|In Antiques Roadshow Behind the Scenes: An Insider’s Guide to PBS’s #1 Weekly Show by Executive Producer Marsha Bemko – little of the “true dynamics” are revealed, according to those who worked on the “antique” side of the set.
The slim 181-page book, published in December 2009, doesn’t mention the backstage fist fights, the hit-and-miss appraisals, the dysfunctional leadership or the heavy-handed “draconian” hand of WGBH’s legal department.
Boston television station WGBH produces Antiques Roadshow for PBS, which distributes the program to its hundreds of affiliate stations nationwide.
In the wake of its 16 years as one of the perennial stars of PBS, and nine Emmy nominations, the Antiques Roadshow has left behind several disillusioned appraisers, a succession of retributive lawsuits and a reputation – at least among many of its workers – of a company that was not averse to bullying its employees.
“I think it was partially a cultural clash,” said Gordon S. Converse, who premiered with the show in 1997 and worked as Roadshow’s antique clock expert for 10 years. “You had the WGBH people who were pushy and demanding. And then, you had the antiques group, who are a little more archaic. Maybe they thought we were prima donnas, I don’t know. But, we worked under a draconian system of management. They did not pay us anything – I know we got a lot of free advertising, and there’s no question that it was helpful to our business – but they were very poor at managing people. And the executive producer (Bemko) was a shining first class disagreeable (person). She was the icing on the cake.”
WGBH officials – including Bemko, the corporate law department and any other representative within the company – declined to talk with AntiqueWeek.
Converse said he spent “at least $10,000 a year” meeting the Roadshow crew at various cities across the country, often putting in 13 hours a day.
“I resented the fact that we were working hard,” Converse said. “We were helping make that show a success, and they were making a lot of money. But, what I resented more, that at no time did any member of the WGBH staff – during my 10 years there – ever pull me aside and tell me they thought I was doing a good job. No one ever thanked me for my free expert opinion. That was just the culture; yeah it was a ’slave-like’ culture.”
From the beginning, WGBH producers regarded appraisers as expert in their field, much like any expert appearing on any news show. As a result, appraisers were not required to join a union and be entitled a “minimum fee” to appear as required by the American Federation of Television and Radio (AFTRA) for broadcast talent.
In his 10th year, Converse was slated to appear in Philadelphia. Due to a perceived shortage of appraisers, Converse was scheduled to appraise, in addition to clocks, some items in which he lacked knowledge.
“I forget exactly what it was she wanted me to appraise, but I felt uncomfortable going into that,” Converse. “I called on the phone and told her that I couldn’t do that. She cursed at me, using one of her favorite words, and I hung up on her. About five minutes later, I got a fax from WGBH. It was from one of Marsha’s assistants, saying I was fired. I couldn’t believe it – I had to laugh – I was fired by fax from a job, in which I was never paid. I still find that amusing.”
But, not all former Roadshow appraisers are amused. Internationally respected North American Native expert Donald Ellis had his “Roadshow moment” when he turned to the elderly man who had just brought in a rare Navajo blanket and said, “You sir, have here an American treasure.”
With the blanket estimated at $350,000-500,000 at the June 2001 Tucson show, the segment became a Roadshow favorite. PBS featured in a its national “Be More” network branding spot in 2004.
Ellis put the video, in addition to several other clips of his Roadshow appearances, on his website. Roadshow producers responded in March 2008 by suing him in federal court for $900,000, claiming copyright infringement. The clip also featured on other sites, and is still present on YouTube and through Google.
“I work for them for all those years pro bono; I never get a nickel for a cup of coffee, and they turn around and sue me,” Ellis explained. “They don’t sue YouTube or Google, they only went after the little guy who worked pro bono for 10 years. That’s the thanks I got.
“And I know they made hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the clip,” he continued. “They sold it to TV shows, movies – everywhere. And I didn’t get a dime – only a lawsuit.”
In May 2010, Ellis and the station settled out of court. Ellis declined to say how much he paid in the settlement, only that it “it was several years” wages for most people.”
But, at times, Ellis has had the last laugh at the expense of Antiques Roadshow.
“Last week I sold an Eskimo mask for $285,000; it was appraised on the Roadshow last summer at $15,000,” he reported. “I’d say that 75 percent of the Roadshow appraisals are inept … they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Lending some credibility to Ellis’ claim is the first “million dollar” Roadshow appraisal – a Qianlong era (1735-1795) Chinese jade collection appraised at $1.07 million. As now the second most valuable item to be appraised on the show in 2009, the items sold at auction for less than half the Roadshow estimate, $494,615.
Another case in point is the June 2005 19th-century unsigned marine painting attributed to artist James E. Buttersworth by a Roadshow appraiser and valued at $250,000-500,000. The painting, turned out to be by Antonio Jacobsen, and sold at auction for $281,000.
Current Antiques Roadshow appraiser Gary Sohmers maintains that values are often inflated to get “precious” air time, although he personally denies doing so.
“You go for the big high value, you make TV,” he said. “And that’s the only way you get paid. Say, like you have a big item – like the million-dollar rhino horns or the jade collection. We don’t expect the person who brought it in to necessarily consign it to us; but, the appraiser who shoots high is hoping he’ll get calls from people who say, ’I have an item just like that, would you look at it?’ An appraiser with the exposure that Roadshow has can get 1,000 calls. And who knows, if even 10 of those pan out, he benefits. That’s how that game works.”
Appraiser Converse disagreed, “I think all of us have exaggerated at times, but I don’t think there’s a conspiracy to make things more valuable. I think we’ve exaggerated out of excitement – not for any greed.”
Former Roadshow appraiser Reyne Haines also disagrees with Sohmers.
“I think that would be a big mistake,” she said. “No. 1, you lose credibility and that’s all we have; No. 2, if it is over-inflated and these people are expecting to make big money and they don’t – you’re in a pickle either way. And if you’ve gotten people calling with a similar item thinking they’re onto big money, you’re in an even bigger pickle.”
Haines, an expert on 20th-century decorative arts, quit appraising for the Antiques Roadshow after 13 seasons because of restrictions placed on the volunteer appraisers.
An appraiser’s contract with WGBH requires them to inform Executive Producer Bemko before they appear in other media, need her written permission to appraise on other shows, and are strictly forbidden to use the Roadshow logo, videos or photographs in any manner.
Most of these restrictions occurred shortly after Bemko became executive producer in 2003.