Letter from Hartford, Connecticut Letter from Hartford, Connecticut

March 1, 1998

It's Saturday morning in Hartford, Connecticut, and a line snakes around the block at the city's Civic Center. This is the Antiques Roadshow - the most popular new PBS television series of last year - and thousands of fans have gathered to find out if that family heirloom might actually be a rare treasure. Rumor has it that the first people in line arrived at 1:00 a.m.

The atmosphere is somewhere between that of a country fair and a line to buy Powerball tickets. But soon the Civic Center begins to feel more like a shrine, and these people seem more like pilgrims bringing their offerings. Only a few will find themselves blessed. Most will be turned away with a friendly word and an illusion-shattering estimate. And an elite minority will achieve Antiques Roadshow nirvana: They will be televised with their treasures.

Once through the line, you're assigned a ticket - my girlfriend and I get "Asian Arts" for our Indian alabaster candleholder - and let loose in the auditorium. At its center, clusters of cameras and crew film the noteworthy finds. Along the walls, expert appraisers provide instant descriptions and valuations, and call a producer when they think they have something worth filming. Most objects are far from televisable, although you wouldn't guess it from watching - the show broadcasts only the stars. In person, you're waiting in line with a lot of eager hopefuls, most of whose treasures, however much beloved, aren't exactly ready for their close-up.

In the "Fold Art" section, John Hays of Sotheby's, nattily attired in peach pants and a bow tie, is letting one owner down easy. He holds what appears to be a large molasses jug, which some arts-and-crafts-minded enthusiast of long ago embedded with shells, nuts, hairpins, and keys. "Turn-of-the-century," Hays begins encouragingly. "It's a window into the America of that time." The owner, a damp, mustachioed man for whom this is the payoff for hours in line, nods and waits for the punch line. "Not a lot of value," Hays continues briskly. "Just a fascinating time capsule!"

"Maybe one the twenty things is interesting," Hays notes later, betraying a hint of the strain. "But the stories are interesting." This is the mantra of the Roadshow. It doesn't matter if your item is valuable; it's the story that matters. I chat with one woman about her great-grandfather's Civil War diaries. At the "Toys" table, I spy on a lively succession of games, dolls, and uncategorizable playthings from a pre-Teletubbies era.

But there's one story everyone wants to hear: the discovery of a priceless object. Everyone at Hartford has heard of - or seen - one or another of the Roadshow jackpots: the odd-looking headpiece purchased at a San Jose flea market that turned out to be a 19th-century Eskimo helmet worth $75,000; the table bought for $25 which was identified as a rare 18th-century card table and later auctioned for $500,000.

The closer you get to the cameras, the nearer you are to what might be called antiques transubstantiation, when a piece of junk is transformed into a rarity worthy of broadcast. Everyone peers into the charmed circle enviously. My girlfriend and I are finally informed that there isn't much of a market for Indian crafts. We spot the man from "Folk Art" with his time-capsule jug tucked defiantly under his arm, and smile in commiseration, united in the community of those for whom the Roadshow brings only knowledge of the ordinariness of their stuff.

Ivan Kreilkamp writes about 19th century British literature and 20th century popular music when he isn't watching television.

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