It looked like a mass moving day as Madisonians filed into the Alliant Energy Center on Saturday. PBS's Antiques Roadshow was in town to appraise our old stuff, and people walked through the parking lot with carts, suitcases and arms loaded with objects that might be worth a lot of money -- or a little, or maybe nothing at all.
Thousands of ticketholders would get an appraisal from an Antiques Roadshow expert, and those with especially interesting items would be filmed for a possible slot in an upcoming broadcast. Hope was heavy in the air as people entered Alliant's cavernous Exhibition Hall with ancient lamps, paintings, chairs, plates and pottery.
You'd think the scene would be chaotic. It was anything but, thanks to an army of blue-shirted workers from Wisconsin Public Television and the well-oiled Antiques Roadshow machine. The series is used to setting up camp in different cities, and the organizers have the process down to a science. Ticketholders line up for timed entries, on the hour. They pass through a triage area, where they're given cards to match their objects: "Collectibles," "Photography," "Silver, "Folk Art," "Historical," etc.
Staffers then lead them into the blue-toned appraisal area, a circular setup with booths for each type of object. People wait in line for their appraisal, and the lucky ones picked for filming are whisked off to a green room for makeup. They return to the filming set in the middle of the appraisal area for a brief moment of glory.
I didn't come empty-handed. I'd brought along four tiny Beatles pins I'd gotten in London during college. They'd been advertised as originals from the Beatlemania era of 1964, though I'd always had my doubts. If the appraiser offered good news, I figured I might be able to take an early retirement from journalism.
As I waited, I watched the appraisers deliver their verdicts on other people's stuff. A guy learned that his original Big Brother & the Holding Company poster was worth $200-250. A woman's Star Wars figurine set, housed in a black plastic Darth Vader head, was worth $100. The appraiser picked up a caped figurine and said, "If this was a vinyl cape, it'd be worth $1,000. Everybody has the cloth cape."
A woman named Pam had just learned that the German Luger her father brought back from World War II was worth $700. That's a lot of dough, but she planned to keep the heirloom in the family. "Maybe I'll sell it to my brother," she joked.
Every tickeholder could bring two items for appraisal, and Pam was in line with her second. It was a pocket watch from the Lincoln Watch Company of Springfield, Ill., with a portrait of Old Abe imprinted on the fob. She also had one of the framed Lincoln paintings that were given to jewelers who sold the watches. Pam had no idea how old the items were. "That's what I'm here to find out," she said.
Finally it was my turn. My appraiser was Gary Sohmers, an Antiques Roadshow veteran familiar from his gray ponytail and garrulous manner. It turns out he lived in Madison from 1973 to 1983, cutting a big swath through town. He wrote a music column for Isthmus in its early days, started his own local newspaper, produced concerts, ran the Mad City Music Exchange record shop, managed bands and played in one called Windjammer. Sohmers left town for the Boston area, where he still runs his collectibles business Wex Rex. He's been on Antiques Roadshow for 12 seasons. "I know the value of 100,000 useless objects," he said.
So what about my Beatles pins? At first glance Sohmers thought they were fakes, but on closer inspection he saw the words "Chicago" and "SELTAEB" in small print on the side. He said that SELTAEB ("Beatles" spelled backwards) is the name the band's manager, Brian Epstein, put on Beatles merchandise back then.
"They're authentic," Sohmers said. "You used to buy them for a penny in gumball machines. You usually had to put in about a hundred pennies to get one pin, since they were in there with lots of other junk."
Am I rich?
"They're worth about $20 apiece," Sohmers said. "For the set of four, about $100."
Just $100? So much for retiring from journalism. If only I had a few dozen Star Wars figurines with vinyl capes.