Monday, August 23, 2010

Washington Social Diary

Standing in line with hopes and dreams at Antiques Roadshow.
by Carol Joynt

Barry Weber’s day job is centered at the Carlyle Hotel, where he successfully sells precious jewels to the likes of Brad Pitt and Sarah Jessica Parker as well as a roster of clients whose names endure in the Blue Book, the Green Book and Forbes’s list of the “world’s richest people.” He is president of Edith Weber Fine Antique Jewelry, the company his mother founded almost 50 years ago.

Nothing against Madison Avenue, but even a successful Manhattan jeweler has to get out of town sometimes, and for that Barry – and a number of other notable New York dealers – has something on the side, a gig that is both passion and hobby: appearing on Antiques Roadshow, a PBS staple and hit for fifteen years.

This past weekend, after setting down in San Diego, Billings, Miami Beach, Biloxi and Des Moines, the cast and crew wrapped their latest season at the Washington Convention Center, a first time visit to the nation’s capital and clearly a magnet for their fans. Twenty three thousand people clamored for the 7,000 tickets, the largest demand for tickets this year.
Arriving at the Washington Convention Center for the taping of Antiques Roadshow.
People came from a dozen stages to participate in the Washington taping of Antiques Roadshow.
There's no excuse not to be there with a find that may be a treasure.
I was fortunate through neighbors to be invited to the taping as well as back stage as a guest of Barry’s, who gave us intimate exposure to the science of how the show is made. It’s no small feat. A day’s full twelve hours of taping produces three shows, adding up to 18 for a season.

Credit for pulling the format together deservedly belongs to the show’s producer, Boston’s WGBH. But credit for the original idea goes to the BBC, who created the prototype Antiques Roadshow in 1979. In addition to the United States, there are versions in Canada, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Yes, they do check for weapons, but them some of the weapons are more than 100 years old.
A DC police officer examines a woman's collectible antiques firearm.
This is what's called "triage," the first stage before getting to the center ring.
A "triage" appraiser moves a customer on to the next stage.
The way it works is brilliant in its essential assembly line simplicity. People with tickets may bring two items to the show, and every item is promised a verbal appraisal of the item’s worth or historical significance. The process starts with waiting on line anywhere from an hour to ninety minutes in “triage,” where the items and their owners are routed into one of 23 categories, including dolls, folk art, glass, silver, textiles, jewelry, Asian art, photography and, the most popular, paintings. At this stage there is an initial appraisal and then on to an official escort, who accompanies the owner into the main event, the center ring where the show is taped. Few walk around unescorted. As a writer for NYSD I had a friendly and informed volunteer, Jeff Giese, by my side from start to finish.

The center ring is essentially a television set, with lights and cameras, and a bank of desks staffed by top appraisers, including Barry Weber, of course, but also experts from auction houses like Christie’s, Doyle New York, Skinner and Sotheby’s. Some of the familiar faces include the New York antique scene’s well-known twins, Leigh and Leslie Keno.
The line-up of official escorts who accompany people to the lines for center ring.
Standing in line to make it into "center ring."
Elyse Greenberg and Renee Thibaut back stage with Barry Weber.
The green room, where the public gets made camera ready if their antique item scores an on-air appraisal.
Parked unassumingly back stage, this production truck is where the directors put the show together.
The host of the show is Mark L. Walberg, and while the name sounds familiar, and he is a professional actor, everyone on set makes clear that Roadshow’s host is not to be confused with that other actor named Mark Wahlberg. Mark L. has ardent women fans, though, including a friend of mine who was seriously bummed to learn he’d taped his on camera bits and departed before she arrived.

The center ring is an exciting hub of cameras, cranes, booms, people and organized frenzy, and not without more lines, but in a timely fashion each person gets his or her moment with one of the star appraisers. If an item has merit – meaning significant, good-for-television value – the owner is moved on to the next stage: hair and make-up in the green room and then a moment on air with the same appraiser, who could reveal, in a best case scenario, that the item is a valuable find worth big bucks.
One of the stars of the show, Leigh Keno.
Leigh Keno's twin brother, Leslie, appraised furniture on behalf of Sotheby's.
Volunteer escort Jeff Giese, who is a writer and editor at the PBS Washington station, WETA. Leigh Keno examines an item of folk art.
Appraiser Lark E. Mason of New Yorks iGavel Auctions assesses a 20th Century Chinese "pillow" belonging to Renee Thibaut
Mark A. Schaffer of New York's A La Vieille Russie examines an item of jewelry.
Barry Weber gives a very close look to the Lord Baltimore miniature.
A Lord Baltimore miniature, circa 1757, "of value to a collector."
I was told I should bring something to be appraised and chose a delicately painted miniature that was handed down from my in-laws, Howard and May Joynt, who were noted collectors of 18th Century Americana. According to a little card attached to it, the subject was Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore as a boy, by “Smybert,” circa 1757.

As luck would have it, Barry was the appraiser. He said it was authentic, of good quality and would have real value to a collector of miniatures. When I asked about perhaps donating it to a museum he warned they might divest it, and if that were to happen I’d be better off selling it myself. Sound advice.
Barry Weber, on camera with a New Jersey woman who thinks she has a piece of George Washington memorabilia.
The camera gets a close-up of the possible George Washington gem.
Outside center ring, where people go after to talk on-camera about whether the appraisal matched or dashes their hopes.
The line for painting appraisals, which typically is the longest line.
While my miniature didn’t stop the presses, season after season Antiques Roadshow has memorable finds that do make news. In Tucson in 2002 a plain-looking 19th century Navajo blanket was appraised at between $350,000 and $500,000. In St. Paul in 2005 a 1914 Patek-Philippe pocket watch was given a value of $250,000. Earlier this year in Raleigh, NC, a set of four 18th century Chinese Quainlong period jade objects were appraised at between $710,000 and $1,070,000 – the highest appraisal in the show’s history. In that way, Antiques Roadshow can be like winning the lottery.

A big bang appraisal makes waiting in line not so arduous. For those who brought in an item from the attic they thought might be a fabulous treasure, but turns out to be worth, well, bupkes, there’s a tent on the way out where Roadshowers can unload their feelings on camera. Essentially, Roadshow therapy. When was the last time your local auction house offered that?
Inside "center ring, where the show is taped.
At all times during the 12 hours of taping a segment is being recorded on one of three stages in the center ring.
Renee Thibaut's items didn't get on the air, but she did score a special t-shirt. After their time on camera, Barry Weber gives some advice on how to get the item authenticated.
Barry Weber signs an autograph for a fan.

Recognizing we are in the most airless of the summer doldrums, I was asked by my editor if I could pull out of my upended top hat one more column about "The Real Housewives of Washington, DC." It’s not easy. There’s so little left to be said, but here’s a shot at what last week was like.

I experienced first hand the cast's deep and sad lack of humor. I learned I could not write about them, or even stage an apology, where they got the joke and laughed. Unlike their sister shows in Atlanta, Orange County, New Jersey and NY, the DC cast take it all so seriously. Fame is a bitch; its dark side drives a hard bargain with the fame seeker. I thought because the women dish it out mercilessly on the air they could take it when it is dished at them. Wrong. They don't laugh. Some hire lawyers. (Though Sunday Michaele told me SHE laughs; she laughs all the time.)

Michaele Salahi in all her glory.
It seems the show is not going the way all the cast members hoped, or their portrayals are not be as they expected, and the Salahis do overwhelm the goings on, both on and off the air. I wrote to Mary Amons to ask if she is pleased. Her response was friendly but she closed with, "I am required to run all media inquiries and questions through our Bravo publicist." How is that any fun?

I contacted a denizen of the White House press room to ask what was the watercooler talk about the show there, where the Salahi’s fame arc started, and the reported work place of Charles Ommanney, who was, at the time of taping, cast member Cat’s husband. In the show he is identified as “the” White House photographer. “No one here mentions the show,” said my White House source. “Ommanney is a sweet guy but he hasn’t been seen here since the campaign.”

A writer contacted me to ask my opinion of a photo spread of Michaele in a glossy magazine, where she is posed in a bikini. At first I didn't know it was Michaele. I thought it was the latest version of Heidi Montag.

I actually wanted to like the show, hoping it would be amusing. I've given it three tries and find it neither likable or hate-able, just irrelevant and depressing. Not wanting to rest on only my own opinion, I sought the view of a woman who is an actual powerful Washington "housewife," an authentic socialite, who has style, clout and wealth, what the “Housewives” purport to have. I asked her to watch an episode with me. After only a couple of segments she was genuinely mystified.

"Nobody I know talks like that," she said, embarrassed by a scene where the women snipe at each other. She said cat-fighting is not a plus for a woman trying to make it in Washington.

She thought Tareq Salahi gives well-dressed, well-mannered and sophisticated Washington men a bad name. When she saw the "Housewives" husband who has patented, or is trying to patent, a so-called penile volumetric measuring device, she asked, "Oh, heavens. What does that have to do with Washington?" I shrugged.

She asked if the “Housewives” attended any of the major annual Washington galas, not the contrived-for-reality-TV events, not dinners that are crashed, but the real deals, like PEN/Faulkner, the Harman Center, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Corcoran Ball, opening night at the opera, where invitations are required and tickets cost real dollars, big dollars. I said I did not know whether any of the “Housewives” routinely attended those top tier events, but I’d heard from seasoned party reporters that they did not. I recalled attending one fundraising event, the “Knock Out Abuse” dinner, where a few of the cast attended but their cameras allegedly were barred at the door.

In the end she asked if any of the women were in the Washington social register, known here as The Green Book. I said I had not looked. "Well, I know this much," she said, "I've not seen one of them at the Chevy Chase Club or Sulgrave." Among social Washington, that’s the cruelest cut.

Would she watch again? “No, I just don’t get it. For all the fuss and talk, it’s not very interesting.”
Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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