In the eye of the beholders

Judgment day: Thousands lined up to let the `Antiques Roadshow' appraisers take a measure of their treasures.

June 21, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Paul-David Van Atta got in line at the Baltimore Convention Center around 6 a.m. Saturday, lugging a 5-by-3-foot painting he suspected could date back to the 16th century.

Van Atta was just one of the thousands of collectors, speculators and just-plain folks in a line that wrapped around the outside of the convention center one-and- a-half times. All had made the early-morning trek to get a free appraisal of their cherished what-have-yous at PBS' "Antiques Roadshow."

Some, like John and Lydia Phillips, wanted to find out what they had. The Phillipses brought an African-looking figure his grandfather had unearthed at a building site in the '40s. Some just thought that appraisal day would be fun, like Christine Kowal, who carried a desktop thermometer distributed as a promotion for the Charles Engraving Co., once located at 508 N. Eutaw St.

And some, like Van Atta, were hoping for a killing.

"I bought it at an antiques show for $250," said Van Atta, of his painting of Jesus standing before Pilate. Convinced he had gotten something for almost nothing, Van Atta didn't mind the hassle involved lugging the painting from Northern Virginia. "It was really tough getting it here; we had to borrow the neighbor's van, take the hotel shuttle. And I've been propping it here on my shoes pretty much since we got here."

In fact, nobody seems to mind a long wait for the "Antiques Roadshow," that roving band of antiques appraisers who offer their expert opinions for free on what has become one of public television's most-watched shows (it airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on MPT, Channels 22 and 67). The experts pulled into Baltimore Saturday, giving those who landed one of the 6,800 tickets the chance to have two items appraised and possibly be filmed for inclusion on shows from the Baltimore stop, which should air sometime next year.

All were eager to pick the experts' brains. "It's really hard to get to the curators of the museums," said Van Atta, as the line inched forward ever-so-imperceptibly. The one art expert he'd managed to show his painting to recently "was really stumped by it."

Inside the Convention Center, barely managed chaos reigned. Those on the floor faced another huge line before getting their treasures into the appraisers' area.

"That's OK, I kind of expected it," said Martin Goldenberg, a retired government worker who was here with his wife, Sarah. They had brought an old mortar and pestle, a pair of statues and a Javanese kris ("a wavy dagger," he explained) from their home in Gaithersburg.

Another 45 minutes would pass before they reached the experts. First they would have to approach the triage table, where a generalist like Ginnie Farrell would point them toward the appropriate appraisers, whose expertise covered many fields, including toys, timepieces, paintings, memorabilia, jewelry, pottery and porcelain, textiles and a handful of others.

Fortunately, the Goldenbergs were content to be patient.

"I have an idea what this stuff is worth," Martin Goldenberg said from his position at the very back of the triage line. "But I'm really curious as to what they'll tell me."

"The newspaper said to come early, wear comfortable shoes and bring a seat," said Bill Christopher, a retired pressman for The Sun. "They weren't kidding."

Fully half the fun (maybe three- quarters, depending on what your curiosities turn out to be worth) was looking at the stuff everyone else was carrying around.

Judy Smith drove down from Lancaster County, Pa. with an old brown hand fan she'd paid $8 for at a flea market. On one of its folds someone had scrawled, "Kidnap Keet Baby, Springfield, Mo." Smith had found a 15-month old baby of a prominent Springfield family had been kidnapped at the turn of the century. But why someone had made that notation on the fan remains a mystery.

"I'm hoping the Keets will seek me out and are willing to part with some of their big bucks," she said somewhat wistfully.

Anne Mitchell of Annapolis came with her husband, Larry, a hoarder from way back ("Our house is full of a lot of interesting things," she said with an indulgent smile). While he was getting a ring appraised, she was left carrying around a two-foot silver robot advertising Mido self-winding watches.

"I know it came from a gas station in Nebraska," she said fingering the robot's left hand, which had just recently become detached from the rest of its wooden body. (An appraiser later said it could easily be restored and would not seriously affect the robot's value.)

John Margetanski brought a 5- 1/2 foot high African ceremonial object all the way from his home in Endicott, N.Y. There had to be a story behind the huge wooden bird perched atop the shoulders of a female figure less than half its size -- if only someone here could tell him what it was.

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