Treasure: Behind the scenes at America’s favorite treasure hunt
Best-laid plans. That’s what I was thinking as I waited for the "Antiques Roadshow" producers to decide if the item I had brought was worth further examination.
As one of the many members of the media covering the PBS’ hit show at its June 14 Meadow Brook stop, I had been encouraged to bring along an item or two for appraisal so I could get the “full 'Roadshow' experience.” I thought that I could spend the two hours allotted to me ('Roadshow' has strict rules) and get back to my desk in time to write the results for the following week’s column.
Never did I expect that to include waiting on the sidelines for an additional two hours for a producer to decide my fate. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes, read on.
Unlike many of the hundreds of people waiting around under the sunny skies in front of and behind the elegant Meadow Brook estate, I really wasn’t interested in ending up on television. I had covered the last visit at Cobo Hall in 2013, and was happy enough to see myself in the background during a Detroit appraisal. My goal for the visit was just to give readers who couldn’t score a ticket an insider’s view of what it was like to be one of the chosen few. I also planned to watch what everyone was bringing, soak up a little atmosphere and do some quality people-watching. A longtime collector, I definitely find that a big part of the fun.
For security reasons, 'Roadshow' rules prohibit writers from using anyone’s last names or cities. The investigative journalist in me wanted to stop people and get the stories behind their fascinating objects – including one woman and her two sons who brought both a 19th-century bidet, some jewelry and an unusual African tribal headdress.
I, on the other hand, brought two pieces of Pewabic I picked up at church rummage sale (watch for that appraisal in the future) and a vintage gown I bought at a Grosse Pointe Park estate sale last year. I had seen similar designs in museum collections, and wondered if I could possibly have stumbled on the real thing.
Tents surrounding the historic estate were labeled with different specialties. I was led to the rugs and textiles tables, where I pulled the purple pleated gown out of my bag. Chicago-based appraiser Deborah Miller of Deborah Miller Appraisals did a bit of a double take as she asked me how and where I had acquired it.
I explained that I had bought it at a Grosse Pointe Park estate sale, where I found it in a heap in the basement with other vintage clothing. I was more than happy to pay the $8 price tag. The plan was to give it to my daughter who was studying costume design and was also a vintage clothing fan.
Miller asked me if I minded if she consulted with a colleague. She ducked behind the tent, where together I could see them closely examining the seams and small beads that marked the shoulder area. She then came back and asked me if I could wait while she talked to a few other people. They asked me to tuck the dress back in my bag, not to show it to many people, and wait for a producer.
And wait I did. And wait. And wait. On the plus side: it gave me plenty of time to people watch and talk to other collectors, even if I couldn’t share their names or stories. There was Joan, from Washtenaw County, who brought the 19th century bidet, which she keeps in her living room (“My grandchildren throw their coats on it,” she said with a laugh). She brought her sons Neil, from Oakland County, and Fred, from Wayne, who took turns carrying and wearing the tribal headdress from Nigeria that they had inherited from their dad, who once owned an Ann Arbor gallery. Their father had been offered $15,000 for it years ago, but Roadshow appraised it at just $1,500. “We thought we were going to retire in style,” they joked. “They said if someone offers you $5,000, take it.”
I passed the time chatting with fellow collectors and watching as people went by toting their treasures – some wrapped in IKEA bags and duct tape, others balanced precariously on walkers and strollers. I saw plenty of trash, but also a surprising amount of treasure – enough to make me look forward to when the Detroit episodes air in 2019.
Before I knew it, Deborah came back with one of many producers working behind the scenes. He asked to see the dress. “I’m sorry you had to wait so long,” he said. “Here’s the problem: We had someone bring in a similar dress when we taped in San Diego recently and I need to find out exactly how similar your dress is to that.” He walked away, only to spend a few minutes consulting with his computer.
In the end, it was too similar. “We don’t want to have the same story so close,” he informed me. Rather than give me my appraisal on the air – that’s how you ensure that famous "Roadshow" a-ha moment – Deborah then told me what I’d been waiting to find out since arriving four hours earlier.
Yes, my eggplant-colored dress was a real Fortuny. “It’s really quite lovely,” Miller said. “And it is rare, a very uncommon color, which would make it worth more.”
She went on to fill me in on Fortuny, aka Mariano Fortuny, who she called “one of the most important fashion designers of the 20th century.” The Spanish-born artist and designer was active in Italy, and known for his beautiful textiles and unstructured garments.
My dress, she went on to say, was an example of his signature design known as a “Delphos” dress, which was inspired by classic Greek gowns. Fortuny lived in Venice and was the son of an important painter; his wife was a dressmaker. Their goal was to revolutionize clothing and change the way women dressed.
Their studio opened in 1906. Pleating was done by hand and still hasn’t been replicated. The beads at the shoulder are Murano glass. The “Delphos” is one of their earlier designs, and the body-hugging style quickly became a favorite of women who were members of the avant-garde, Miller says. “Dancers, artists, society women and others who didn’t mind pushing the envelope wore this type of dress,” she added.
Because my Delphos was an unusual color (most are black), a perfect example would bring an astonishing $12,000-$14,000 she said. Unfortunately for me, my dress wasn’t in perfect condition. There were small brown stains and a few slits in the fine silk pleats, which brought the value down to $2,000-$3,000. Still, not bad for an $8 estate sale purchase.
Miller also taught me how to store it (twisted like a towel and curled in a ball), and where I might donate it if I was considering that (I was).
“This is the kind of piece that every teaching museum should have in their collection,” she told me. “The color is the real draw here,” she said.
At the end of her appraisal, she paused to revise her estimate after thinking about it a little more. “Actually, if this was in excellent condition, I could see it bringing up to $18,000 at auction.”
That information and the exciting “Roadshow Experience” was well worth the wait -- even if I didn’t end up on television.
Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to firstname.lastname@example.org. If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.