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Home on the Roadshow

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It's taken Chubb's Antiques Roadshow -- one of PBS's hottest commodities -- five years to get to Manhattan, but executive producer Peter Cook says he's "ready to see if this will play on Broadway."

The line at the Javits Center suggests it will. A bustling crowd of living Far Side cartoons struggles with gourds, tomahawks, paintings of bawdy wenches, and at least one highly unsavory bird's nest.

Most of these 5,000 hopefuls will never make it past the main appraisers' tables. Nor -- thanks to a phalanx of assertive volunteers -- can the press access the greenroom, where the chosen few wait to be filmed (the first New York episode airs February 11). Producers are dead set on preventing leaks about the next $250,000 dresser.

Not that a high-value object will necessarily get you on the air. "You can't expect the same pop! out of a price as when the show was new," Cook says. What you need is a story. A good story.

"A friend of mine who passed away gave this vase to me," says Richard from Hoboken, his voice wistful. "He said, 'It's Japanese -- be careful of it.' I thought, What does that mean . . . ?" Whatever it meant, the cream-colored objet is of little value. "The appraiser said it was pretty but only worth $100," Richard says bitterly.

Some appraisers clearly enjoy dashing expectations (especially if they smell a lie). When I tell one woman at the folk-art table that an ashtray is an heirloom given to me by my father "hours before he expired from lung cancer," she doesn't flinch. "This was made in Italy -- sometime after the First World War." With a sigh, she says, "We're looking at five to ten dollars."

Fifteen on a good day?

"No way."

A man nearby starts talking about his pile of splintered wood: "It's a baby cradle from 1749, but for the last few years, it's been a makeshift coffee table." Then a Roadshow volunteer steps in. "We'd rather you not tell this story before you're filmed," she says, "because you might get bored the second time around." (Unlike the first time around?)

"If these exchanges sound rehearsed, it's less interesting television," Cook explains. Still, it's hard to predict what the producers will go for. Many promising finds (like a Jayne Mansfield water bottle) don't make it -- but Joey Ramone's leather jacket does.

The item is one of this season's best, part of a Ramones collection appraised at $8,000 to $10,000 -- all because the expert believed the owner's story. "I used to manage a band called Black Market Babies," she says. "We'd open for the Ramones."

"I love Black Market Babies!" gasps a volunteer. Other guests watch sourly: Why all the fuss about a leather jacket when so many Last Suppers aren't even getting the time of day?

The logic is clear, according to Cook: "It's incumbent on us to make the mix more complex all the time. Something like this can't get too predictable."


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