When the American version of “Antiques Roadshow” debuted in 1997, no one could have predicted how popular it would become. Granted, the British version of the show had been airing in Great Britain since 1979, but who could have predicted the American issue’s impact on American culture? The popular sit-coms, “Frasier” and “Will and Grace” are only two primetime shows that featured some version of the show. On top of that, there were a slew of similar shows on cable television for a few years after it debuted but none of them lasted or caught on to the same degree as “Roadshow.”
Cable shows like “Pawn Stars” and “Hardcore Pawn” may owe their existence to “Antiques Roadshow,” but they are shamelessly staged “reality” shows designed to entertain. Any enlightenment that comes with them is incidental to their amusement value.
But local broadcast veterans Margie O’Brien and Michael Rossi firmly believe that the public could and should know more about antiques, not just as commodities but also more as a calling for the dealers and collectors they will be featuring on “Antiques Alley,” which premiered last week on Rhode Island PBS.
More importantly, they hope to discourage people from considering themselves experts long before they are experts so that they can avoid paying real money for fakes and replicas.
“As they say, ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,’” said Rossi, a veteran news photographer for local stations who also owns an antique store. “And there are plenty of people out there who are willing to exploit that ‘little knowledge’ and take advantage of people … Everyone has heard those stories about yard sales where people made lots of money from things they paid very little for. But the truth is, the people who make out at yard sales are the people who have a lot of knowledge. Otherwise, it’s pure luck.”
Rossi is no newcomer to antiques. His parents were collectors and he runs his own shop, Stillwater Antiques in Smithfield. He said there is nothing sadder than telling someone that what they picked up at a flea market is a fake or a replica.
“Let the buyer beware,” is the first rule of antiques, he said. “There are a lot of people who have no problem with letting people think that something is under-priced … If you walk into a shop thinking, ‘I probably know more about this than the owner,’ you are likely to lose.”
Margie O’Brien, who worked with Rossi at Channel 6 news a while back, is also familiar with collecting and collectors.
“My father collected stamps and coins, so I understand the collector’s enthusiasm,” she said. “But serious collectors spend years learning about the things they collect. I also know that the common viewer has a respect and love for family antiques, and that they speak to our culture. I don’t know many people who don’t have something from their family’s past that they value. They often point at something and say, ‘My grandmother used that bowl to make cookies for me.’ They come to value it, even if [selling] it won’t make them rich.”
Unlike “Antiques Roadshow,” where the object is the focus of the interview, O’Brien and Rossi say they want to pick the minds of the experts they have on the show.
“I ask people why something is collectible, why we should want an object and what it means,” she said. “Just knowing what something is worth is not enough.”
Understandably, Rossi and O’Brien knew they were in the presence of something special on a recent Saturday, when they agreed to be interviewed at Clouds View Victorian Museum on Post Road in Warwick. The current owner of Clouds Hill, Anne Holst, was more than pleased to show them at least part of the collection that her family accumulated over several generations.
“This place is amazing,” said Rossi. “I can’t imagine what all this would cost. It couldn’t be bought. This is really unique.”
Holst always enjoys an attentive visitor and Rossi and O’Brien were fascinated with the back-stories of the objects at Clouds Hill. Holst showed them a set of china that once graced a relative’s yacht, and then told him the yacht’s owner once paid a Broadway producer to close a show for a week so that the girls in the chorus would be free to spend time on his yacht with his friends.
That’s the kind of story that prompts people to collect antiques. Who wouldn’t want to have a story like that at their fingertips?
And, speaking of stories, O’Brien and Rossi want the series to focus on their experts personally as much as anything else.
“One of the attractive things about being into antiques is the people you meet,” said Rossi. “They are characters and fun to be around. But they also have lifetimes of experience and knowledge that you just can’t get anywhere else.”
Rossi feels that there is no such thing as too much knowledge and that “Antiques Alley” should be a sort of continuation course for people who seriously want to learn about antiques, no matter what their monetary value is. They want to bring the world of antiques to their viewers. Last week’s feature was particularly enlightening for people who love “flea markets.” They explored the phenomenon known as “Brimfield,” the mother of New England antiques shows.
When it premiered on June 27, the first episode presents four separate segments: on early hand-held cameras, most with bellows; the sentimental and practical usefulness of a generational yoyo quilt; and original Transformers toys dating back to the mid 1980s; and the variety of colorful and distinctive World War II service patches.
“The conversations are filled with brilliant information delivered in such light-hearted, comfortable banter, you forget how anxious you are to learn the object’s value,” according to the promise in a press release. “Oh, and those ‘ah-ha’ moments will have you rummaging for your own attic heirlooms.”
The second episode, the Brimfield Fair, aired July 4 and takes a road trip to Massachusetts to speak with customers and vendors and gives valuable insight into getting the most out of a day at a flea market. But most shows will focus on local dealers, collectors and experts.
“Whatever we come up with will determine future shows,” said O’Brien. “That’s the fun of it.”
“Like ‘Cheers’ and other shows, we are interested in doing good, entertaining television,” said Rossi. “And we will be giving you information from real people, and not some lofty guy from on high.”
For more information about “Antiques Alley” and ideas for future shows, contact Mike Rossi at 659-5753. Check local listings for scheduled airings of upcoming and previous shows.