blast.
When my turn came, Peter Loughrey, the photo generalist who “knows a little about a lot” looked at my photos and admitted he didn’t know much about Luke Swank. He asked if I would leave them for half an hour so their photography expert, Daile Kaplan, vice president of New York’s oldest specialty auction house, Swann Auction Galleries, could take a look. While I waited for her, I strolled about chatting with people and admiring things such as a gold guitar (later valued at $8,000), a 1940s “tailor tot” stroller and a papier-mache Boston terrier on a platter. I caught up with my husband/photographer, who was thrilled that the $85 etching he had advised me not to buy was worth between $400 and $600 (I was not that surprised; I had already looked up Walter Edward Bohl online and found the Chicago artist was well known for his nature prints, mainly birds, and had been commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to do a series of stamps in the 1940s).
Returning to the photography table, I was pleased to find that Kaplan knew a lot about Luke Swank. “I’d like you to stay and talk with our producer,” she said, escorting me to the “green room,” which was really just a row of chairs behind a curtain. (I had come to report on the show, not to appear on it, but this turn of events was exciting.) I waited there for about 45 minutes with other contenders, including a guy who maintained he had one of Roberto Clemente’s earliest bats and a train collector and self-described “Antiques Roadshow junkie” from Darnestown, Maryland, who said he had gotten members of his family—his son and his mother-in-law—on the show twice before. This time, he had two 4-by-14-foot Lionel murals, created for a toy department. He had bought them (he didn’t say what he paid) when a Cleveland hobby shop went out of business in 1996 but had documentation that said when they were produced in 1936, they cost $20 apiece.
In between whispered coaching to his daughter, who was slated to be the on-camera personality this go-round, he shared his philosophy on collecting antiques—nothing I hadn’t heard before, but still true: “If you are a collector, you are a caretaker,” he said. “Collect because you like it.”
Finally, the show’s associate producer, Jill Giles, and Kaplan came to talk with me. I told Giles my story—again, revealing that I knew something about Swank, had attended the showing of his work in 1980 at the Carnegie Museum of Art and owned the book written about him by his friend and fellow Pittsburgh photographer, Clyde Hare. “How much do you think the photographs are worth?” Giles asked. “Well, I think they’re at least worth $500 each,” I said. “I would not sell them for $100.” Giles and Kaplan conferred for a few more minutes in private and then Giles told me, “We’ve decided not to put you on the show, but Daile is going to give you an appraisal.” I really wasn’t disappointed. It was getting late.
Kaplan gave me an appraisal—the three signed photographs are worth four times more than I thought—and also shared her knowledge of Swank, who was born in Johnstown in 1890 and worked as a cattle breeder, police dog trainer and a clerk in a hardware store while tinkering with a camera until he became a professional photographer in 1930 at age 40 in Pittsburgh (which explained the connection to my aunt). His career took off in 1932, when he was discovered by prominent New York gallery owner Julien Levy and given a one-man show. He worked for Vogue, House & Garden and for the iconic Frank Crowninshied at Vanity Fair. His work was exhibited at MOMA. He taught at Pitt. He took photographs for the Edgar Kaufmann family, both at the store and at Fallingwater. He chronicled Pittsburgh’s steel industry, its poor neighborhoods, the North Side’s crumbling mansions, our busy rivers. Then he died at 54, after a short career of 14 years.
“Luke Swank clearly was a photographer who considered himself an artist,” Kaplan said. “He could pre-visualize the photograph, take it and print it—and when we evaluate something, it’s not just the image we’re looking at, it’s the way it is printed.”
“I’m glad the photos weren’t worth more,” I told her, “because even though they have some value, it’s not enough to make me want to sell them.”
“You hang on to them,” she said, “because (in this age of digital photography), they’re going to become more valuable.”
So I did, and I’m glad.
Why wasn’t I picked? I think perhaps I knew a little too much about my treasures—perhaps I should have said, “I found these in my Auntie’s attic, and I don’t know what they are; I just like them.” Or maybe because I was a reporter they thought I had borrowed the photos in an effort to get on the show—after all, there’s no way they could verify they actually belonged to me. Or, as my husband suggested, it’s likely the black and white photos wouldn’t have shown up very well on TV. Or maybe they just didn’t like me. Oh, well, it was all in a (great) day’s work.