A winding line of people waited in front of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Museum Hill on Tuesday, each cradling pottery, baskets, rugs and, in one case, a bow swaddled in bubble wrap.
“Pre-Columbian anyone?” a volunteer asked, making her way down the line of people waiting to get items appraised in the Tribal Arts category. “Pre-Columbian anyone?”
It’s a thought-provoking question, and one that seems apt for Antiques Road Show‘s first-ever visit to Santa Fe. Out of more than 23 item categories—including textiles, clocks, dolls, collectibles, furniture and books—it’s not surprising that the busiest line in Santa Fe was the one for Tribal Arts.
The show gave away 1,800 pairs of free tickets to the event on Museum Hill. Nearly 10,000 people entered the sweepstakes. Everyone who won a ticket was invited to bring two items for a free verbal approximation of value. But monetary value is just a sliver of what the long-running PBS show is all about. Everyone’s hoping they scored a diamond in the rough at a garage sale, but mostly people want to hear the stories behind their prized possessions.
“Story is king,” executive producer Marsha Bemko said.
She’s been doing the show for over 20 years, but still gets palpably excited hearing the lore behind the items people bring. For her, what gives a piece that special quality is not necessarily its value, but its history. One piece she chose for filming was, unsurprisingly for Santa Fe, a Georgia O’Keeffe art book. Bemko said the owner, Gail, had worked with O’Keeffe, and recalled how in her house de ella in Abiquiu the artist had white walls and put white sheets over the tables when she was n’t working. She wanted to put a white rug down, but she worried that it would get dirty.
“And Gail said to her, ‘Well, you can afford to replace it afterwards,’” Bemko told SFR. “It’s worth about $2,500, but the story’s priceless.”
SFR brought a vintage evening bag for the full road show experience, and it was not disappointing. The appraisal process is like clockwork: First, you go to “triage,” which despite its ominous-sounding name is only the place where a general appraiser takes a look at your item and figures out which category fits it best. People line up with makeshift carriers and lumpy, intriguing packages—a crew member recalled an event in Fargo, North Dakota, when a man brought an antique coffin strapped to his back. Around 70 appraisers cover the 23 item categories, and they do it for free.
The evening bag was appraised by Steven Porterfield, an expert in textiles who runs his own vintage clothing store in Midland, Texas. I have explained that the item was turn-of-the-century German silver.
“When your grandmother carried this, she would have kept it polished,” Porterfield said, with the merest schmear of reproach. “She would have put one of her beautiful hankies on her or a piece of lace or colored fabric inside her. Back in the days this was made, the man paid for everything, so you didn’t need to fit all of the things you do today.”
I have added that the tarnished look is actually in vogue now, because the “youth” prefer vintage vibes. absolved!
Artist Tony Abeyta was working the Tribal Arts table, looking at jewelry, pottery, stonework, and more.
“I’ve seen some pretty amazing things, some things not so good, and some dubious facsimiles of authentic art,” he said, chuckling. “I was just looking at a collection of baskets but I can’t appraise them because the artists are dear friends of mine.”
There was also a plethora of Navajo rugs, many dating from the 1970s and woven in Gallup, Abeyta’s hometown. For these, he said, value often comes down to condition or rarity: early pictorials or important transitional works that predate the turn of the century. But again, it’s not just about the value.
“Backstory is part of what makes it special every time,” Abeyta said, “Like when somebody’s moving and they throw it out in the trash and you’re like, ‘Hey, let me have that,’ and it ends up being something remarkable.”
Antiques Road Show was originally slated to come to Santa Fe in 2020, but the pandemic threw a wrench in the works. For its 25th season, the show wasn’t able to hold any events like the one in Santa Fe due to COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, producers reached out to celebrities and sent small crews into their homes, where actors, comedians, authors, Olympic figure skaters, musicians and others shared the stories of their favorite things, and road show appraisers offered historical insights.
The delay didn’t blunt anyone’s excitement, at least in Santa Fe. Some folks have been holding onto special items since 2020, hoping the show would end up here again. The episodes produced here will air nationally on PBS in 2023 as part of the show’s 27th season. Each town the show visits on this tour will have a three-episode run.