Tall Tales from Antiques Roadshow

At first blush, you’d think the yarns that John Buxton from Texas spins are tall tales, like the one about the little black dress found in 1997 that Marilyn Monroe was sewn into for 1959’s “Some Like It Hot” -- estimated to be worth $250,000 but later to sell at auction for far more. But the “Tales From the Road” that Buxton tells are part of television’s popular PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.” The Emmy-nominated series is described on its website as “part adventure, part history, and part treasure hunt,” launched in 1997 with Buxton and other appraisers.

Buxton toted in anecdotes and slides for the inaugural lecture series devoted to the visual arts, hosted by the California Museum of Art in Thousand Oaks (CMATO). Its director of operations, appraiser Bill Mercer, introduced his friend. In the International Society of Appraisers and a past director, Buxton is only one of four appraisers nationally to qualify with an African art specialty.

This free program unfolded in the Thousand Oaks Library’s Community Room. Buxton compared being a Roadshow appraiser with a fisherman who drops his line with a hook into the water. You never know what you’ll come up with except that “you know you’re going to end up with something.”    

This year marks Roadshow’s 18th season, hosted by that other Walberg:  Mark L.  Each summer (May through August), Roadshow appraisers from over 20 areas of expertise examine about 60,000 antiques and collectibles. Per event, that’s about 10,000 items from folk art to furniture (but not coins, currency or stamps).  

“Did you know?”s peppered the program. After World War II, “the most Nazi materials” in the world (hats, knives, etc.) were found in—wait for it—Des Moines, Iowa. Another real life episode:  Buxton was asked by the Ethiopian government to evaluate what was unearthed in 1974, said to be a human ancestor hominin nicknamed Lucy.  “I knew nothing about fossils” so Buxton placed calls the world over and arrived at a $50 million appraisal. That amount disappointed the Ethiopian government which wanted it to be over $500 million, he said.  

Appraisers are not paid nor reimbursed for expenses. “How do I make my money if I’m not compensated for my time?... Any time we’re in front of 10 million people” generates calls which may grow their own businesses.  

“We don’t know what people will bring in” so one Buxton surprise was seeing a 6-ft. giraffe carousel animal bobbing up and down as its owners progressed in line. Another surprise was two women who brought in a gargantuan pair of Levis, a true tall tale used in advertising; his slide showed both women inside the jeans.  Season 2 brought the woman whose husband’s goading about visiting garage sales ceased when a table acquired for $25 was sold at auction for over $500,000, said Buxton. Most common though are finds from attics, dumpsters (Alka-Seltzer boy sign, $46,000) or living rooms, be they a valuable decorative floor bowl unwittingly used by little kids to play in,  Ty Cobb-signed baseball in such pristine condition it was pure white instead of the common yellow, or fish-shaped flask ($27,000 to $30,000).


“Antiques Roadshow” success is due in part to thousands of volunteers who, per Buxton, assist by collecting tickets stamped with specific admission times then guide participants (600 each hour) along a rope maze to the right expert. Buxton said only items intriguing enough for a TV segment are “pitched” by the authority to the key production person “tough as nails” who pronounces a yea or nay verdict. Until the episode is broadcast, no one interviewed knows the taping result, he said.

“You must have a ticket to attend,” Buxton emphasized. This news surprised listeners who didn’t realize “Roadshow” process involves submitting an application via e-mail or postal service, that winning tickets are picked at random and no one without a ticket and items to research gets in. Informational tidbits Buxton dispensed including explaining why “Roadshow” venues aren’t easy to find (the facility must be at least 80,000 square feet to accommodate many concurrent activities).    

How John Buxton got from there to here was not plotted, he commented in a phone interview.  At age 5, he recalls being planted in front of that amazing new technology, television, watching the tiny screen filled with the magic of freckled Howdy Doody and cowboy Hopalong Cassidy. At age 15, Buxton was bewitched by sports, and was co-captain of football, wrestling and lacrosse teams. At age 25 and in the U.S. Navy on a destroyer, he was assessing skills, plus exploring countries from Africa and India to the Middle East.  Buxton, whose father was in newspaper advertising and his mother secretary to a state governor who would become Secretary of the Navy and then a U.S. Senator, was not aware of appraising.

That didn’t happen until 1974 when the traveler was back stateside and opened The Bahrani Chest import shop in Dallas. When the curious brought in items to pinpoint their worth, “I found I liked appraising more than selling.”

For museums and private collections, Buxton’s specialty spans African, Native American, Pre-Columbian and South Pacific art.  Auction Trak, which he created in 1990, is a computer data base tracing Tribal Arts in the U.S. and Europe. In 1991, he launched ArtTrak, Inc., an art services computer network. One business card is for Buxton Appraisal, Authentication and Consulting Service. 
What was examined during “Antique Roadshow”’s 2014 tour will be part of the 19th season in January 2015. For more details, click into www.http:www.PBS.org/antiques.

CMATO’s next speaker on Wed., Nov. 5 will be on restoration, according to Fran Brough, member and secretary. For more information, call the non-profit CMATO at (805) 409-3598, or e-mail info@cmato.org