The Surprising Politics of Antiques Roadshow

The show is about finding out how much your possessions are worth. But it has stayed popular because it values knowledge over money.

A silkscreen illustration of a Victorian harpsichord
Getty; The Atlantic

Superficially, Antiques Roadshow is an hour-long report on a traveling fair where locals ask specialists how much money their possessions are worth. Peppered in among familiar objects of uncertain value—books, furniture, toys—viewers also see the clearly precious: Chinese-rhinoceros-horn cups, an 18th-century dollhouse, a one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe pocket watch, a long-lost old-master painting. In each segment, the appraiser asks what the guest knows about their item and then tells them and the audience about its history and, ultimately, its estimated value. Stack enough of those segments together, maybe toss in a few educational asides, and you’ve filled an hour of programming.

That’s likely nobody’s idea of a winning structure for hit television. But the American edition has been airing for nearly 25 years—and it remains the most watched of any ongoing PBS series. And more than 40 years after the original U.K. program debuted, it still regularly breaks the top 10 most-viewed shows of the week in the U.K. “It’s a monster,” Andy McConnell, a glass specialist who appears as an appraiser on the U.K. show, told me. “It’s got magic dust on it, it really has.”

Fans of the show might not be surprised by its lasting appeal. That’s in part because the show combines the simple ingredients of comfort-food television: approachability, warmth, and abundance. Beyond that, though, its popularity might stem from the paradox at its core: This show about putting a price tag on coveted possessions is not actually about money. It’s not about getting rich, playing the market, amassing wealth, or even acquiring nice things. In a show whose segments are punctuated by dollar amounts, there’s actually a quiet, persistent suggestion to direct our aspirations somewhere else: history, family, sentiment, even love.

Roadshow’s unlikely ethos begins with the nature of the production, which is intentionally egalitarian. In contrast to the rarefied airs of a formal auction house, anyone has a chance to have their object appraised. Because the show moves from city to city, the crowds end up representing the geography of a country. (During the coronavirus pandemic, both the U.S. and U.K. shows have prescreened items and limited attendance to invitation-only.) “We have aristocrats and benefit claimants—and it’s free to them all. They just have to get there within the hours of opening,” McConnell said. “It’s like a kind of mini Woodstock, with brand-new BMWs and Mercedes and Rolls-Royces next to the old bangers. And that’s just wonderful. You look across and you just see bloody everybody.”

From that raw material, the final program tends to showcase a few inherited holdings of old-money families but mostly focuses on the treasured heirlooms or lucky finds of average folks. “Ninety-nine percent of the people you see on Antiques Roadshow are your neighbors,” Marsha Bemko, the executive producer of the PBS program, told me. “They’re everyday people who come in with a question. They’re just like you and me, and chances are they don’t have a house full of wonderful things.”

Indeed, even if the show has a few standout guests and appraisers, it has no real stars. Fiona Bruce, the charming host of the U.K. edition, comes closest, but she’s still more of a tour guide, offering location notes and historical asides between appraisals. (The U.S. edition has dispensed with a host entirely, replacing the role with an off-screen narrator, Coral Peña, last year.) Unlike most programs, the show has no use for ego—it is focused on the objects and stories shared among people.

A still from 'Antiques Roadshow'
Janet Blackmon Morgan / Getty

Roadshow may not follow a traditional plot either, but watch it enough and you’ll see that it is telling a cumulative story—a different one than you might expect—about value. While the valuation of an object dangles over each conversation, the underlying ethic of every segment is knowledge: what the owner already knows about the object and what the specialist can add or correct. The back-and-forth concludes with the appraisal and, usually, a classic retort from the owner—that they’ll be keeping it.

Bemko, who’s been with the program for more than 20 years, estimates that well over 90 percent of guests keep their object, no matter the valuation. Insofar as the dollar range is useful, it tends to be as information on how to insure or protect the object rather than sell it. The only people who end up disappointed with that information seem to be the people with enough wealth to drop $3,000 on a (fake) vase to begin with. When guests do say they intend to sell, it’s usually to part with a sentiment-free find that can help finance the needs of their family. To a viewer, this pattern means example after example of the show’s peculiar protagonists choosing family, history, and sentiment over monetary gain.

Moreover, especially given how solidly guests stand by the noncommercial worth of their possessions, watching all of these objects get priced can make the final numbers stick out as fickle and farcical. Consider two consecutive valuations from the 11th episode of Season 38 in the U.K.: A broken decorative ceramic piglet from 1900 was deemed about three times as valuable as a one-of-a-kind, gorgeous rotating dining table dating from at least a century earlier.

Or take the seventh episode of the American program’s 11th season, in which each of the following items was valued at about $4,000: a large wooden New England gentleman’s chest of drawers (1830); a small Japanese Meiji-period bronze sculpture of a girl (1900); a German sand baby doll (1930s); and a paper affidavit from Jimmy Carter (1976). These wildly varied objects were deemed to be roughly equal in value—and to be about 10 times less valuable than a creepy late-18th-century folk-art portrait by an unknown artist, and, combined, worth less than a third of a Cartier diamond necklace appraised in the same program.

The whole concept of pricing can start to seem like a bit of nonsense: A viewer might struggle to trust why the beautiful, functional, complicated, or large is somehow “worth” less than the ugly, decorative, tiny, or useless—or vice versa. What the market dictates feels beside the point, and as often, utterly questionable. For a show that upholds the priceless, prices come to feel pointless.

That’s a sharp contrast to the shows typically considered to be Roadshow’s descendants, such as History Channel’s American Pickers or Pawn Stars. While Roadshow does not allow sales during production or on air, these other shows are fundamentally about acquiring and extracting profit, or as the Pickers intro proclaims: “What most people see as junk, we see as dollar signs. We’ll buy anything we think we can make a buck on.”

Pickers is set in the rusty outbuildings of heartland America while Pawn Stars films in and around a Las Vegas pawn shop, but both operate similarly—and draw large audiences. Their charismatic leads square off with a grab bag of Americans to strike deals for possessions of unknown value, with the hopes of making as much profit as possible off the resale. Though the objects are occasionally supplemented by pop-history facts cut between scenes, the shows tend to emphasize the calculating strategies that hosts use with owners who are either just as mercenary or who seem desperate to earn much-needed money. These shows depend on competition: Trust no one, grapple for the upper hand, maximize the margins. In one episode of Pickers, one of the hosts, Mike Wolfe, literally arm wrestles a seller to set the price of a pinball machine. As Frank Fritz, a former host of the show, says in Season 2, the “three best words in the world” for a picker are no emotional attachment.

If more idealistic than those peers, Antiques Roadshow isn’t unimpeachable. Though there are house rules regarding what objects are appraised—Bemko told me she’d turned down a warhead for the coming season—plenty of objects valorize war, and many more ignore histories of colonialism, looting, and dispossession. We never get the full provenance of how a 600-ish-year-old Chinese bodhisattva (worth more than $100,000) was found at a St. Louis–area garage sale, but it’s unlikely to have arrived there via entirely wholesome transactions. Its subsequent sale at auction for more than $2 million is symbolic of a deepening global inequality that’s a stark contrast to Roadshow’s egalitarian aspirations (a contradiction that the program doesn’t ever interrogate). When we see a group of tribal clubs made by the Chokwe people valued at £4,000, we aren’t informed that’s about twice the yearly gross national income per capita of Angola.

Perhaps these problems are intrinsic to the material: Antiques, curios, and heirlooms tend to correlate with generational wealth and empire. Those who are colonized or uprooted or who migrate don’t retain their prized possessions so easily. Read cynically, the domination on display in other programs is simply embedded in the histories of some of Roadshow’s items. Still, the program’s mission is clearly different from that of programs focused on competitive commerce; reckoning with these backstories, far from undermining the show’s universalist ethos, could enrich it.

Stills from 'Antiques Roadshow'
ZUMA / Alamy; Duane Braley / Star Tribune / Getty

Who represents and absorbs that ethos matters, too, not just for the program to live up to its everyman aspiration but also for a sustainable future. While both American and British Roadshows do seem to draw guests across class backgrounds, most of the crowd and appraisers appear to match the audience at home: white and older. According to data provided by the American show’s producers, 88 percent of viewers are white; the median age of the audience is 68, and only 9 percent is younger than 50. Data from YouGov show a generational chasm in the U.K. too. Although overall viewership remains high, audience opinions on the program diverge: Among Baby Boomers, the U.K.’s Roadshow receives the second-highest favorability of any program on television; among all adults, it ranks 45th.

By these metrics, the show might seem to be vulnerable to changing tastes. Yet its counterintuitive message—the sanctity of stories, family, empathy—might allow it to flourish in turbulent times and satisfy otherwise-diverse tastes. Although I occasionally saw an episode during my childhood, the British Roadshow emerged during the early shock of the pandemic as a comforting nightly ritual. Finding the show in the center of our TV-taste Venn diagram, my parents and I could agree on the pleasure of seeing all sorts of people, objects, and stories overcoming history’s whims. We felt what Amanda Petrusich wrote of the program and others like it years earlier, the “mortality-defying pleasure in watching material objects survive.”

The show’s appeal may simply be about the solidity of old things, or perhaps it’s about some combination of qualities that variously feel lost—earnestness, wonder, the communion in learning something together. McConnell, the U.K. glass specialist, suggests that the show’s staying power may result from a blend of many of these qualities. “Why is it so talismanic? Well, nobody’s ever really answered that, because it’s obviously so complex,” he said. “It touches so many bases.” Whatever the secret, throughout the decades, Roadshow has resisted the pull toward the new, now, and cutthroat. Perhaps that’s why it can remain compelling: Like vintage style, it’s perpetually countercultural in the strictest sense. It’s fun, in part, precisely because it insists on remaining out of step with everything else.

Younger viewers will have to agree with that assessment for Antiques Roadshow to stay on the air another 25 or 50 years. That seems challenging but certainly possible. The show may have a dusty reputation, but its format—documentary that nonetheless avoids the anxieties of life—is of the moment and plenty popular across age groups. It also shares cultural DNA with the internet-friendly urge, blossoming on TikTok, to excavate new knowledge from something old. And as the Crane family demonstrated in the sitcom Frasier, Roadshow is built for communal, participatory watching even among disparate tastes (drinking game optional). With some luck, and greater accessibility on major streaming platforms, the show could well find new life. The question looming over Antiques Roadshow, like its objects, is whether the next generation will inherit and value it, not because it’s new and flashy, but because it isn’t.