they waited patiently and amica-bly on that unseasonably hot, sunny day last week, the 2,000 people who formed a queue more than a kilometre long to bring their dusty treasures to the experts of The Antiques Roadshow, the much celebrated BBC program carried by Newsworld. They waited, bearing bags and boxes or carefully wrapped paintings and pieces of furniture. They waited, most said, to learn more about the objects they were bringing with them -- but it struck me that what we were all learning about that day was the enduring need for family, and what that means in a media-modulated age.
For those as ignorant about the show as I was, this is what happens: You take that plate you inherited from your Aunt Mary or that painting that's been in the family for years and place it before the educated and experienced eyes of one of the many experts the show employs. They will discuss with you its provenance and history, and estimate its dollar value.
Though the experts are under considerable strain, they remain resolutely affable, good-humoured and witty. (Part of the show's appeal, I think, lies in the dry British wit that informs it.) One of the porcelain experts gently admonishes a rather large woman for apparently trying to place too many pieces on the table (five is the limit). "We're together," she snaps, pointing to an equally large woman behind her. "Then I have no objection, madam," he replies with perfect sang-froid, "as long as you are both consenting adults." And I overhear one of the more elderly experts confide to a colleague, "One man came up to thank me and said, "You've given my wife great pleasure. Of course, at my age I can't remember everything."
Much of the day's excitement revolves around the possibility that your dusty old item is worth thousands. If it is, that means you get to be on the telly, since the valuable discoveries are featured and discussed on camera. This happens -- even in Toronto. One woman practically vibrates with excitement when she's told that her music box, which she thought might be worth a couple of hundred dollars, would probably fetch between 5,000 and 7,000 at auction. A young man I speak to learns that the jug he bought for $1.50 at a garage sale is 1859 Victorian silver and worth between $600 and $700. Of course, the opposite happens, too. I trail along with a mother and daughter who suspect that their old scrapbook contains autographs by Queen Victoria, members of her family and Byron. Alas, no. The royal signatures were traced.
Most everyone, however, claims to be interested not so much in the price as in the value of their objects. They stress that that is why they prefer the British show to the American version, which they say is obsessed with finding treasures and gives short shrift to provenance and history.
I look out over the overwhelmingly heterosexual crowd, some in wheelchairs and some with walkers, some young and, most bizarre for Toronto, mostly white. And I began to wonder whether the stereotypical Anglo family -- members scattered everywhere, communication reduced to the occasional phone call -- seeks solace in history, in objects that track a family back to a solid footing and give weight and substance to half-remembered family myths and anecdotes.
People will often say to the experts, "This came to me from my great-grandmother," or "We got this on our wedding day 50 years ago," and segue into detailed family narratives. Sometimes there are three generations at the table -- grandparents, parents, child -- as an heirloom is unwrapped.
It also strikes me how frequently devotees of the show describe its panel of experts as if they were adored members of their own families. This, I suspect, is the real function of The Antiques Roadshow, to provide the modern, attenuated, media-drenched family with imaginary family members to whom it can turn to discover what is real about itself. This seems a good thing, extending the notion of family well beyond the confines of connection by blood. That has long been a homo trait. Ex-lovers, current lovers, close friends, "sisters" -- all get subsumed into family. (I can't help but wonder whether the absence of homos at the show has something to do with a tendency to see antiques purely as decor, not as lifelines to a family that may once have rejected us. The one homo I recognize and speak to has brought garage-sale items.)
When I leave at around 3, the queue still curls down the hill leading up to Casa Loma. Everyone stands there patiently, clutching their precious property. They imagine that in a few short hours they'll find out more about that bowl, that painting, that old pair of gloves. In fact, they'll find out more about themselves.