Show And Tell

Baltimoreans will trade stories for prices on PBS' 'Antiques Roadshow'

June 13, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Next Saturday thousands of people will line up in front of the Baltimore Convention Center, each carrying a treasure.

If the treasure is too large to carry -- an occasional table, say, or a Majolica fountain -- they'll be pulling it in a little red wagon or on a dolly.

Most probably the weather will be brutally hot and humid. But the 6,500 people who get tickets won't care. This will be their chance to be part of the addictively watchable PBS series "Chubb's Antiques Roadshow," in production this summer for its fourth season.

Part carnival, part seminar on antiques and collectibles, the "Roadshow" -- produced by WGBH in Boston -- is the most popular series on public television. "These are the faces of America telling America's stories," says the show's host, Chris Jussel, explaining its popularity. "These are their objects, their treasures, from their basements and attics. No actors are doing a prewritten script. We learn something, and it's entertaining." J. Michael Flanigan, a Baltimore appraiser and antiques dealer who spends part of his summers as a regular on the show, agrees. "It's a cross between the information and education PBS is so good at and `The Price Is Right,'" he says.

Flanigan is a trim, affable man with graying curls and a warm, toothy smile who handles objects in his Bolton Hill home as if they resonate with history -- which they do. Surrounded with the American decorative arts and furniture that are his specialty, Flanigan lives with his wife, Gregory Weidman, furnishings consultant at Hampton Mansion; his two children; and his Jack Russell terriers.

Flanigan, a native Baltimorean, was a history major at Towson University. When he graduated he took a job cleaning and fixing antiques to tide him over the summer. "And here I am," he says with a grin, "Twenty-three years later."

His education continued as he worked for J.W. Berry & Son, a Baltimore antiques firm no longer in business. For seven years he repaired and restored furniture, much of it from museums and historic sites.

In 1985 he became administrator for the Kaufman Americana Foundation, where he helped put together the National Gallery of Art's only exhibit of American decorative arts from a private collection. He's now in business for himself in Baltimore as a dealer in antique American furnishings.

Four years ago a letter came in the mail asking if Flanigan would be interested in being an appraiser on a new show for PBS, modeled after one that had been running in Britain for 20 years. He would have to pay his own way to get to the cities where the show would be in production. "A lot of people brushed them off," Flanigan says. " `We're not interested. No thanks.' But I had the strong feeling that antiques were entering the mainstream and that the show had the potential to tap into the public interest in a way that hadn't been tapped into before."

The first year the crowds usually numbered less than a thousand. For the first show of the second year in Pittsburgh, 7,000 people showed up. Pretty amazing when you consider that "Antiques Roadshow" wasn't aired at any regular time so the series wasn't always easy for viewers to find.

Only 13 shows were taped that first year, but they were so popular, says Flanigan, that PBS bought the British version to supplement them. "Roadshow" now has more than 10 million viewers. "Once it became a big hit," says Flanigan, "They started getting letters from [appraisers and dealers] saying, `So sorry we couldn't participate last year because of scheduling conflicts, but we'd love to this year.' "

Although the "Antiques Roadshow" flows quite seamlessly on the air, the day of filming is, according to Flanigan, controlled chaos.

This season the production crew is trying something new. Starting at 7: 30 a.m., they will be handing out 6,500 first-come, first-serve tickets to three shifts: 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Ticket holders can leave and return when it's their time.

The "Roadshow" process will begin with triage, says Flanigan. When you get inside the Convention Center, a staff member will examine your object and direct you to one of the many stations. Flanigan himself expects to be at a furniture or decorative arts table. About 75 appraisers and dealers will be on staff. They'll give each item a free, non-binding appraisal. "You can bring in two items but people skirt it," says Flanigan. "They'll have another couple in their pocket." All in all, he estimates, the experts will look at some 10,000 objects that day.

If you're wondering how that 9-foot mantel made it on the show, 8 to 10 large pieces are trucked in at each stop. The owners have sent in photographs and descriptions, and the "Roadshow" chooses the most interesting ones. (Baltimore's deadline for submitting requests was March.)

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