Value Me

Finding America at the Antiques Roadshow.

Collienne Becker and her husband Mike have a chair made almost entirely of moose. The legs, the seat, the fringe—all moose. Forbidding antlers form the armrests and flank the back like dark wings, making the chair look like something recovered from a Gothic wilderness kingdom, a sort of Dracula-meets-Deliverance monarchy you'd never hope to revisit. It's hideous.

"And, no, it does not sit in my house," Collienne laughs, telling me it's been in an attic for some time.

The Beckers, from Bellevue, are waiting with their hoofed throne on a wagon, part of a daunting line that loops back and forth and back again inside a huge exhibition hall before heading into a makeshift television studio for the Chubb-sponsored Antiques Roadshow. The most popular program on PBS has made a stop at the downtown convention center to continue its self-described quest to discover "America's hidden treasures," and I'm there wandering around, discovering them, too.

The show, in which experts appraise viewers' prized possessions, may be more quintessentially American than Disneyland. While the Magic Kingdom seems more to reflect how other countries view the U.S.—loud, obvious, and artificial—the Roadshow captures Americans as they see themselves: sentimental, approachable, upright citizens. (Collienne works as a marketing buyer for Amazon, and her home answering machine asks you to "leave a message, or your Mary Kay order, after the beep.") Unlike Disney's manufactured pleasures, the Roadshow experience creates itself from its crowds. It isn't so much the place to be if you love antiques—most of the objects are just awful, really—as it is somewhere to go if you like people.

Considering the two-plus hour wait they have in store until their treasures are assessed, everyone is in a great mood; the good cheer is invigorating. ("I've only met, like, four assholes in the whole group," agrees James, a KCTS volunteer who's been working with the masses since 7 o'clock in the morning.) Everybody wants to talk. Everybody wants to be on TV. And everybody wants their stuff to be confirmed as "real," like the velveteen rabbit who came to life because he was loved.

"I thought, 'What can I bring that I have the best chance of getting on TV?'" says Ador饠Day of Lakewood, explaining the cart full of '30s leading-man movie memorabilia that she's proudly pushing around. "Now, how many people would show up with a Robert Donat collection?"

Several thousand people are snaking through the line, and they all seem connected in their shared quest. Young hipsters mix in comfortably with WWII veterans. Two older ladies in floral prints are chatting with a butch gay couple. A smash of glass from somewhere in the throngs is met with the kind of universal, defeated oooh's usually reserved for Seahawks games, and for a split second the whole room is filled with empathetic mourners—it's sad to lose your story.

I've got my offerings in hand—tiny, early '30s movie-star cards from those massive scales in drugstores that you used to be able to weigh yourself on—but I almost feel embarrassed by them. I know they're not worth anything, and, despite the fact that my dear grandmother gave them to me, I don't have the same touching adoration for them that these people have for their things. And thank God for that: By the time I'm being appraised (or, I mean, by the time my cards are being appraised), I'm looking into the face of a sour old guy in a Yellow Submarine tie at the collectibles table who flatly tells me, "You'd be lucky to get a buck a piece for 'em," before looking around me for the next person in line.

The Beckers have better luck—they're among the fortunate few who are actually videotaped for possible broadcast. The flabbergasted couple is told that the chair could fetch up to $4,500. They plan on setting it out in front of the lodge they're building in the Duvall area.

"We don't really care; we're not looking to sell it," Collienne says, assessing the chair's moment in the spotlight. "It's one of those things that we'll always be able to talk about."

Despite the occasional thrill of a random object fetching an unexpected price, the show isn't, as it turns out, about dollar amounts. People just want to be told they have something of value.

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