Jewelry Appraisers Take Their Show on the Road

What motivates people to poke through every nook and cranny of their closets, root through jewelry boxes, rise at dawn, and drive hundreds of miles to stand in lines for hours? The answer can be assessed weekly on the “Antiques Road Show,” the widely viewed TV program now in its fourth season on PBS.

The “Antiques Road Show” is part adventure, part history lesson, part treasure hunt. Jewelry specialists from the country’s leading auction houses—Butterfield & Butterfield, Christie’s, William Doyle Galleries, Skinner Gallery, Phillips Auctioneers, Sotheby’s—together with independent jewelry appraisers travel to U.S. cities offering free appraisals of antiques and collectibles. The 11-week tour covers 22,000 miles and attracts some 60,000 visitors. Each week, viewers watch as jewelry owners discover the history and worth of family heirlooms and bargains picked up at yard sales and flea markets. The show has enlivened the antique and estate jewelry market perhaps more than any other development in the last decade.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes examination of how the “Road Show” works as well as some ideas for perking up your estate department “Road Show”-style.

“Where the magic begins.” “Road Show” events have a festival atmosphere. “Picture in your mind a sea of people, averaging up to 6,000 to 7,000,” says jewelry appraiser Barry Weber, president of the antique jewelry firm Edith Weber and Associates in New York. “Now imagine these folks milling about, carrying every kind of item conceivable. Americans hate standing in a queue, but this is where the ‘Road Show’ magic begins.” Visitors strike up conversations as they compare each other’s items. Says Weber, “In a few moments the whole room is reverberating with thousands of friendly exchanges while people examine each other’s treasures. The usual chore of waiting in line is transformed into a huge show-and-tell, an event in and of itself.”

There’s an element of suspense, as well. “The emotional factor for some participants in the ‘Antiques Road Show’ can be compared with winning the lottery,” Weber says. “Many people’s expectations soar, hoping that a long-forgotten antique ring or pendant may be appraised for thousands of dollars or found to hold important historical significance.”

Sometimes those hopes are realized. Friends of a Richmond, Va., woman used to tease her about her “tacky costume jewelry.” She herself had no idea of its real worth. But the dazzling art deco collection—necklace, bracelet, and ring fashioned from platinum, diamonds, and Burma rubies—got a more appreciative reception from jewelry appraiser Berj Zavian of William Doyle Galleries in New York. He valued the collection at $257,000. “Now,” the owner said with a giggle, “my friends will stop making comments about my ‘tacky jewelry.’ ”

Heirloom jewelry that appears on the “Antiques Road Show” often carries historical significance. “On an earlier show, I appraised a gold nugget bracelet that turned out to be a rare souvenir of the Australian Gold Rush in the 1850s,” says Weber. “The owner had inherited it and had no idea of its value: well over $10,000.”

On one program, a young man told a spellbinding tale of how his aunt survived a Nazi concentration camp by singing opera arias to her captors. During her time there, she met a jeweler who taught her about precious stones and fine jewelry and advised her to invest in such objects. Years afterward she purchased a Victorian archeological bracelet, which her nephew would later bring to a “Road Show” event. Joyce Jonas, director of the Antique and Period Jewelry & Gemstone Course in Providence, R.I., advised him on how to dispose of the bracelet, which sold for $10,000.

“I am amazed at the vast array of jewelry people own in this country,” says Jonas. “One of my most cherished moments with the ‘Antiques Road Show’ involved the appraisal of a silver-and-enamel charm bracelet circa 1940 with 75 attached charms relating to World War II. They depicted boats, planes, and various elements of the war effort, each engraved with a date and place of origin. I could relate to this bracelet because I was a young girl during the war and could connect to my own father’s war experience.”

A Kentucky family visited the “Road Show” in Louisville after discovering a ring in their recently deceased father’s freezer. “While removing the contents of the freezer, the son noticed a man’s woolen sock frozen solid and rolled up in a remote corner underneath a pile of vegetables,” says Virginia Salem, a jewelry specialist with Phillips Auctioneers in New York. “After it thawed, the sock was carefully unrolled, revealing an art deco platinum-and-diamond ring. Curious about their find, the family brought the ring to me for evaluation.” Salem valued the ring between $8,000 and $10,000. “The family was flabbergasted,” Salem says. “The ring was later sold, producing a nice nest-egg for this family of rather modest means.”

Of course, the “Antiques Road Show” isn’t always about people jumping for joy after discovering they have a valuable heirloom. “Not every item folks bring to our appraisers is expensive, but even modest cameos or pocket watches receive the necessary attention, educating the participants as to what they possess regardless of its value,” says the program’s executive producer, Aida Moreno. “An object worth thousands of dollars is certainly an attention-getter and may be newsworthy. But a captivating story and the ultimate reaction of the owner when the jewelry appraisers educate them about what they have is the true strength of the show.”

Fabulous fakes. Sometimes visitors hear disappointing news. That was the case with one woman who presented a jewel-encrusted brooch to Weber at a “Road Show” event in Phoenix.

“As I opened the box, a fellow jewelry appraiser sitting next to me stared at the object and gasped,” says Weber. “Inside was a magnificent dragonfly brooch set with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and transparent enamel in the art nouveau style. The woman said that her husband paid a princely amount for the brooch many years ago at an auction. Although all of the jewelry experts’ first impression was that it must be highly valuable, upon further examination I determined the object was a truly fabulous fake. There were a number of subtle clues involving patina, condition, and construction which led me to conclude that it was contemporary to the time it was purchased but carefully manufactured in the exact style of the late 19th-century master jewelers. Although not as valuable as a signed Lalique, the evolution of the story, the appraisal of the item, and the ultimate reaction of the owner made a great TV segment.”

Gloria Lieberman, a jewelry specialist with the Skinner Gallery in Boston, was the bearer of bad news for a California couple who were the proud owners of an impressive emerald-and-diamond ring purchased from a jeweler friend. “The ring was magnificent upon first inspection,” says Lieberman. “But my gut told me something about it was not quite correct the longer I looked at it. I inspected the side view of the ring carefully and realized it was a ‘marriage’ comprising a single link borrowed from a bracelet that was fashioned into a ring. This was the last thing the couple wanted to hear, as their reaction went from perplexed to downright angry. They were so angry, they stomped off, not wanting to appear on television.”

Create your own jewelry appraisal day. The Antiques Road Show has sent folks scurrying to their safe deposit boxes and jewelry boxes, curious about what their heirloom jewelry is and what it’s worth. “It’s legitimized the whole process of letting people look at their jewelry,” says Lieberman. “Many were reluctant to show their heirloom jewels because they were under the impression they would feel pressured to consign or sell them.”

Why not take advantage of this phenomenon by staging a free heirloom jewelry evaluation day? Several auction houses already hold such events. Phillips has a program called Phillips in Your Area, while Skinner stages what it calls an Heirloom Discovery Day. For nearly 10 years, innovative Maine estate jeweler and antiques auctioneer Kaja Veilleux has been offering a free appraisal day every Thursday in his period-decorated gallery. “I have offered this free service to the public, and it has been the best way to meet new clients,” says Veilleux. The idea has benefited the gallery by giving Veilleux the opportunity to purchase and receive consignments for sale, and it provides “goodwill and service to our community,” he says. Vellieux gets an average of 50 to 60 clients a day when he offers the service; 55% to 60% of these are for jewelry.

Program host Chris Jussel is fond of saying, “We hope to see you on the ‘Antiques Road Show’ when we visit your city.” In the meantime, tune in on Mondays to what has become one of the most exciting shows on TV and watch for the jewelry-appraisal segments. You can also visit the show’s Web site at www.pbs.org/antiques. The interactive site includes information about upcoming programs and featured appraisers; an “Appraise It Yourself” contest enabling visitors to test their own appraisal skills; tips of the trade from experts featured on the show; a “Frequently Asked Questions” section; and stories from the road.

Peter J. Theriault, G.G., FGA, is an independent gemologist-jewelry appraiser and freelance jewelry correspondent for several antiques and jewelry trade magazines. He also publishes Antique Jewelry Times Online, a cybermagazine devoted to antique jewelry and vintage timepieces at www.antiquejewelrytimes.com.

Boost Your Estate Department, ‘Antiques Road Show’-Style

  • Host a periodic Heirloom Jewelry Evaluation Day in your store.

  • Videotape willing participants having their jewelry evaluated and play the tape continuously in your estate jewelry department.

  • Host a special heirloom jewelry show on your local public cable access channel.

  • Find a worthy charity in your community. Host an appraisal day in your store, charge a modest fee for each item evaluated, and donate the proceeds to the charity.

  • Conduct antique jewelry seminars in your store. Invite the participants to bring up to three heirloom jewelry items for evaluation to share with the group.

  • Invite your community’s historical society to establish a permanent but rotating exhibit of jewelry worn by residents of yesteryear. Since jewelry is becoming more accepted as a decorative art form by museums, this will encourage benefactors to donate jewelry of local historical significance to the organization. You can act as the jewelry expert.