The host of the popular PBS series talks appraisals, funny behind-the-scenes moments, and what he's learned about the word "value."
Mark L. Walberg has been hosting the popular PBS series Antiques Roadshow since 2005. He spoke with Guideposts.org about the surpring lessons he’s learned on the show, the most brought-in items and the memorable time he had something appraised (and why he’s never done it again).
His job has taken him to plenty of interesting places and allowed him to meet incredible people with unique treasures. It’s grueling, being the host of a series that invites thousands of people – Walberg explains the show sees 6,000 people on shooting days, and appraises nearly 12,000 items – to share their family heirlooms, but the payoff is worth it.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader
GUIDEPOSTS: What is it about Antiques Roadshow that makes it so addicting?
MARK L. WALBERG: I think the initial thing that catches people's eyes is the thought that maybe they own something of great value that they haven't discovered yet. It's sort of that American dream of maybe there's something in my garage that can change my life financially. But the reason that people hang around for the whole hour is far deeper than that. I think that we have a collective understanding of history, art, science, and culture based on what we've learned in school and encountered, but then on the show we hear sort of an intimate family connection to some sort of treasure that brings some memory of our family. I think that’s why people stay, for the stories.
GUIDEPOSTS: Have you learned anything about appraisal from your time on the show?
MW: I came to Antiques Roadshow with a three-year old's understanding of antique collectibles, now I maybe have a five-year old's understanding, but what impresses me most about the appraisers is that they do this for free. They volunteer their time, they fly themselves there. You're talking about people who have collected not just one but sometimes several generations of knowledge that is passed down through their own families. What I'm always touched by is their generosity of knowledge.
GUIDEPOSTS: What's been the most memorable item that's been appraised on the show?
MW: I have seen some amazing things. I've seen some pieces of some family history that have really touched me, some items like musical instruments that I think are really romantic. My grandfather was a professional violin player and so when I see somebody bring an instrument in, I always think of whose fingers have been on that fret board and what music was played through those instruments over the hundreds of years and in what parlors and to whose smiles … I think those things are really cool.
GUIDEPOSTS: Are there items that are repeatedly brought in?
MW: Lots of Bibles, antique sewing machines, a lot of Tiffany-style lamps. There are certain things that are antiques and have value, but we all have some of it.
GUIDEPOSTS: Have you ever felt sympathy for someone who thought they had an expensive heirloom but it ended up being worthless?
MW: Yeah, there’s the story that one of our book appraisers told me. He said somebody brought in this very old and relatively tattered volume of books and she was very, very proud of it. He looked at the books and said, ‘Yes it's old and it's rare, but it's dog-eared and had some wear issues and not a particularly sought after volume but it's worth about $150.’ The lady was a little perturbed and was like, ‘Do you have any idea how rare this book is?’ The appraiser, without batting an eye said, ‘Yes madam, I'm aware, but even rarer are those who wish to own it.’ It sort of dashed her hope of riches.
GUIDEPOSTS: Have there been any items that are so weird and bizarre that even the appraisers are kind of scratching their heads about what they are?
MW: At least once or twice every event. I love it when you'll see somebody like Ken Farmer, who knows about everything and someone will bring something in to the Americana area or the folk art area and he'll have no idea what it is. They'll send it over to Wendell Garret over at science and he's this crazy genius and he'll have no idea what it is. We'll go to African arts because maybe it's from a different continent. Then we start playing an old version of the 1970s liar’s game, where we all make up what it possibly could be. It's not often with that body of brains that we're stumped but every now and then there's some anomaly that nobody can figure out.
GUIDEPOSTS: Do you guys just go to Google then?
MW: If that group doesn't know what it is, Google is probably pretty clueless about it too.
GUIDEPOSTS: Have you had anything appraised by your friends on the show?
MW: It was my first season and Richard Wright was a doll expert and appraiser, and a dear man, who's since passed away. He had a very quick and acerbic wit and was not afraid to put you in your place. My first Roadshow week, I barely knew anyone and I finally got up the nerve to go over to him at the end of Saturday while he's at his desk and it's a little quiet. I leaned over and I said, ‘I hate to bother you, but my wife and my mother have been collecting these collectible dolls for my daughter since she was born for every occasion. We have about 23 of them. They're collectibles, we've never taken them out of the boxes, and they’ve never been played with. They're Madam Alexander collectible dolls.’
Without even looking up from his bifocals he said, ‘Honey, take them out and play with them.’ That was my first and last appraisal.
GUIDEPOSTS: Have you learned any lessons from your time as host on the show?
MW: There are so many lessons. It's a little maybe over-thinking things but I always look at the word ‘value.’ Over the years, I've gone, I've seen people who really care about certain items that are important to them but then I've met all these families and people all over the country who've chosen certain lifestyles and certain ways of living that I found admirable and all those are a statement on what they chose to value. I always say I haven't learned about antiques, but I have learned about what value is.
I wrote about this family I met. Years ago we needed a farm to shoot at. This couple agreed to let us shoot. They actually had a small farm, all organic produce, and they had a co-op. People in their area would pay a fee monthly and whatever they grew, once a week they would go down to the church and everybody would get a bushel. People would get whatever their subscription gave them that week. I asked them, ‘Are you making money doing this?’ Both of them said, ‘Our goal was to make the low-end of middle income for this region of Iowa, and our goal is met.’
Later on, I learned one of them had a PhD, the other had a Master's and they were quite educated and probably could go to the big city and make a killing in some field but they were raising two children in this very simple way and that's where their values were. That impressed me. That was priceless.