LONDON — They come by the thousands, carting carefully wrapped family heirlooms or even rummage sale finds, some cushioned in luxuriously padded original boxes, others merely nestled in a jacket pocket.
They all hope to be among the few selected to have their potential treasures valued by an “Antiques Roadshow” expert who will tell them what great-aunt Gladys’ Victorian emerald brooch or Grandfather’s diamond stickpin is worth. Some return home disappointed. A very few leave with a valuation exceeding $1 million.
Its producers say “Roadshow” is regularly watched by more than six million people in Britain, making it one of the most-viewed factual programs on the BBC. Networks in other countries, including the United States and Poland, have copied the formula for evaluating keepsakes in categories like jewelry, pottery, militaria and art.
In each episode, gemologists are on site — often a stately country home or museum — to help sift through items with the best back stories, have lively chats with the owners and estimate what the pieces might raise at auction. For the 17-episode season set to debut in January, Covid-19 has meant that viewers sent emails describing their valuables, and a few were invited to one of eight venues over eight weeks, including suburban London and the west coast of Scotland.
What does it take to catch an expert’s eye? Five “Roadshow” specialists weigh in on separating paste from provenance.
The comments, by email, have been edited and condensed.
I started on “Roadshow” in 2007. I ride Harley-Davidsons and other big motorbikes and sent a picture of me wearing leathers and pearls to the editor and asked if he was interested in a jewelry specialist who rides motorbikes.
One of my favorite finds was a Lawrence Wheaton tourmaline ring in 2016. I was able to find out who made it and eventually had the piece hallmarked with his initials. Mr. Wheaton was remembered, and the pleasure and pride his family got from seeing the follow-up episode of the ring being hallmarked was very special. A goldsmith’s being remembered and not forgotten is so important. Also very moving was an emerald and diamond ring that had been worn by a survivor of the Titanic as she was rescued from the sinking ship.
I am passionate about all styles of jewelry as long as they have the three main ingredients: great craftsmanship, good design and a good sense of movement. If it moves, I want to see how it articulates or if it has the suggestion of movement. Can you imagine the butterfly brooch flying off your shoulder?
I left school at age 17 and applied for the job of junior assistant at a wonderful antique jewelry shop called Cameo Corner, 50 yards from the gates of the British Museum. I had always loved mythology as a boy, and at my interview was shown a tray of cameo brooches carved with classical heads. I identified most of the subjects and got the job.
A favorite for me was a watch that ticked all the boxes. The owner was a marvelous woman in her 70s accompanied by her daughter to the filming in Northern Ireland. They brought a watch that had been kept in an old tobacco tin in the garage for some 50 years, in a state of complete distress. It had no diamonds, and the owner thought it was a piece of junk. Her reaction when I informed her it was an early platinum and gold watch by Cartier worth 40,000 pounds to 50,000 pounds [$53,110 to $66,390] once restored was, quite simply, off the scale.
My formative years at Cameo Corner had a profound influence. Yes, I fully appreciate the design of, say, a postwar gold necklace, but, as a jewelry historian, I would always choose a Georgian brooch or 17th-century pendant.
I am a Kansas native and one of the newer faces on the program. I will never forget my first “Roadshow”: The first gentleman in the queue brought a piece of American silver plate. I couldn’t believe it. At another, a fellow American expat brought in a rare silver card case depicting the U.S. Capitol building — I’d only ever seen one before.
The most enjoyable shows for me are the ones where the owner and I have connected over the piece and the story. It is a magic combination of the jewel, the owner’s story and the valuation. In a past season, we had a group of three vanity cases from the 1920s and ’30s: a silver, parcel-gilt and enamel example; one shaped like a handbag and set with jade; and a third set with sapphires. The owner was a chemistry teacher, and we could have talked forever about topics like the causes of color in gems.
I usually wear the same pieces of jewelry: my diamond and platinum engagement ring and wedding band, and a trio of three yellow-gold pendant necklaces, one set with my great-grandmother’s diamond. For work events, evening auctions and parties, I enjoy wearing my grandmother’s sapphire and diamond cocktail ring or the emerald ring my husband bought for me after he won a bet.
A lovely jewelry box can help to indicate a good piece of jewelry, but, equally, a client handing a piece of tissue with a jewel in it may also be a winning sign as often people don’t want to bring attention to what they are bringing in.
My favorite find was a gold bracelet originally belonging to Queen Victoria that the owner had found in the street. Victoria adored jewelry and to be handling a piece that she had given to one of her maids of honor was a really special moment. The owner had no idea of the history or association, and therefore to give her that information was great.
For an everyday look, I love wearing pearls. The various colors, shapes and sizes available are fabulous, and they can look fun and contemporary as well as smart and classic. I also love to wear Art Deco jewelry — colorful and always a talking point. For a classical evening look, a Georgian rivière necklace fits the bill.
At age 19, I chanced upon an ad in the Daily Telegraph seeking an assistant for a well-known London jeweler. I had no idea that this was Wartski, famous for its Fabergé collection and its royal warrants. Despite my being very naïve, they took me on, and I stayed for 47 years. I’ve been doing “Roadshow” since 1989.
Jewelry is a combination of the wonders of the natural world, in the form of precious metals and gemstones, combined with superlative ingenuity and craftsmanship. The end product has an almost talismanic quality and will always evoke the period from which it was made. More often than not, they have a history that I can help unravel.
For various reasons I did not take part this season, but my most memorable find was a Fabergé flower study with gold, diamonds, jade, silver and rock crystal. I valued it at a million pounds [$1.3 million at today’s rates] in 2017.
However, it was not the most emotionally loaded piece for me. That was a Saxon ring made of pure gold that had emerged from 1,000 years buried in the earth as fresh and shiny as the day it had been made.
What’s it worth?
The jewelry specialists from the BBC series “Antiques Roadshow” share tips on reselling heirloom items or flea-market finds.
■ After 35 years in the jewelry business, I always say valuing jewelry is 70 percent counseling and 30 percent knowledge. Unfortunately I have had to disappoint many people over the years as jewelry does seem to make many people automatically think they own the Crown Jewels.
■ If you are thinking of selling, my advice is to wear the jewel a few more times. Sometimes jewelry is not worn correctly or often enough to be appreciated. Then if you still want to sell, get it checked by a professional to determine whether it’s worth more intact or if you should break it up and use the metal or stones for another jewel.
■ Valuation is something of a movable feast. What something is worth is not its insurance or retail value, but what it is likely to fetch on the open market. The usual benchmark I quote is therefore an assessment of its price at auction.
■ Should you sell? Why bother to keep unworn jewelry in a drawer for years and years? Insurance premiums are high, and there is always the risk of theft. Far better to sell it in today’s buoyant market and use the proceeds to buy something that you will actually wear and from which you will gain pleasure. Do, however, get several opinions because jewelry valuation can be a strongly subjective matter.
■ To determine a value, I take into account the color, cut, clarity and size of the stone, combined with the quality of the workmanship, uniqueness of design and the provenance. Yes, disappointments happen, but more often than not, folks just want to share their story with someone who will appreciate it like they do.
■ Most auction houses provide auction estimates free of charge from a photograph; however, a specialist will need to see the piece in person to confirm an estimate. Bring any prior valuations, gemological certifications, the box/case and any documents relating to provenance, like letters, to your appointment and be prepared to leave the piece there if further testing is required.
■ I recommend that people find an experienced valuer who has a good reputation and don’t be afraid to get two opinions. And try not to have too high expectations — far better to be surprised than disappointed.
■ Factors that help determine a “Roadshow” valuation: A good story and background information about the piece; the condition of the item; if it is by a particular maker, or if not signed or hallmarked, whether it can be attributed to a particular jeweler; and the current market trends, i.e. if the piece is fashionable or not.
■ It has been said that there is no relationship between a work of art and its value, and there is a good deal of truth in this. However, there is often a consensus and a precedent.
■ Value is not my first consideration, and a relatively modest piece of jewelry might have a history that will surprise the owner and sometimes even reduce them to tears.