"The Things We Carry: Seeking Appraisal at the Antiques Roadshow"
By Joshua Wolf Shenk
Harper's Magazine, June 2001 [links]
As I remember him, Rabbi Sidney Wolf was short and thin. My grandfather had wispy white hair and wore rimless glasses. He grew orchids in his greenhouse and listened to classical records in a big leather chair. He liked to tell stories, but I remember only one, about how when he was a kid he could buy two ice-cream cones or two candy bars for a nickel.
I am told he held his synagogue rapt with his stories. I am told men would appear at his home, remove their hats with trembling hands, and go with him to his study. I am told he ate salami sandwiches on Yom Kippur in his temple study. Sometimes, I am told, he did not get out of bed. I think he would have understood me. He died when I was twelve. He has always seemed to me like a ghost.
Some years ago, I had an idea that I would make him real. I went to Corpus Christi, Texas, and spoke to his old congregants in their condominiums perched above the Gulf of Mexico. I talked to old rabbis who taught him and a young one who had been taught by him.
As I rose to leave, this rabbi pointed across his office to a Remington-Rand manual typewriter. "That was your grandfatherıs," he said. I walked to it, pressed my palm against its gray speckled paint, rubbed the ribbon between my fingers. I touched the black keys with metal rings and white inlay. As I pressed down gingerly, the typebars rose from their beds and fell again when I withdrew. Only then did I notice that the script was Hebrew.
Now I have this old, real thing. It is no ghost, I tell you. Listen as its keys strike and recede, connect and release. The great claps come like hammer strikes, thunderbolts, heart attacks. They make the sound of life and death, then leave me again in tension and in silence.
In my apartment, as in my imagination, Rabbi Wolfıs typewriter commands a place of honor. It sits now next to my desk, its open top covered by a small silk handkerchief. I never use it--the ribbon is dry, the platen so hard that it could crack the type. But even if I replaced the ribbon and platen, and oiled the gears, I could still only play at the typewriter as a toddler might a piano, for I know Hebrew about as well as a young child knows scales. This typewriter, built to make meaning through language, now sits idle and stares. If it were a book, it would peer from behind glass, taunting eyes with its story. If it were a carpet, it would hang from a wall, tempting feet with its fibers. "Maggie canıt appreciate these quilts!" gasps a character in Alice Walkerıs story "Everyday Use." "Sheıd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use." No, not these things. These old things we protect and display. We gaze upon them and show them to guests.
"Do you know," they might ask, "what itıs worth?"
Now I do. Three times in the last year, I removed the typewriter from its shelf, wrapped it in towels, placed it in a small black suitcase, and went to find out what itıs worth.
I did this for you too. Have you seen the collectors, the fondlers, the appraisers, with their fine objects, their old shit, their fine old shit? Have you noticed that there are 10,000 more antiques and collectibles shops than there were ten years ago ? Have you watched eBayıs numbers? In 1999 there were 10 million registered users and $ 2.8 billion in trades; in 2000 there were 22 million registered users and $ 5.4 billion in trades.
Imagine the object that is most special to you with a price tag dangling from it and a hand drawing near with an uncapped pen. Your heirlooms and curios your old catcherıs mitt or telescope; your great-auntıs sampler; that silver bracelet made by your grandfather, the one you never take off (you know who you are) you may still regard these as "priceless" or "worthless." You may say you do not care about their price. Once you could be safe in this innocence. Soon, however, there will be no priceless, and no worthless, and it will take a great act of will to not care.
Another reservoir of human life has been injected with the green dye of the market. These are lush pools, glowing with desire, slippery with fear. Sometime, I predict, you will dive.
If youıre curious, look what happened to me.
In the house I grew up in, a blue plastic mat covered our bathtub. It had dozens of suction cups on the bottom that, when lifted from the porcelain, told their own peculiar story. A few years ago I visited home and found the tub bare. My mom had thrown the mat away. It was old and soiled, she said. She seemed bewildered that I could be so angry.
For as long as I can remember, I have had faith in old things. I have brethren in this faith, and we have our own television show. On the Antiques Roadshow two men stand before an 1853 map of the United States. One says he bought it for two dollars at a library sale. Then the other tells stories about it--about pioneers and immigrants, in land offices and taverns, looking for the routes that peeled off the Oregon Trail, or checking the Negro population, free and slave, of Missouri. This data had to be accurate, the storyteller said, because the maps were used by people. And because they were used, pawed over, weathered, and stained, few survive in such good condition.
"Now you paid two dollars for it," he says. (Why is the storyteller talking about money?) "I assume you think itıs worth more. Do you have an idea of what itıs worth?"
"No idea whatsoever." (This canıt be true. Why did you buy it? Why do you like it?)
"Well," says the appraiser, "a map like this, with such beautiful color and really remarkably good condition for this kind of thing--I would say a map like this would sell for between twelve and fifteen hundred dollars." A treasure chest, announced by the sound of pixie dust, passes across the bottom of the screen, leaving in its wake the words "1850s map, $ 1,200-$ 1,500." The segment ends and another begins. "Tell me where you got this," says the storyteller-appraiser to the owner, and again out pour miracles of material history.
Objects, with the Antiques Roadshow experts as their mediums, are made to breathe and speak. They become portals to the people who made, used, or owned them. The storytellers, before they appraise, read with astonishing depth. They can tell that a porcelain doll that passed through a family for generations was made in Germany sometime between 1840 and 1860. They can tell this from the flat-heel shoes. They can tell that a chair bought in Toronto was made in New York before the American Revolution and probably went to Canada with a Tory family fleeing the rebellion. If something has been in your family "forever," they can tell you just how long.
But the sugar in this oatmeal, the opium in this tea--the sweet and addictive quality of the Antiques Roadshow--is the transition from story to price. The segments begin with the particular, the idiosyncratic, and the obscure but within minutes yield to the impersonal, the immediate. Whatever tension and wonder have been evoked by the distance of those pioneers and immigrants collapse into a number, a precise point on the map of everything that is possible, a tag instructing how lost time, people, or feelings can be owned. The burdens of history float away, replaced by treasure chests.
Watching this, I thought of my Grandma Shenk, my dadıs mother the Wolfs are my momıs side at her house in Florida. My uncle had just returned from a trip, and he had brought her a box of chocolate truffles. He told her that they were the most expensive chocolates in the world. I watched as she took them, beaming, and began to circulate among her guests with the box, offering pieces and repeating to each person, "These are the most expensive chocolates in the world." When she came to me I took a piece, and then I looked at my uncle. He shrugged. "I actually donıt know theyıre the most expensive."
"Money is the absolute means," writes Georg Simmel in The Philosophy of Money, "that, on that very account, acquires the psychological significance of an absolute goal." In other words, people who exchange money for food, shelter, medicine, power--in our age, the list has no real end--often imbue the currency itself with the qualities of what it can purchase. And so it is that words such as "most expensive" can make a grown woman beam.
My paternal grandmother is the child of Jews who fled Minsk for their lives. She grew up poor in Columbus, Ohio, where she met and married my grandfather, who grew up even poorer. His parents had also fled Minsk, and settled in Toledo. His father died young, and his mother later took her own life. My grandfather told his younger brother and sisters that they should never speak of what happened. He took them to Columbus, where he worked for his uncle in a junkyard. He began to sell rebuilt carburetors. With his wife, he built a small house and then a larger one. He did business, and she made home, cooking the sweet, fatty foods of their ancestors. He went bankrupt, started over--first with auto parts and then with whatever else he could sell for more than he paid. They did well and eventually retired to Florida, where they took their grandchildren to eat stone crabs for dinner, and pointed to the larger houses, and told them how much the people who lived there were worth. They suffered for this life, and if later their youngest son chips off a piece of the sweet, fat life and gives it to her in a box, will you sneer at her, will you cry for her, will you stand in awe at this moment?
This is an essentially American moment, as it has to do with the essential American faith: that the material world will provide, that hard work will produce wealth, and that wealth will correspond to happiness. I remember learning in grade school that Thomas Jefferson died penniless and being jarred by this fact as I would by a minor chord that did not resolve in a tonic. The grandchild of a salesman, I was raised to believe that great stories should resolve in great fortune, that true value should be recognized and rewarded with dollars. I grew to question this belief.
I grew to sneer and toss my horns at "the market" and the cruelties done in its name, at the way people and things become commodities. Before the Industrial Revolution, for instance, people had relationships to their land. Then land became "real estate"--the word "real" used in its legal sense of "pertaining to property" and in its mathematical sense of "pertaining to quantities." This idea of "real" can smother the other--that which is authentic, genuine. Today, price tags hang on human eggs, on pain and suffering, on spiritual practice. "What price liberty?" Sothebyıs asked when auctioning a copy of the Declaration of Independence. (The answer: $ 8.14 million.) Some companies even hang price tags on their customersı lives (assigning "lifetime value" to their projected purchases, minus projected marketing costs). In such a world, The Market has become a kind of divine force--determining all that is real.(1)
The grandchild of a rabbi, I believe there is a value more enduring, and also more elusive, than that which can be stamped with digits. I am caught in the thicket between two belief systems--the belief in things that can be touched and counted and passed among us (and given a price that corresponds to the desire for them) and the belief in feelings that can be evoked by those things but not counted, transferred, or even, finally, represented.
Upon first glance, the Antiques Roadshow promises to resolve this inexorable tension. The show pays homage to memory and ancestry--to the felt, sacred ties that bind us. It seems to tether these spiritual values to the material world, through the magic of old things. During a show filmed in San Francisco, an old man brought the beer mug in which his grandmother kept her string. He learned that the mug was a rare piece from 1880 worth up to $ 4,000. "Oh, go on," he said, and then tears broke from his eyes and his voice choked. "Oh, I donıt believe it," he said. "Yes," the appraiser said, "you have a real, real treasure here." "Two to four thousand?" the man asked, his voice cracking and hard to hear. Watching this, I felt that he had been afforded a small, precious vision of his grandmotherıs hands tossing string into that mug, of her lasting value.
To the same show, in San Francisco, Carole Gray brought a book that had been given to her great-grandfather by the French government. As Californiaıs first secretary of agriculture, he devised a way to control foot-and-mouth disease and later helped the French with their own outbreak. They thanked him with a thick volume that detailed the Empress Josephineıs gardens, one of about a hundred printed, lavishly illustrated with signed lithograph plates by Pierre Joseph Redoute. "Do you have any opinion as to what this book might be worth?" Jerry Patterson of William Doyle Galleries asked Gray. "Have you ever been told?" And then he told her: $ 75,000.
I called Gray to ask her what had happened after the appraisal. Her first thought, she told me, was that she would need to get the book insured. This is a common reaction among viewers at home--who believe their heirloom is "just like" what is on screen--and insurance is now a necessity for most everyone who is taped at the Chubbıs Antiques Roadshow. Although PBS custom doesnıt allow the name for broadcast, the taping events are named for the showıs principal sponsor, the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. (Oh, the hated insurance men, who can "value" anything. We believe no one can tell us what true value is. Then we cup our ears to hear.)
Carole Gray earns a good living as an attorney in Marin County. The book was the one thing she requested from her grandmotherıs estate. Even though everyone in the family referred to it as "the damn book," she loved it for the simple reason that it had meant so much to her grandma. She canıt imagine selling it, she told me. But, I asked, has your view of it changed, now that you know the price? "Not at all," she said. "I already knew in my mind that it was a valuable thing." Then, after a pause, she added, "It does fill me with a lot more pride now. At that time, it was a very nice gift and worth something, and now itıs worth much more, so thatıs in correlation with the work my great-grandfather did." I tried to ask Gray just what she meant by "valuable" and "worth." Did she, mean intrinsic or external worth? Moral or market value? I soon gave up in a fit of verbal exhaustion. These distinctions I could not articulate. They had, for practical purposes, been erased. And so I could not ask the crucial question: What is value?
At a certain point in my life, I came to believe that Rabbi Sidney Wolf could answer this question. When I struggled with what to believe and what to do, an image would swim into view of him with a mischievous and knowing look. Only he could explain all this I thought. Eternally absent, his authority would be eternal as well. I was eleven when I last saw him. He must have known that by the time I turned thirteen his cancer would have finished its work, and so we spent several afternoons in his study preparing for my bar mitzvah. I remember his voice. Rich and raspy, cured by cigars, it conveyed a blend of wisdom and compassion. I felt assured by the timbre, and I remember being surprised by this feeling because I mostly thought of him as an awful grump. He seemed angry a lot, maybe because arthritis had long since reached his fingers and he could no longer play the piano. The only time I saw him sit at the stool, he pounded out a few notes and then rose in disgust. Of what he told me in his study, what stories, what wisdom, what compassion, I can remember no trace.
In 1994 a Texas newspaper published a long feature on my grandfather. The writer, Hollace Ava Weiner, told a story about a small-town rabbi and his small town. Rabbi Wolf came to Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1932, accepting an offer of a three-month trial from a group of Jews who were far from sure they could sustain a congregation. "The work here," one of the group wrote him, "would be in the nature of a pioneer." My grandfather sent his response by Western Union: HAPPY TO ACCEPT YOUR OFFER WILL ARRIVE ABOUT TWENTIETH. For four years, a shack served as their synagogue. But, in the midst of the Depression, this Gulf Coast town had oil fields and a naval air station. Jewish immigrants, out of work in Chicago and Indianapolis, headed south, and the congregation grew.
Having grown up Orthodox, my grandfather chose the Reform rabbinate, he wrote in a brief memoir, "where it appeared to me that the men were more community minded." The idea of community animated him. In 1935 he began a crossfaith Thanksgiving service that Time featured on its religion page. In 1950, for Lincolnıs Birthday, he invited a black preacher and choir to occupy his pulpit for a night, and accepted a reciprocal invitation. He spoke with passion on Micah, justice, and mercy, but also on the need for birth control (in 1947) and the error of the Vietnam War (in the mid-1960s). He said Kaddish at more than 150 funerals, often for rural folks without a rabbi, and married more than 200 couples, but he also chaired the Red Cross, began an orchestra, taught English to Mexican immigrants, and found jobs and doctors for the poor. He stayed with his temple until he retired in 1972, and he died in Corpus Christi eleven years later. "Rabbi Wolfıs work was subtle," a man named Tony Bonilla told Weiner. "He was not out to make a name for himself as some kind of hero or community healer or compromiser. He just did it quietly.... Rabbi Wolf, by his quiet, moral leadership, did a lot to help Corpus Christi find its soul."
Weinerıs work startled me, especially when I saw that she had pried stories and details from my grandmother, who had always resisted my requests for the same. Bertha Wolf, known by the nickname Bebe because she was the baby in a family of French emigres, did not, she would say, like to dig in the past. When I went to Corpus Christi, having interested an editor in a piece about my grandfather, she put it this way: "Itıs a sore, honey, and you donıt scratch a sore." My grandmotherıs refusal to narrate the past is the norm in my family. They donıt want to wade through the pogroms and the poverty and the suicides. But I feel the weight of this history. I feel it in my temples. I see it in sickly yellow skies, hear it in flesh, and taste it when Iım alone.
I spent ten days in the house on Leming Street--the rabbiıs house, now his widowıs. Chameleons crawled on the white clapboard outside his old study. In the back yard lay a garish cement rectangle over which the greenhouse once rose. I went through every drawer, every closet, looking for letters and sermons and scrapbooks. "Take whatever you want, sweetheart," my grandmother would call out every once in a while. But what I needed, she couldnıt give me.
As a reporter, I had good material. I had Sidney Wolfıs own brief but carefully prepared memoir. I had his barely breathing professor from Hebrew Union College and a classmate, who had been with him in high school as well. I had living congregants and scrapbooks stuffed with stories from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. In this material, Hollace Ava Weiner found a "Prophet in a New Frontier." But I only saw white space, blinding white space. For instance, after his retirement, Rabbi Wolf told the Caller-Times that he had bought a tape recorder and was dictating recollections for "a sort of autobiography." I found the machine, but the only sound of him was several seconds of "testing, testing." Also, I found letters to an HUC professor in which he proposed topics for a dissertation (first on the pastorıs role in mental health, later on Judaism and social justice), then large gaps before he wrote again. I could find no sermons, only notecards for a few talks. "He didnıt save this stuff," Helen Wilk, Temple Beth Elıs historian, told me. "His sermons or his letters--he didnıt think they would have much value. He never really thought of himself as a remarkable man. To him, it was I did my job. I did what I thought was right. I followed my conscience.ı To him, what was the big deal?"
My eyes were drawn to what could not be seen, a man who wanted more than he had, who tacked between abject humility and great, perhaps even grandiose, ambition. A man who thought himself worthy of a memoir, then wrote, "I omit many personal details in this document which would be of no interest to my readers," thought again about a longer autobiography, then stopped himself after "testing, testing." A man who, according to my grandmother, was offered a position at the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, one of the oldest and largest Reform synagogues in North America, but turned it down. "Big deal" was a favorite phrase. "Big deal," he would say, meaning what he did was not. On his deathbed, when the city declared "Rabbi Sidney Wolf Day," he wondered aloud why the big deal. When I talked about this with my mom, she told me, for the first time, that my grandfather had "spells" in which he stayed in bed for several days at a time. Bebe would send my mom to check on him, to bring him a tray with dinner. He would be unshaven, and the sight scared them. The Reverend Bob Tate would come over, go inside the bedroom for a talk, then leave. Eventually my grandfather would reappear, sit in his chair with his music, shaven and smiling.
When I left Corpus Christi, I went to see a rabbi who had served Temple Beth El after my grandfather retired. Rabbi Warren Stone has a congregation in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. At the end of our interview, as I rose to leave, he pointed across his office to the manual typewriter. "That was your grandfatherıs," he said as I drew near it, dazed, especially after I noticed the Hebrew type. Before I had the time or presence to covet it, Rabbi Stone said, "You should have it."
What does it mean, though, to "have" this typewriter? The object is a paradox that I cannot resolve. It is a link to a past I never knew. If I strain, I can picture my grandfather hunched over it, striking its keys. But I am touching an absence. The typewriter speaks of my grandfather but is, for me, forever silent. It is potentially warm but perpetually cold.
Somehow my grief and anger at this distance dissolved over time, and I came to gaze upon the typewriter with a kind of glaze. When friends noticed it and said, "How cool," I said, "Look closer." Then, like me in Warren Stoneıs office, they noticed the Hebrew. "It was my grandfatherıs," I would say. "He was a rabbi." When I began to write about the Antiques Roadshow, I decided to use it in an experiment. I did not want to know its price. I knew Iıd never sell it. But I did want to know when it was made, by whom, how rare it was. To receive these stories, I would accept the price. I wrapped the typewriter in several towels inside a small suitcase, put it in the trunk of a rental car, and drove to Providence, Rhode Island.
The show tapes on Saturday. The line to receive one of 6,500 free tickets typically begins the night before. In Providence, a couple from Washington, D.C., plunked their lawn chairs down at 3:50 P.M. They had seen people turned away at the Baltimore taping, they told me. By midnight, the line stretched around the block. Many had driven from Virginia and New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Some had booked rooms at the Holiday Inn, but most stayed in line, and I stayed with them, hearing their stories, the tremble in their voices.
Around 7:00 A.M., the showıs staff began handing out the tickets. When the doors opened an hour later, the crowd snaked through the lobby and then upstairs through a hall resembling an airplane hangar. They clutched boxes, dragged wagons behind them. After six- and ten-hour drives, and all night in line, they would wait three or four hours more for their turn at one of nineteen appraisersı tables. In an interview with Fortune, the showıs publicist compared the scene to the pilgrims at Lourdes waiting to be touched by the anointed. "I was always struck by how hopeful people are that theyıre going to come away better than when they arrived," she said. "That theyıre going to get the Good News."
Few receive such transcendence. The appraisers--from Christieıs, Sothebyıs, and Skinner primarily but also from smaller auction houses and shops--are not in that business. They know about art and meaning and history, because thatıs what they sell. Their priestly order can be traced to mid-eighteenth-century England, one of the richest societies in history, the first to earn more from trade and industry than from agriculture. In that era, Jeremy Bentham coined the word "capitalist." Before this time, to dispose of used possessions via auction seemed a rather melancholy affair. But in these boom times, two Londoners named James Christie and Samuel Baker (the uncle of John Sotheby) began to auction art, manuscripts, furniture. When we hear the word "auction" now, we donıt think of slaves but of Chippendale furniture and Vincent van Gogh.
In 1983, Al Taubman, an American magnate of shopping malls and A&W restaurant chains, bought Sothebyıs and set out to mass-market the companyıs brand. Catalogues received a new gloss, and a wave of celebrity auctions ensued. The 1980s highlight, an Andy Warhol sale with $ 20,000 cookie jars, foreshadowed the blockbuster Jackie O. sale of 1996. Christieıs at first scoffed at the tactics, then followed.(2) Taubman compared his new company to A&W. No one needs root beer, he said, nor does anyone need high-class castoffs. But people can be persuaded that these products will satisfy needs they do have.
This message that beauty, joy, rebellion, are available for purchase is not unique to auctions. It presses against our eyeballs and eardrums thousands of times a day. But, as Lucinda Williams might put it, thereıs something about what happens at an auction. It is not just that the stakes are so high, or that Melanie Griffith was at the display and the phone pit has Arnold Schwarzenegger on the line. Somehow, at auctions, desire and fear distill to a wondrous purity. If your pores are open and your eyes breathe in deeply, you can feel the collapsed energy of value, a perfect model of the marketıs atom, ready to explode.
The sales begin with displays in which the material is laid out in high-ceilinged rooms designed to resemble museums. Catalogues note the fine points of provenance, historical context, and aesthetics. As a newcomer, a lover of history and of things, I attended a display for a "Space Exploration" sale at Christieıs East on Sixty-seventh Street in Manhattan and immediately slipped into a state of wonder. Here was a shingle from the Mercury-Atlas 5, a flight plan that went to the moon, a space suit nametag reading "N. ARMSTRONG." These things were behind glass, mounted on pedestals, flattered by perfect light. I met the expert coordinating the sale, Richard Austin, and asked him which object was his favorite. He took me to a Russian dummy, strapped into a test pod, wearing the worldıs first space suit designed for orbit. "Now this piece ...," he said, and I lost the rest of the sentence, because my eye was fixed on his hand, which he had slapped casually onto the dummyıs knee. Museums train us to resist that impulse. This sense of transgression lent his slap a shocking charge. A moment of ownership, I thought, seeds the wish to own forever. The dummy and pod sold for $ 167,500.
A few weeks later, at the Sothebyıs display for "Allen Ginsberg and Friends," having learned the rules, I took full advantage. I riffled through Ginsbergıs letters and postcards, his books and Bob Dylan albums. I beckoned a Sothebyıs staffer to unlock the glass box that contained his wallet. (The contents included an American Express card--"member since 1968"--a Dartmouth Review supporterıs card, a stub from the Long Island Railroad, and two half-used Sweetın Low packets.) The staffer pointed out his list of Salvation Army shops. "He carried this with him everywhere," she said. "He was a Buddhist, you know."
Whatıs for sale here are not wallets or albums or letters but history and poetry and dharma. This is not just a chance to buy these qualities (as you have with, say, perfume). It is the last chance. You will not be one of many to own, say, the meditation mat that was daily warmed by Allen Ginsbergıs ass. You will be the only one. Baby, only your ass will warm it now.
Perhaps Ginsberg does not turn you on. Perhaps you prefer Louis XVI. Or Rothko. Whoever you want to be, Sothebyıs and Christieıs want to draw youcloser. (But act quickly. The Louvre has a man in the room, you know, and there is that strange collector whoıll keep it locked up, out of view.)
Antiques announce what is missing--the world that created them, the person who used them. They are portals. The work of the "experts" at Christieıs and Sothebyıs is to convince us that we can pay to get through. They blend disinterested scholarship, personal enthusiasm, and ruthless commerce so smoothly that it is hard to tell where one ends and another begins. On the Antiques Roadshow, these experts seem to have access to sacred, primordial value. But in fact they have access to a long accumulation of receipts and a good sense of the market. They know which type of collector can be drawn in and how much he might spend. This is the Good News that pilgrims seek: that objects from their past will, for some reason, coincide with the longings of the well-off or, better yet, the super-rich.
Such news is rare. Only about 60 visitors out of 6,500 are taped. Most have brought what the appraisers refer to, off camera, as junk. Many people bring family bibles, which are almost never valuable because they are almost always printed in great numbers. Many bring teddy bears that they hope are Stieffs, and machine-made furniture that they believe is old. One person, an appraiser told me, dumbfounded, waited in line all day to show him a toaster--a recently made toaster.
To the appraisers, the people in line are all Lomans to be endured, humored, because their naive bluster brings forth hidden treasures. Value is often inverted in a sharp curve. Scrimshaw, for instance, is art made of worthless whalebone--a testament to isolation and poverty. Now it is an object of romance: rare and valuable. The point of the Antiques Roadshow is to find hidden treasures, to flush the stuff from trailers and subdivisions that belongs in mansions and museums. So the on-air appraisals are as sweet as honey. The experts there are curious, even solicitous. The light in their eyes, the affectionate stroke of hands across wood grain--these are not the cold gestures of a banker but the warmth of someone who knows, understands, and cares. "Let us see what is special to you," they say.
Off air, switch follows bait. A thirty-something man in jeans, with a pack of Marlboro Lights in the pocket of his T-shirt, approaches with his collection of records, carefully arranged in vinyl showcases with black paper sleeves. The appraiser shuffles through them and, after about twenty seconds, says, "These are worth about two bucks at the Salvation Army." Next in line. Later an old man approaches the folk-art table and, with shaking hands, extracts a piece in the shape of a whale tooth from a maroon golf bag. A long day is nearly over, and this appraiser is low on patience. "This is not old," he says, "and it is not real. You can buy it at any seaport novelty shop for two or three dollars." He points to several pieces of scrimshaw, which had excited him enough to summon the producer. "Do you see these? These are old and real."
As the man shuffled away, I followed him to ask how he had been affected. Although he opened his mouth and moved his lips, no words emerged. After a few awkward minutes, his daughter came and led him away. As with Carole Gray, I could not ask him the real question, which is how he felt, now, about intrinsic versus market worth. On the television show, the collapse of these distinctions has an alluring quality because all apparently live happily ever after in the rubble. But at a taping, you can see the negative of this image, the one in which dumb smiles turn to dumb grief. After low appraisals that ended far too soon, I saw shoulders slump and brows sag. But then I heard clinical, detached tones. "I just wanted to know more about what I had," a man might lament after learning that, say, his sword was not Civil War-era (not even close!) and not worth thousands but "up to a hundred dollars" ("up to"!). "I always wanted to know about it," he would say, "and now I do." And then he would point out that the appraiser was really a gun expert and may have been mistaken, and may not have taken a close enough look at the markings on the blade. And then he would repeat, "But I just wanted to know what I had, and now I do."
At the Roadshow, almost everyone I spoke to insisted that they did not care about the price, though they also spoke excitedly about possible sums. Others trembled with anticipation but could not explain why they had come. One woman with unusually with unusually clear intentions, who had brought the Disney books she read as a child, told me she hoped they would be valuable so that her children would keep them. I did not have the heart to ask the obvious question: "Donıt you wish they would keep them just because they are yours?"
Even the "winners" on the show--those who make it on air, tell and receive stories, discover sudden wealth--are not delivered. On television we see only their whoops and blushes. Off the set, if given the chance, they will worry out loud about family squabbles, the cost of insurance, the threat of theft. They exhibit the same "strange melancholy ... in the midst of their abundance" that Tocqueville noticed in 1831, the same strange melancholy of new billionaires in Silicon Valley diagnosed with "Sudden Wealth Syndrome," or lottery winners who descend into dysfunction.
The fantasy of the Antiques Roadshow is that we can extinguish desire, eliminate tension, smother need. A work of art that elicits desire for possession, James Joyce believed, is pornography. Echoing this idea, sociologist András Szántó calls the Antiques Roadshow "value porn." "It consists of a series of money shots,ı" he says, "where the tension of unresolved value is relieved again and again and again."
Like sex without soul mistaken for "love-making," value on this show is a ghost of the real thing. In both economic and emotional terms, value is established by the distance and obstacles that separate a subject and its object, recalling Platoıs idea of eros, the state between having and not having, possession and deprivation.
Just as we canıt wake without having slept, find without having lost, or feel the shock of something that is always familiar, We canıt act without forces of resistance. To be a subject requires an object--a word with its origins in the Latin obicere, meaning "to hinder or oppose." What this means is that value can be imagined but never confirmed. Value is a loverıs glance, which we must be removed from to receive. Value happens after you curl your fingers into a fist and swing, but just before the smack of bone, and then again just after a release. Value is the sound of a manual typewriter, when its keys strike and recede, connect and release, strike and recede, connect and release.
As I wandered the floor of the Rhode Island Convention Center in my role as a reporter, I also was hunting for an appraiser to show my typewriter to. I met George Glastris around 4:00 P.M., an hour before the taping day ended. He has short dark hair and quick brown eyes. He directs the Science and Technology Department at Skinner, an auction house in Boston. We had an instant rapport. "Iıve always loved history," he told me. "I always wanted to feel it. Itıs easier to understand how a person lived when you sit in his chair." Glastris collects phonograph players, and he says he wonders about his old Edison machine, "Who owned this? Did their parents hate the music, or were they parents themselves? Did they listen to gutbucket blues--ıthat colored musicı--or the symphony?" His family, he told me, "doesnıt have great roots," and few objects survive. The only story he knows "for sure" is that of his maternal grandmother, whom he would pump for information as a child. She told him the name of the ship her family took from Greece, and he hunted down its precise route and then the passenger log. "So I had the date," he said proudly.
I was sure Glastris would grant my request, but I stood watching him for a few minutes before asking. I had not slept, and I wanted to rest a bit before fetching the suitcase from the rental car. After a few minutes, a woman approached in loose-fitting jeans and plastic hoop earrings, and set a typewriter on Glastrisıs table. Glastris is the appraiser who had marveled to me about the brand-new toaster. Here was another marvel. "This is an early 1970s electric," he told the woman, apparently straining to be polite. He pointedto the nameplate and said, "Itıs an IBM. Itıs worth about thirty bucks."
My weariness may have facilitated a pure reaction. I felt a punch of humiliation. I may have flinched. I knew immediately that I would not show Glastris my typewriter. I had believed myself prepared to hear that the typewriter was worth very little money. I believed I didnıt care. But I realized then that I had never for a moment doubted that Sidney Wolfıs Remington-Rand would spark a gleam in the appraiserıs eye. Through that woman, I felt how the bad news would feel. And I was silent.
I went home and after moping about for a while I heard about a man named Martin Tytell and his typewriter shop on Fulton Street in Manhattan. I called to see if he conducted appraisals. "Yes," he said, in a high, peppery voice. "But Iım eighty-six years old, so you should come soon."(3) Tytell had had his shop since 1935, housed since 1964 in a walk-up crammed with Underwoods, Remingtons, IBMs, and the type for 145 different languages. (The ñıs alone take up an entire shelf.) A short, rounded man, Tytell wore a white lab coat and a bright blue bow tie. When I showed him the typewriter, he said immediately, "This is very collectible," and he put on his glasses to take a closer look.
"Itıs gear-driven," he said, looking up after a few minutes--this gives the typebar momentum as it nears the paper--and it has a lever to increase or decrease the tension in the keys. Both were innovations on this model, Tytell said. He pointed out that the carriage moves left to right, so that the type will read right to left. I had never considered this. He looked up the serial number and told me it was made in 1934 in England, modified from an English-language model. It would have cost around $ 75. I quickly plugged the year into my grandfatherıs story--he must have bought it just as the temple decided to replace the shack, just when his life got solid. (Later I adjusted the cost for inflation. $ 930 in todayıs dollars, a fortune.) "How do you know where it was made?" I asked Tytell, and he pointed to the print on the back, "Made in Great Britain."
Then he told me about the demand for right-to-left typewriters around World War II, and about how typewriter factories switched to armaments, and how he came to modify typewriters for the War Production Board. "Typewriters saved my life," he said, because he was transferred from a division headed to the Pacific. "Fourteen hundred guys," he recalled, shaking his head. "Only two guys did not get slaughtered." He also told me how valuable manual typewriters are now. "You know the author, the guy who wrote the James Bond books" -- "Ian Fleming," called out Mrs. Tytell from the back room--and Mr. Tytell said, yes, Ian Fleming. Did I know that his machine sold for thousands and thousands of dollars in London? Tytell returned to his free associations for about thirty minutes, then to our task, for which I had agreed to pay him $50. "This machine is worth twenty-five hundred dollars," he said, "and thatıs what I believe it would bring at auction."
What happened next is that an impulse from my spinal cord dilated the blood vessels leading to my face: I blushed. Then an image swam into view of a group of curious, respectful, well-off men standing before the typewriter, soaking up the details of Sidney Wolfıs life: How he grew up in Cleveland and attended Hebrew Union College. How he received a letter from Corpus Christi noting that "the work here would be in the nature of a pioneer." How he dedicated his life to the community, ending one talk with this quote from the Book of James: "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and hath not works? Can faith save him?"
Before I left, Tytell urged me to have the typewriter repaired and provided me an estimate. This gave me pause. I liked him, but I also feared I could not give him the final word on the typewriterıs value. My thoughts returned to George Glastris. I emailed him the model name, year, and a brief description, and told him Tytellıs appraisal. He replied that the machine "has enough going for it to give it some value, but far less than this gentleman indicates." I packed it up for a final time and flew to Boston.
I found Glastris conducting free appraisals for walk-ins--as he does each Friday--in a room just off Skinnerıs lobby. I noticed, on the floor, a boxful of toys, including a 1955 tin bus with the words HONEYMOONERSı SPECIAL and the faces of the showıs characters painted in the windows. When it worked, Glastris told me, it could be wound just by pressing it against the floor. The gear mechanism is broken, he said, but he would include it in his next toy sale anyway. "Now, your grandfather was a rabbi," Glastris said as I put the typewriter on his desk. "Was he an influential rabbi?" I had expected this question. I showed him a bulge of material--a book called The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s, for which Hollace Ava Weiner wrote a chapter on my grandfather; and a pile of newspaper articles, including one from the Caller-Times from just the week before that named Sidney Wolf one of the top "newsmakers" of the century. Glastris looked over the material for a few minutes, nodded several times, and then said, "If this came in as a collectible typewriter, the value would be minimal because itıs a "--he raised two fingers on each hand-- "modernı typewriter." Remington manufactured its first QWERTY machine in 1874, he explained, introducing not only the modern keyboard but also the basic look and feel that we associate with typewriters. The machine expanded the market and forced competitors to conceive alternate designs so as not to violate Remingtonıs patent. "They might have an index of letters on a strip," Glastris said, "and a pointer youıd move to the letter and push down. Or there would be a dial that you would turn to the letter you want." Typewriter collectors, he said, want those kinds of machines. "The rule of thumb with typewriters," Glastris said, "is that if it doesnıt look like what you and I perceive as a typewriter, itıs worth money." Mine does look like a typewriter. Also, Glastris said, Hebrew machines (which also work for Yiddish) are not rare. Jews used them throughout Europe and the United States and, of course, in Israel.
"Now," Glastris went on, "if your grandfather had been Simon Wiesenthal, or the most famous rabbi in America in the 1930s, or if he had written an influential text, that would add to the value. When I was at Christieıs in London, we had Ian Flemingıs Remington. It made fifty-five thousand pounds. Because it was Ian Flemingıs! And he wrote the James Bond books on it! It could have been broken and it still would have made the money. But your grandfather is not well known outside of Corpus Christi, so in the great scheme of things heıs not that important. Heıs an interesting character but not a major player."
At this moment, when a Roadshow appraisal would have owners salivating and viewers leaning forward, Glastris stopped. He preferred, I think, not to deliver the price. But I insisted, and he obliged. "If this were a standard Remington portable," he said, "it would be fifty dollars. Because itıs Judaica, maybe a collector would say itıs interesting and heıd pay a hundred or a hundred fifty." "If I wanted to sell the machine," I asked, "would you put it in your catalogue?" As a favor to me, he would. But in most cases, he said, it wouldnıt be worth his time. I thanked him and stood to go. I pointed to the broken Honeymooners toy. "What are you going to ask for this?" I asked. "Oh, about two hundred," he said.
On the way home from Boston, I returned to an old text on the worthlessness of my grandfather, delivered to me six years ago by Rabbi Albert Goldstein, a retired rabbi from Brookline. Goldstein was my grandfatherıs classmate at both high school and Hebrew Union College. "We were not close--acquaintances, not friends," he told me over the phone. "We did not stay in touch after graduation. See, he didnıt publish anything. He didnıt write. So he wouldnıt have had a wider acquaintance than just the places that saw him and knew him up close. He apparently did all right. He went to Corpus Christi and stayed there all his life. His tenure was never in danger."
I took the bait of this condescension. "How did you get to Brookline?" I asked. He ticked off the congregations he had served: Cedar Rapids, Rock Island, the Bronx. Why would you move? I asked. "More money and a bigger congregation," he said. "A bigger congregation--that was first--and with a bigger congregation came a higher salary." In Brookline he had a thousand members--top 5 percent in the country, he said.
I played my only card. I told Goldstein that my grandfather had been offered a position at Holy Blossom in Toronto but had turned it down. "Thatıs news to me," he said, then paused. "I could understand his will not to go. The men who have occupied that pulpit at the Holy Blossom congregation were top-notch men, and he had enough seychel, common sense, to know he wouldnıt make it." What do you mean? I asked. "He wouldnıt last. He didnıt know enough. He didnıt speak that well. He was not that much of a diplomat." Goldstein laughed. "Thereıs lots of skills necessary to be the rabbi of a big congregation." My notes soon thereafter drop off. The last question I recorded was, "Are you expected to publish at a big pulpit?" Yes, Goldstein said. "You publish or you stay buried in some small village church."
I winced rereading these notes. I should have asked Goldstein about the small things--did my grandfather have a girlfriend, did he like the movies, did he wear hats? I should have looked for answers I could trust. Instead, as he pointed to imaginary castles that he called "success," I squinted, pretended I could see, grew meet realizing that I could not.
I know this feeling well, from the cocktail parties full of writers and other members of the appraising class. I know the sounds of white wine swishing, the subtle variations on this basic refrain: "Who has fallen, and how low? Who is up, and how high?" I chime in, of course, and stay alert for the cues that constitute the judgment on me.
With the typewriter, with my grandfather, I had a chance to opt out. And after Glastrisıs appraisal, I took it. To the verdict of "worthless," I assented. Painful, yes, but I received the pain gratefully, as a final refuge from the wandering and wondering and tension. I decided that my grandfather suffered terribly, silently, feared more than he could ever say. That he dreamed of making music. That he took refuge in his greenhouse, filling his lungs with moisture and chlorophyll, performed small acts of faith with small seedlings. In my imagination, I communed with him in this worthlessness. When I felt gnarled in fear, unable to face another humiliation, I pictured him bent and gnarled, too, and heard his raspy voice saying, to me alone, "I know, I know."
Then I learned again what I will have to continue learning: Real value is not something to be known but rather to be lived in. Value is not what we coax, toil, and scream for. Value is the coaxing, toiling, screaming. Value is not relief but tension. Not divine instruction but mortal choice.
I recently went through my grandfatherıs old speeches, the few that survive, and found one that I had no memory of having seen before. It is typed in all capitals on double-sided index cards.
We have a problem, the rabbi says, which is that we must pursue goals whose earthly measures must be distrusted. How to measure success, for instance. It cannot be how much we sell, or what we own, for then we sell ourselves and own nothing.
"Let there be no misunderstanding," the rabbi continues. "Money is important and the shame is that so many people have so little of it. Two thirds of the world lives in poverty because of a lack of money." But money, he says, "is good only when it leads to what money cannot buy." If wealth coincides with disaffection; and boredom, this is not wealth at all. "Is it any wonder," he asks, "that many young people do not want any part of this way of life? What ought to strike us is that very often they can see right through us. They want to be real.... They are saying to us, many of them, that we have sold our birthright, our authentic selves, for a mess of pottage."
"Young people," the rabbi says, "need to be taught how to become unimportant to the world and how to be important in the quality of their lives.... The world needs more unimportant people of quality. Noah was a good man in his generation. He was no Abraham or Isaiah. But this simple, good man saved civilization by the quality of his life. The ark he built did not house the very important people of that day. It saved one man and one woman and through them gave humankind another chance....
"The true religious life is not in bigness, it is not in size. Elijah could not hear Godıs voice in the earthquake or in the fire. He heard it in the still, small voice. God is most often found by those who seek him in the simple quiet place where men do not observe or take note. It is the hyssop that God used to free the slaves, not the cedar of Lebanon. The success which really matters lies in the quality of life, just as the faith that matters is in the still, small voice."
The speech has an implicit paradox. A man certain of the still, small voice--a man with a true faith in unimportance--would not be raised on a stage, speaking into a microphone. Rabbi Wolf is wrestling with himself in this speech, just as I have wrestled with his memory, and still do. I wonder if this is what he would have told me about value, had he had a chance to: that it is not a thing but a process; not fixed but fluid; not the gold pot but the rainbow; not words on a page but the striking of keys; not a typewriter but what it can conjure.
(1) Theologian Harvey Cox recently wrote about the business pages, through which friends told him he could learn about "the real world." "Expecting a terra incognita," he writes, "I found myself instead in the land of deja vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint Augustineıs City of God." Market "failures," to high priests like Alan Greenspan, were mainly evidence of inadequate faith. The God in this theology is The Market itself, which once competed with other centers of value and meaning but in the past two centuries has risen to become "First Cause"--not a god like Zeus, who has to contend with competing deities, but rather like the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible, "the only true God, whose reign must now be universally accepted and who allows for no rivals."
(2) Christieıs "The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe" sale in the fall of 1999 included her marked-up movie scripts, her first edition of On the Road, her wedding ring from Joe DiMaggio. Lot 459--featuring a potato press, a grater, and assorted pot holders--sold for $ 9,200. Six snapshots of her dog yielded $ 222,500.
(3) Martin Tytell retired several months after this interview. In February 2000, his son Peter closed the typewriter shop.