In fact, more often than not, the old paintings, family Bibles and china tea cups -- the most common items brought to the Antiques Roadshow events -- are not worth much. "Most objects we see are worth only about $100," says Judy Matthews, the show's senior publicist.
Antiques Roadshow, which got its start in the U.K. in 1979, debuted in the U.S. 14 years ago. The premise of the show is simple: owners bring in their stuff hoping that an appraiser says its worth big bucks. Appraisers usually start by explaining the object's historical significance -- or lack thereof -- and bring the segment to a climax by assessing just how much that object is or isn't worth. That payoff moment is the part that every participant and viewer waits breathlessly for and, on the odd occasion, the appraisal is indeed pretty breathtaking.
Take, for example, the collection of jade from China that one woman brought to the show's taping in Raleigh, N.C. in 2009. It turned out that the collection, which her father brought home from China during the 1930s and 1940s, was valued at as much as $1.07 million -- making it the first million-dollar appraisal on the American show.
The appraisal was definitely a shining moment for Antiques Roadshow, but things haven't always gone so smoothly. In 1997, it was discovered that two experts, Russ Pritchard and George Juno, faked an appraisal of a rare Confederate sword. As a result, they were banned from the show. Pritchard was later found guilty of bilking his clients and was sent to prison. Juno also pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. (Appraisers, who receive no compensation and pay their own expenses, are not allowed to solicit business from guests of the show. If a guest contacts them on their own, they can do business with them.)
"We were sadly a bit naive back in the day," Matthews says. "We have a very specific agreement (with appraisers) attesting to their ethical behavior as regards as not knowing the guest in advance. We do fact checking to make sure that things are accurate."
The Antiques Roadshow has bounced back. A recent event in Washington, D.C. received 23,000 applications for tickets to the taping, the most in the show's history (only 6,400 tickets are available). Like most wildly popular programs, the Antiques Roadshow has its share of copycats. Shows such as Pawn Stars and American Pickers on the History Channel are a testament to the Roadshow's popularity and it's longevity.
What about all of those people who were lucky enough to hit the Roadshow lottery? Believe it or not, many don't cash in. "A lot of objects are heirlooms," says Matthews. "People don't commonly sell what they bring to the Antiques Roadshow."
Of course, some do cash in, like the owner of all that rare Chinese jade. While others loan their items to museums, figuring that it's too costly to keep them insured and displayed properly.
Here are five of the biggest appraisals in the U.S. show's history and what the owners of these treasures decided to do with them.
18th Century Chinese Qianlong Period jade collection
Valued at $710,000 to $1,070,000
Raleigh, N.C. (2009)
How it was acquired: Guest Jinx Taylor's jade collection was inherited from her father, who acquired the objects while he was stationed in China with the U.S. Army in the 1930s and 1940s.
Historical significance: The Qianlong period dates from 1735 to 1796. Taylor's collection includes an imperial bowl and a statue of a mythical creature called a bixie, which means to ward off evil.
Comments from the appraiser: Appraiser James Callahan said: "It's an incredible collection, and he also bought at a period of time where I would doubt if he paid more than a hundred dollars for any one of these pieces.... It's the best thing I have ever seen on the Roadshow."
Where is it now? The collection was sold in October 2009. Four jades, including a bowl used by the emperor, brought a total of $494,615 (including buyers' premiums). Callahan told Maine Antiques Digest that Taylor was "disappointed" by the reaction but can take consolation in the 30 other items from her father's collection that she was also selling, which were not shown on the Roadshow. The appraiser could not be reached for comment.
Oil painting by Clyfford Still
Valued at $500,000
Palm Springs, Calif. (2009)
How it was acquired: The guest and her husband received the painting, which depicts the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, as a housewarming present.
Historical significance: The painter, Still, was one of her husband's college professors. More importantly, however, Still was a founder of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His work rarely comes onto the market.
Comments from the appraiser: "I have to say, in all my years on the Roadshow, it's probably the most exciting find I've had," said appraiser Alasdair Nichol.
Where is it now? Nichol said through a spokeswoman that the painting has not sold.
Navajo First Phase Chief's Blanket
Valued at $350,000 to $500,000
Tucson, Ariz. (2001)
How it was acquired: The guest said the silk-like blanket came to his family from legendary Western frontiersman Kit Carson.
Historical significance: A rare, early example of early Navajo weaving. The design consisting of brown, blue, and white bands and stripes, is the simplest of all the Navajo 19th-century blankets, Less than 50 first-phase blankets, made until roughly 1865, survive.
Comments from the appraiser: Appraiser Donald Ellis was awestruck by the garment, saying "when you walked in with this, I just about died."
Where is it now? Ellis later sold the blanket to the Detroit Institute of Arts for a price he declined to disclose.
Oil painting by James Henry Beard of Senator Henry Clay
Valued at $300,000 to $500,000
Dallas, Texas (2008)
How it was acquired: The great-great-great-grandfather of the guest purchased the painting, which dates from 1847.
Historical significance: Clay, a Senator from Kentucky, was probably the second most famous 19th Century politician next to Abraham Lincoln.
Comments from the appraiser: Said appraiser Alan Fausel: "Beard is not a first-tier artist, so he's not that well-known. And in fact, he's known really more for doing paintings with dogs in them."
Where is it now? The painting is now on loan to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.
Original artwork from the Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz
Valued at $450,000
Phoenix, Ariz. (2009)
How it was acquired: The guest says she began her collection in the 1990s because her son liked the Peanuts.
Historical significance: The material included daily and Sunday comic strips dating to 1952, including Schultz's coverage of Halley's Comet. She paid $400 to $500 for them.
Comments from the appraiser: "These are one-of-a-kinds," said appraiser Gary Sohmers. "What Charles Schulz would do is make a daily (comic strip), and then they'd make copies to send off to the syndicators, the newspapers that would be running them. And then he would have the originals and give them away. And he gave most of them away."
Where is it now? Sohmers says the appraisal was for insurance purposes and the collector had no intention of selling.