For antique collectors, certainly, and in fact for art collectors, historians, and curators of various sorts, Antiques Roadshow is maybe just this side of the Olympics, a huge event that may be in your hometown only once in a lifetime. Launched in 1997, the PBS series highlights a different city every week and draws close to a million viewers. Thousands attend with their heirlooms and yard-sale finds, to show them to nationally known appraisers, some of them celebrities in their fields like the furniture-expert Keno Twins, who have a close look at each stranger's objet d'art and offer both the probable origin of the object and its value on the current market. Sometimes that value's in the hundreds of thousands; sometimes it's practically nothing. When the bearer confidently relates a family story involving George Washington or Marie Antoinette, it's almost always proven wrong. Pompous faces fall. It's a dramatic show.
Each episode highlights its host city, usually with a special feature about some artwork associated with that place. This weekend they'll be in Knoxville for the first time ever, at the Knoxville Convention Center. Tickets aren't cheap, but they've already sold thousands. In terms of national viewer minutes, it may be more attention than Knoxville, the city, has gotten since public radio's A Prairie Home Companion was here in 1999. That is, not counting football and basketball games, which are never much about the host city.
It's our one big chance to show the world what we've got, literally.
Antiques Roadshow has already been to many newer cities than Knoxville, and a few smaller ones. It's about time they dropped in. Knoxville is remarkable for many things, but has rarely been famous for high-end craftsmen, or, for that matter, major art collectors. What are they likely to find?
John Case is the founder of Case Antiques, the city's best-known antiques dealer. We caught up with him on a foraging expedition to Bulls Gap, 60 miles northeast of Knoxville. "That's what the conversation is here," he says. "‘What do you think we ought to bring to the Roadshow?'"
He won't be there this weekend. "I have to confess to you, my biggest marketing blunder was planning a mission trip to Mexico next week." During the Roadshow, he'll be outside of Tijuana with his two sons, helping at an orphanage. But he's looking forward to watching.
Case notes that Knoxville was home to a few notable artisans, like Samuel Bell, a Knoxville mayor of the 1840s. "He happened to be a phenomenal silversmith," says Case. Bell was also one of the nation's most respected makers of Bowie knives. Now rare, Bell's Bowie knives sometimes sell for more than $100,000. His work appeared on another Roadshow a few months ago, in Corpus Christi.
Bell eventually moved to Texas, and turned his local business over to David Hope, a noted silversmith who became a well-known jeweler here. Case strongly suspects there's underappreciated silverwork to be found. He imagines there may be Bell or Hope julep cups in Knoxville homes, "maybe collecting change or something." Each may sell for as much as $10,000.
Some Knoxville oil-on-canvas artists seem ascendant, Case says, like impressionist Catherine Wiley and her less famous but more eclectic mentor, Lloyd Branson. "We seem to be in a process of reexamining their work and accomplishments."
The Knoxville area supported some fine cabinetmakers, Case says, even though we don't know all their names—as well as potters. "What Paul Revere was to the 18th century in silver, Christopher Haun was to the 19th century, in pottery," Case says. Haun lived and worked in Greeneville, but died here in late 1861, at the end of a rope. He was identified as one of the Unionist saboteurs known as the bridge-burners, and hanged, alongside his own son, by Confederate authorities in downtown Knoxville.
Case seems less interested in how Knoxville will come across in the national spotlight than in what we'll learn about ourselves. Even small appraisal fairs, he says, like the ones Case has held in conjunction with East Tennessee PBS, almost always turn up new information, or evidence to support old theories about patterns of artisanship that are useful to understanding our own traditions, our own experience in this unique place. "There's gonna be something Knoxvillian in there, some object from East Tennessee, that's gonna shift our thinking," he says.
Every show features a segment that gets away from the randomness of the strangers and their favorite oddities, to highlight some aspect of the host city. We can't be sure what they'll highlight about Knoxville. The lens of American scholarship always opens widest when it looks toward Knoxville, which may never be Knoxville, a city with its own distinct industrial and cultural history, but a perch from which to survey the Southern Appalachians. You can see the mountains from here.
We do know they'll be visiting the Museum of Appalachia, 20 miles north, home of the area's biggest, most ambitious, and perhaps weirdest collection of interesting artifacts, 20 miles to the north. It would be surprising if AR didn't stop in there.
They'll drop in on UT's McClung Museum, a concentrated and brightly polished collection of interesting things, arranged in ways that tell coherent stories. But last I heard, they're going to skip the Knoxville Museum of Art and the Museum of East Tennessee History, and other artifact-related attractions in Knoxville proper.
Instead, they'll go to the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton—which is just outside of Chattanooga, where they did a Roadshow five years ago.
I suspect things look closer, from a distance. Dayton's an interesting and pretty little town. And it's 80 miles away. Making time for the site of the Scopes trial during a visit to Knoxville is the equivalent of dropping in on Lexington while you're in Louisville. Or saying, "While you're in Philadelphia, don't miss Staten Island."
But I predict it'll be an interesting show.