The Baltimore Sun

The period is Edwardian. The legs are New York. And the heart-shaped back is all Baltimore.

In the bowels of the Baltimore Convention Center, appraiser Mike Flanigan ran his fingers along the carved rim of a chair that had been in my family for at least a century but about which we knew virtually nothing.

"It belonged to my grandmother, and that's about all we know," said my own grandmother, Elizabeth Kreis. In that bare detail, the piece was typical of the thousands that make their way to Antiques Roadshow every year: They've been around forever, maybe in a closet or attic, perhaps lovingly cared for, but the history and the value are great unknowns.

And that's why you go to PBS's Antiques Roadshow. For answers.

The top-rated PBS show, which finds treasure amid America's junk -- but also a lot of the junk -- is in Baltimore today for the first time in eight years. Tickets were distributed by a lottery system months ago, so don't think of hauling your baseball-card collection down to the Convention Center.

But for the lucky 3,400 who scored tickets, it will be a day of discovery and surprise. That old blanket you use to keep warm on winter nights was made by the Navajo and is actually worth $335,000. Or maybe the doll passed from mother to daughter for generations is a knock-off and, financially at least, as valuable as a McDonald's Extra Value Meal.

"It's the human drama, one object at a time," said Flanigan, a Baltimore appraiser who has been with the show since its first season, in 1996. "What's impressive is that we live in a country where people think we have no memory, but in every city people stand in line for hours to learn something is worth less than $100, which 90 percent of the stuff is."

The dream is to be in that 10 percent, to find in the attic the equivalent of an ancient lottery ticket, purchased by some ancestor years ago and left behind for you to cash in.

"The baby boomers are now faced with dealing with, I'm sorry to say, the deaths of their parents, and that means cleaning out the attic," said Douglas Gomery, resident scholar at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland. "This is cleaning out the attic, taking it to the Baltimore Convention Center and finding out it's worth $100,000."

My own family came to Baltimore from Germany and Ireland in the 1800s. A few interesting pieces have been collected and passed down through the years. And so I wondered: How did they get here, and what are they worth?

Through a special arrangement, the show allowed this reporter to bring his mother, grandmother and great-aunt to the Convention Center a day early to go through the appraisal process. Cynics might think that in taking my relatives, who are huge fans of the show, I might have been hoping for a step-up over my 20 cousins when it comes time to divide the family's goods.

I am insulted by the suggestion.

Back to the chair, then. The family believed it was purchased by my great-great-grandmother in the late 1800s. She lived in Baltimore and was a simple woman. Her parlor, where this chair had its first life, was only used, and only heated, when the parish priest came to visit.

"It's hard to believe she would have anything so ornate," my grandmother told Flanigan as he tipped it over to examine the back.

The wood, he said, is birch, which was easy to stain, and the French legs and feet were the style in New York in that period. But the elaborate rounded column supporting the armrest was modeled on the first chairs used in the Baltimore City Council Chamber. And the heart-shaped back cushion was hugely popular in Baltimore in the late 19th century.

But the furniture industry had largely left Baltimore by then, he said, and, "it could have been made in Chicago." He added, "It's a lovely example from that period. It's a very elaborate one."

So what's it worth? Part of the brilliance of the show is the gradual build-up of suspense. You learn about a piece, you get to know its owners, you're rooting for them. And then comes the big unveiling: the market value.

My family had no idea what the chair was worth. But there seemed to be some sinking of hearts when Flanigan said that for chairs that have been reupholstered, the value often depends on whether the buyer likes the new fabric and could be as low as $150.

Flanigan's verdict on our chair: about $400.

"I didn't really care what the financial value was," my mother, Mary Catherine Kiehl, said later. "I just wanted to find out the history."

She then showed Flanigan a silver pitcher that had belonged to my great-great-great-grandfather, a Baltimore businessman named Leopold Wieman. It has detailed carvings of flowers and fruits and a mark on the bottom that says, "Southington," referring to the silver company in Connecticut.

But Flanigan determined it to be only silver plate, not real silver. Its worth in his estimate: maybe $75.

Finally, my mother turned over a silver serving spoon with a real story to it. In the late 1800s, a man named William Rogers came to Baltimore to apprentice as a silversmith. He stayed with my great-great-grandmother's family, and when he left he made the spoon as a gift for her. The delicately carved handle shows grapes and flowers, and the spoon is perfectly balanced.

"I gotta tell you, it's a spectacular piece," Flanigan said. "This is fabulous. This is a guy who knew what he was doing. Look at how nice the detail is. You can tell whoever made this did it for someone they absolutely loved."

Indeed, the engraving in the handle reads, "To Mr. and Mrs. Kreis." Signed, "W.R."

Flanigan says he would be shocked if an auction house offered the spoon for anything less than $800.

"That's the winner!" said my grandmother, who balanced the spoon on her fingertip as Flanigan did, perhaps looking at it in a new light. But she said the real value lies in its personal history to the family, the story that only we can tell.

That's a sentiment, said Mark L. Walberg, the host of Antique Roadshow, that gets to the heart of the program's enduring appeal. "What grabs people is the American dream -- the chance that something might be worth a life-changing amount of money," he said. "But what keeps people watching is that it becomes living history."

Did I mention, by the way, that I've got a lovely bowl that would look great with that spoon?

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