Local appraiser featured on 'Chesapeake Collectibles'

During the filming of "Chesapeake Collectibles," people have approached town appraiser Robert Harrison with their basement and attic clutter and left with priceless family heirlooms.

Since 2010, Harrison, who runs Harrison Appraisals LLC in Westminster, has served as a guest appraiser on the Maryland Public Television show "Chesapeake Collectibles," a local spin on the popular Public Broadcasting Service program "Antiques Roadshow." Each year, Harrison, along with 23 other appraisers, meets with more than 1,000 Maryland residents hoping to score big with antiques and family heirlooms.

Harrison will be featured in an episode airing at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 10, and will be present at the season five taping June 7 and 8.

Harrison said he first was attracted to the appraisal business based on his love of local history.

"I like the work because it's challenging and you can learn a lot about people," Harrison said. "Many of the everyday things people now collect started out as functional objects, and it's only been over the years that we've grown to appreciate them as cultural or artistic objects."

Harrison said his expertise is in the Shenandoah Valley and Pennsylvania German cultures, often judging pieces of vernacular furniture, folk art, stoneware and textiles.

Despite the nearly instantaneous appraisals shown on the program, Harrison said he and his fellow appraisers always engage in quick research after an initial look at the artifact.

"Nothing should be a gut reaction. You should have a general idea of what you're talking about," Harrison said. "It's definitely not for the squeamish, because you've got to move fast, but hopefully you can at least recognize the object and go from there."

Producer Ken Day said the program featured exclusively Virginia appraisers during the first season. After viewer feedback requesting wider coverage, he reached out to Maryland appraisers, including Harrison. Day said the show's focus on local history sets it apart from the national "Antiques Roadshow."

Over the years, the show has seen Charles Schulz' original "Peanuts" artwork, Abraham Lincoln's handwritten letters and a Robert E. Lee death mask - a cast of the general's face made after death to preserve his features for future sculptors.

One of the most notable pieces Harrison appraised was a 19th century Mohawk cradleboard, used to swaddle a child on the mother's back.

"It was in the family of someone who was Native American, and her grandfather actually used the cradleboard," Harrison said. "We looked at the piece, and it had folk decorations and the hand-painted decorations. She was able to supply a photograph of her father and grandfather in Native American dress next to the cradleboard, and it just added a human element to it, so it wasn't just a museum object."

Harrison said the cradleboard was appraised for an insurance value of $15,000.

"When you see those kinds of things and you're talking to an ancestor of the actual object, well, anybody can relate to that," Harrison said. "We try to give those stories, because to me, they're more interesting than the value. The value's an extra, but if we can find a story that's really good, that's what's special."