Amid the throng who came to the Baltimore Convention Center on June 16 clutching faded paintings, ratty old rugs and enough flintlocks, muskets, cutlasses and sabers to stage a coup, was Gary and his Shot Tower.
Not the actual Shot Tower, the one at the foot of the Jones Falls next to the police station. That one is still there until Mercy Medical Center needs to expand or an additional prayer garden is required by the archdiocese. Gary was toting a replica of the Shot Tower, a 7-foot model that came out of the Peale Museum in 1980.
“They were going to throw it away,” says Gary, who is an electrician in Jarrettsville. Worse than that, the museum’s supervisor was going to saw it in half and let his kids play with it in a sandbox. Gary could not let that happen.
“So I’ve been dragging it around for nearly 30 years,” he says. “It’s like carrying a log.”
On that bright June morning, Gary and his Shot Tower, which he hauls around strapped to a handcart, came to the Baltimore stop of the “Antiques Roadshow” seeking guidance. “I never really knew where to take it,” he says. “Maybe someone will make me an offer I can’t refuse.”
With a weekly viewing audience as high as 10 million, the “Antiques Roadshow” is the most popular program in the history of public broadcasting (Louis Rukeyser is now rolling over in his grave). It appeals to something every American understands— Rukeyser did— something special in the national fiber. Raw greed. In the secret heart of every American is the dream that something in the cellar, the attic or garage is worth vast millions. OK, maybe not millions, but thousands, right?
Those who showed up at the Convention Center that day included everyone from elderly black ladies from the New Shiloh Baptist Church to bikers— Norman Rockwell meets Diane Arbus. All of them watch the show with religious fervor. All of them believed they had something priceless. And all wanted to be on TV. They can’t really be called viewers— they were pilgrims come to the shrine as if to Lourdes or Fatima or Santiago de Compostela. They have a fealty to the “Antiques Roadshow” that is part Amway, part Unification Church.
They had been lucky enough to win a ticket in a raffle, or they’d made a donation to Maryland Public Broadcasting and received a ticket in the mail. This entitled them to stand in line for a period of time not dissimilar to that required to see the pope or Barry Manilow. Entry is by timed ticket only. It’s like going to see King Tut at the Met.
The mob snaked its way through the lower recesses of the Convention Center, waiting patiently for an appraisal scout to perform the quickie appraisal that would assign each to one of some two dozen categories ranging from tribal art to silver to dolls to musical instruments.
Then the pilgrims waited in another line to come face to face with someone who might know something about whatever they were clutching. The appraisers, some of the most respected dealers in the country, are volunteers and about 70 turn up for each show. Most of them were tactful and kind— even the icy Upper East Side women wearing half-glasses who looked like characters in William Hamilton cartoons. But nearly 7,000 pilgrims in nine hours is a lot of “hidden treasures” and so the appraisals could be quick and savage, a bit like Ellis Island. Many appraisers were not reluctant to say they had no idea what the hell that thing Cousin Joe brought back from New Guinea after World War II was. Maybe a shrunken head?
Pilgrims who did not like what they heard pleaded their cases. “You can’t tell me Peggy Lee is not valuable.” “We had to bribe a guy to get this out of the country.” “There is only one of these.” “The only place you’ll see this is at the Smithsonian.”
One need not be an aesthete to realize that most of these “treasures” should remain hidden (and will)— Star Wars posters, oil paintings of clowns with sad faces on black velvet and swords said to have been carried by someone’s great-great-grandpa at Shiloh. (Not!) Not to mention a deep sea diving helmet; a giant, carved wooden head from the Pacific Northwest that the appraisers seemed unsure of; and an 1897 eye examination machine picked up at a Pennsylvania yard sale for only $75 by a couple from Catonsville. One guy thought he had a Stradivarius. His old violin looked like it had been in a bar fight. As it turned out it may have, though the bar was probably in Old Highlandtown— not in Old Vienna. Value? About $100.
Next January, the 12th annual “Antiques Roadshow” will feature three installments from Charm City, the second time the show has broadcast from Baltimore. Did Gary from Jarrettsville make the cut? What about the couple from Catonsville with the eye exam machine? The giant, wooden head from the Pacific Northwest? I won’t spoil it for you. Consult your local listings.