‘Antiques Roadshow’ finds lively history at Living History Farms

At Living History Farms, an “Antiques Roadshow” appraiser interviewed a guest about an 1860s quilt top she bought for less than $20 at a sale 20 years ago in Albia. It’s now worth $400-$600. (Photo: Michael Morain)

By Michael Morain

If the feds ever decide to privatize the Transportation Security Administration’s airport operations, may I suggest handing it over to the crew from “Antiques Roadshow.” Same big lines. Same inspections of personal belongings. But way more fun.

An estimated crowd of 5,000 eagerly lined up Monday at Living History Farms to have complete strangers inspect their stuff, judge its worth and, possibly, ask them to show it off for the popular show’s 29th season. Three hourlong “Antiques Roadshow” episodes from Urbandale will air sometime between January and May 2025 on Iowa PBS.

Folks carried boxes and bags stuffed with rare and not-so-rare stuff. They pulled little wagons. They pushed carts. There were “gadgets and gizmos a-plenty,” to quote Disney’s Little Mermaid, plus a few Whovillian floofloovers, tartookas and gardookas, to quote the Grinch.

By now you’ve probably heard about the Jackie Robinson baseball bat that belongs to a woman from Grimes, or the early Grant Wood landscape from Axios reporter Jason Clayworth. Maybe you even heard about one woman’s collection of 20 years’ of personal correspondence with E.B. White, the author of “Charlotte’s Web.”

I took a funky orange teapot in the shape of a toad, one of the stranger gifts my parents received at their 1969 wedding. Turns out it was made in Japan in the 1880s or ’90s and is now worth $150-$250.

“We’re learning history through material culture,” “AR” executive producer Marsha Bemko said during one of her rare breaks from racking up 18,000 steps — or about 9 miles — over the course of the day. “It’s fun learning. You don’t notice that you’re learning, which is why it’s fun.”

Of course, sifting through all that material culture takes a lot of work. And after almost 30 seasons, including previous visits to Iowa in 1999 and 2010, “AR” runs a well-oiled machine. The staff of 25 travels with a setup crew of 50, plus locals they hire in each city. Here they enlisted more than 110 volunteers from Iowa PBS, which brought host Charity Nebbe and a separate production crew to shoot behind-the-scenes segments that will air with the “AR” episodes. The 70-some experts appraise approximately 500 items every hour.

Urbandale was the fourth of five stops in this season’s tour, with earlier visits to Las Vegas; Bentonville, Arkansas; and Littleton, Colorado; and one more planned for Baltimore.

“The crew is just amazing,” Living History Farms marketing and communications director Elizabeth Keest Sedrel said. “I can’t say enough good things about ‘Antiques Roadshow.’”

Together, they built a pop-up colony of tables and tents for various stations, starting with “triage,” where guests were directed to specific stations for furniture, jewelry, paintings, toys and so on. (My weirdo teapot and I went to the diplomatically titled catch-all, “decorative arts.”) There, guests either received an appraisal and went their merry way or, if they were lucky, moved over to the “green room” tent for a bit of hair-and-makeup zhuzhing before a recorded interview. The appraisers saved their assessments for the cameras, to preserve the surprise of the guests’ on-air reactions.

At the final station before the exit, guests were invited to record quick feedback interviews about their experience, no matter the monetary value of their odds and ends.

And really, wouldn’t that be a welcome addition to the TSA screenings at the airport? Why not give folks a chance to tell their tale?

“I love a good story,” executive producer Bemko said. “For me, the story is king.”

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