Appraiser Gary Piattoni, AB’83. (Photography by Drew Reynolds)

Object lessons

On Antiques Roadshow, appraiser Gary Piattoni, AB’83, teases out the stories that things want to tell.

In they streamed: rolling red Flexible Flyer wagons behind them, peering around paintings they carried, clutching every kind of item from candlesticks to Cabbage Patch Kids to a diminutive, rather cute atomic bomb (a training piece from the 1950s). Last July thousands of people navigated the expanses of Chicago’s McCormick Place, drawn by the lure of Antiques Roadshow. A hit since shortly after it debuted on PBS, the show sets up shop each year in six to eight US cities where the ticket holders each get to bring two items for appraisal, taped for TV if they’re lucky.

I didn’t have one of those tickets. I was there to shadow one of the show’s experts, Gary Piattoni, AB’83. Piattoni, who runs his own appraisal business in Evanston, Illinois, has appeared on Antiques Roadshow since 1998, the show’s second season and the year it really caught fire with US viewers. When Piattoni was tapped by WGBH, he was working at Christie’s in New York. On the show he started at the decorative arts table. After that he remembers being assigned to, at different times, Asian art, pottery and porcelain, and metal works, and presiding at a new table for science and technology. To his regret, that table didn’t get enough traffic to last.

Now it’s arms and militaria. As much fox as hedgehog, Piattoni has a reputation as one of the few generalists on the floor. At McCormick Place, it shows. He sees a reliable flow of appraisers from other tables, looking for a second opinion on everything from French Baccarat paperweights to unidentifiable devices (one colleague comes over asking for “Mr. Gadgets”).

But mostly he sees the hopefuls. Piattoni has a routine and a rhythm. He always gets the guest talking first. His first appraisal after I arrive, wedging myself behind the table where he’s one of four experts, begins: “Tell me about the flag.” The guest, an older man, says he’s not sure about the age of the huge US flag he’s just unfurled. “How many stars?” Piattoni asks. The man hasn’t counted. “It’s wool,” Piattoni says, counting, “but the stars might be cotton. There’s not a lot of mothing,” meaning there are few holes eaten by moths. He pauses. “Forty-four, so it’s post–Civil War,” from the later part of the 19th century. “These grommets are not seen in the Civil War period.” He points out, too, the machine-made cotton backing.

After a minute or two rattling off observations like these, Piattoni’s wrapping it up. “It’s a transitional flag, not military per se.” In terms of its value—the eagerly anticipated number in which every Antiques Roadshow appraisal culminates—the flag’s unwieldy size is a liability. “At 8' x 12' or something, display is tricky.” Almost as much as the flag’s owner, I’m on the edge of my seat for the actual figure. “Maybe as much as $1,000—not crazy money, because of the size. The colors are strong, not much mothing. It could be from the Grand Army of the Republic, but if it were Civil War period, it would be a bigger deal. Unusual patterns can bring money too.” And we’re off.

The flag has a bit more age than Piattoni’s usual fare in arms and militaria; in general he covers items from the 20th century. This rules out most of the firearms that come in, which tend to be older. But regalia, documents, photographs, and other memorabilia make their way to him, things I’m not even sure how to categorize. The sheer variety of items he looks at in the time I’m there, and how much he knows about every one of them, spinning out tale after tale, is a wonder. He sees a US Army cavalry saddle bag, aviators’ weather maps, a German blueprint for an aeronautic motor, Soldiers’ Guide to Hindustani, a bayonet. A World War II scrapbook about the service of a vet whose commanding officer was Jimmy Stewart.

Also striking: the scarcity of items whose appraisals beat, or even approach, the $1,000 for the too-big flag. A commemorative sword from the Columbian Exposition gives Piattoni a chance to reference his alma mater and environs—“flooded, gondolas, it was pretty cool”—but its high water mark is $200. “A little more common than you might think,” he says gently to the young couple who brought it.

An old device for making keys, which would have gone to the science and technology table if it still existed, winds up in front of Piattoni. Again he lets the owner down easy. “Folks who tend to collect these are people who were in the business. It’s one of those oddball things. Your dad—he had a hardware business—is the kind of guy who would be drawn to it. I wouldn’t put a big number on it. Maybe $150. That’s a cool thing, and I’m glad you brought it in.” In the end, nobody appears to go away too disappointed.

Listening to Piattoni is an education—in history, the ways things are made, supply and demand, and other vagaries of what we value. Many of those who arrive at the arms and militaria table have come by their treasures through their families: fathers and uncles, grandfathers and great uncles who were in military service, who sometimes came back but sometimes didn’t. (In one case the items belonged to the guest’s grandmother, who served in the Naval Auxiliary.) Piattoni invokes sentimental value a lot. He listens to the stories that spill out in response to his opening questions, and adds to them. When the owners walk back out of McCormick Place you can tell their tales will be a little more filled in, a little richer and deeper, the next time they’re told.

When one McCormick Place guest apologized that his item smelled like mothballs, Piattoni protested. “I love that smell. It reminds me of cool things in basements.” That’s where he found his uncle’s World War II military ribbons—in his grandmother’s basement, getting his first taste for collecting as a grade schooler. The pursuit “was encouraged by my dad and my uncle, who gave me other trinkets they had when they were in the service, and it just kept going.” He shopped local antique stores with his mother and, as he got older, rode his bike to garage and estate sales and frequented the flea market in Grayslake, near Wauconda, the small town where he grew up in Lake County, Illinois.

With military collecting, Piattoni says, “you get interested in almost anything from any period or any country because there isn’t a lot available. If you collected thimbles there’d be plenty and you could specialize. With military you don’t necessarily get to choose what you’re going to find, especially in a small town in Illinois.” He sought out anything with a military connection but took a particular interest in World War II, “because of the history behind it and my uncle’s and my father’s participation.”

At UChicago Piattoni majored in geology and continued his collecting. The two interests sprang from similar experiences and came to feel like different sides of one coin: also as a boy, he’d found an arrowhead in his backyard. “I was like, you’re kidding me, you can find these things?” Looking for more of them led him to learn about fossils, “and you could find those, and those were free.” Gravel pits and farm fields joined the garage and estate sales on his bike route.

His science education helps him every day, Piattoni says. “There is a lot of crossover between science, especially geology, and what I’m doing now, in terms of understanding materials and techniques and how things are made … how the earth is made, how objects are made.” Knowledge of history illuminates things’ origins and uses, and science how they were manufactured. The latter helps him place things in time and determine what’s real and what’s fake. On one occasion at Christie’s, he was able to verify, over the doubts of a senior appraiser, that a sculpture was genuine limestone based on the fossil crinoids he found in it—the UChicago geology major’s expertise making the identification possible.

Piattoni remembers his classes with storm expert Ted Fujita and geochemist Julian Goldsmith, SB’40, PhD’47, especially vividly. He thought he’d get a job with an oil company after college, but with the economy struggling and hiring scarce, he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute instead, earning an MFA in sculpture. After that it was a short stint in advertising before he quit—“I just couldn’t stand it”—and started to deal antiques part time.

A local auction house where Piattoni had done summer work moving furniture, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, was hiring. He joined and quickly gained responsibility and expertise, heading a department, appraising items, and running specialty sales. Among the latter were the estates of organized-crime figures Al Capone and John Dillinger. Work selling items from Comiskey Park when it closed—banners, pieces of the foul poles—came Piattoni’s way too. Such sales were attentively covered by the media. His name got around and soon he had a phone call from Christie’s.

Eying him for a job in pop culture collectibles, the auction house flew Piattoni to New York for an interview. They hired him instead as head of the European decorative arts department at Christie’s East, an offshoot of the main branch until 2001, when it closed. The sales he oversaw there included ones by Norma Kamali and Donald Trump. “It was kind of like going from the minor leagues to the big leagues,” Piattoni says.

It was a whole new education too. “I didn’t know how stupid I was until I started to work for Christie’s,” he says. “Regional auction houses only see so much. … At Christie’s you see everything.” After a few years at Christie’s East, he moved to the main branch, then on Park Avenue, as vice president and director of operations. That was when Antiques Roadshow came calling.

What you see when you tune in to Antiques Roadshow—the expert, the guest, the item on a table or easel—takes place in the innermost of a series of roughly concentric circles. As a guest, your progress from periphery to nucleus isn’t quick, but it’s sure and steady, up to a point. When you attend, here’s what happens.

Your ticket has a specific arrival time. Showing up within your assigned hour, you’re first directed to triage, where you wait in a long line. The Roadshow requires 80,000 square feet for a taping, and most of that space is given over to the long snake of a triage line. (Compared to his first year on the show, before tickets were time specific, Piattoni told me, the lines I saw at McCormick Place were nothing.)

At triage, a cheery staffer inspects your items, assigns each a category, and gives you cards that admit you to the appraisal tables for those categories. You inch closer to the center and get in another line, shorter than the last, leading to the curtained-off core of the operation: the appraisal tables and set. For most ticket holders, the smaller lines within the curtains represent the last wait they’ll experience on their Antiques Roadshow adventure. For those selected to tape a segment about their treasures—about 90 out of the 5,000 to 6,000 people at each taping—there will be one more wait, more comfortable, in the green room.

In the very center is a bank of cameras and, arranged around them, four rectangles of blue carpet. Upon those rectangles the appraisals are taped for broadcast or for the Roadshow website. The blue carpet works sort of like “hot lava” in the children’s game. Staff and volunteers constantly remind guests not to step on it, and potentially into a camera’s view. When guests inevitably do so—every few minutes when I was there—they’re instantly, if kindly, rebuked.

At the tables, the appraisers appraise, working briskly through the inner queues until they see something special—something they think should be on TV. They then get a corroborating opinion from a second expert and locate a producer who will hear their pitch and, they hope, select the item for an on-camera appraisal.

At McCormick Place Piattoni goes the first few hours without seeing anything he wants to pitch. This is unusually long, and he’s getting a little anxious. Piece after piece comes and goes, the likes of which I’ve never seen. Piattoni seems to have seen everything.

There’s the model ship large enough to fill a coffee table, “built by a guy on the ship in 1944,” the young man who has brought it says. His grandfather was onboard too and won the model in a raffle. With it are a diary of ship life and a metal bible. “That’s cool,” says Piattoni, not nearly as impressed as I am. “Guys in the navy had a lot of time on their hands. It was common for machinists to make souvenirs. This one is elaborate. When you’re sailing and not yet in enemy waters, you have lots of time on your hands.” The Mystic Seaport museum in Mystic, Connecticut, he says, is the most common destination for such artifacts. In perfect condition, it might fetch $1,500. In the condition it’s in, $300 to 500, plus $30 for the bible and $100 for the diary.

He sees a large framed set of military patches—maybe 100 mounted on a fabric backing. Piattoni makes a quick scan as the owner tells the story. As a boy in the 1940s, his oldest brother’s hobby was to approach soldiers on the street, asking for patches as souvenirs. Later their dad framed the collection. “It’s a pretty big collecting category right now,” Piattoni says. He zooms in on some of the more notable: a World War II French volunteers patch, another that he suspects was “theater made,” and the most valuable of the group, a 101st Airborne Division patch depicting an eagle with a white tongue, worth maybe $500 on its own.

There’s stuff I wouldn’t have known what to make of, like a scale model of a prototype tank. The maker, according to the documentation that came with the model, wrote about it to the National Inventors Council, believing “his design was superior because shells deflected off it,” the owner says. He also has the council’s rejection letter, dated December 1941. “It’s pretty cool,” says Piattoni. “Here’s the deal with tanks. The US was able to go zero to 50 quick because of GM and Ford. The concept was, they threw money at it. The German tanks were more custom built. Even though they were superior, we overwhelmed them with pure numbers.” This design, he conjectures, was “too complex and too crazy to be adopted officially. Obviously a lot of folks wanted to help the war effort. But they had it under control.” Declaring the model cool once more, Piattoni estimates its top value at “a couple thousand,” but doesn’t send for a producer. (Later he tells me the owner already knew too much about what he had to make for a good taping.)

Antiques Roadshow appraisers are not paid for their work on the show. In fact, they pay their own travel and lodging expenses. Last summer Piattoni traveled to the Chicago, Birmingham, and New York City shows. The exposure is valuable, especially for experts who run their own antique dealerships or appraisal businesses, as Piattoni has since 2002. In his day job as president of Gary Piattoni Decorative Arts he has private individuals, insurance companies, and institutions as clients and focuses on fine art, furniture, and decorative arts. He does work on other kinds of objects, but never jewelry or “very specialized collections” like coins or stamps. “I can do an African mask or an American Indian basket if there’s one or two of them,” but “if somebody had a collection of 50, I would generally send them to a specialist.”

For all their variety, the things he sees on the Roadshow rarely overlap with the high-value items that come to him in his business. He loves moving between those worlds and still visits the Rosemont flea market early Sundays, returning home by the time his sons, ages 10 and 13, are rising. The flea market keeps him familiar with the more everyday items that will end up in front of him at the Roadshow. “It’s great to be able to share that with folks for free,” he says, “and help them unlock some mystery about an object they carry around—or disappoint them because it’s not as valuable as they thought.”

Maybe a dozen times a year Piattoni hits the road to run antiques and heirlooms appraisal events, structured much like the Roadshow, at retirement communities around the country. The demand is increasing, partly testament to the popularity of the television show. What keeps it going strong? Piattoni believes the show fed an interest that was there all along. “Think about Julia Child,” he says. “She was very talented, but her show tapped into a preexisting interest in cooking. And oh my God, how quickly it caught on. The Roadshow did the same thing.”

It was a hard sell in the beginning, despite the success of the original British version. Shopping the show around with a pitch tape that featured Let’s Make a Deal star Monty Hall as the host, producer Dan Farrell, MBA’73, was turned down by every network, leaving the door open for PBS. Now other reality shows in the same vein have taken off—Piattoni mentions Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and Storage Wars. For him, though, Antiques Roadshow “is the one that considers itself to be educational. ... The goal is really about discovery.”

Not only for the guests. “It’s impossible to know it all,” he says. That keeps him charged up about what he does, in his day job and on the set. “Each show there’s something that comes by that I haven’t seen before, or some story. I think that’s the most exciting thing. It’s never the same; it’s always something different.”

The morning starts to wane, and still nothing different, nothing Piattoni wants to pitch. He’s getting discouraged. Then, a glimmer. Another appraiser, Kathleen Guzman, comes over from collectibles with an air of anticipation, and a box. She needs a corroboration, but has struck out with the fine arts appraisers. It’s a sumptuous construction of buttery laminated plywood, a little smaller than a shirt box. A brass plaque fastened to the top spells, in engraved script, “Suicide.” Guzman opens the lid, which is hinged at the back, revealing three pairs of shears under plexiglass. On the inside lid, lined up with the shears, are three painted pink flamingos. A weird and beautiful and ominous objet d’art.

Piattoni is thrilled. The box has some of the signature features of one of his favorite artists, the maverick American sculptor H. C. Westermann, whose sculptures employed a carpenter’s skills, defied interpretation, and often critiqued materialism. The box and scissors are “classic Westermann,” he tells me later: “an object you can’t use.” But the piece isn’t signed, which the artist’s work usually is. If it is Westermann, the piece might be worth $15,000 to $20,000. It’s a puzzle Piattoni wants to solve.

“Where’d they get it?” he asks Guzman. No help there: the owner bought it at an estate sale in the 1960s. “Could be a copyist,” he muses, “but the quality is so good.” Does he want to pitch it to a producer, Guzman offers, deferring to his expertise on Westermann. Piattoni declines and encourages her to do so, giving his take: it could be authentic, it’s not definitive, but even if it’s a copy, it’s interesting. She decides she’ll pitch it. As she walks away, Piattoni seems electrified, and a little haunted. He loves Westermann. It was hard to turn down, he confides, but he wants her to get the taping (she did, I find out later).

The not-quite-pitches keep coming, and then Piattoni sees a group of items that have the right stuff: historical significance; something truly rare among them; and, most important, the pieces come together to tell a story greater than the sum of its parts. A man from Indiana and his wife, maybe in their early 50s, bring them: photographs, a period photocopy of a telegraph from General Douglas MacArthur, patches, and a pin, all relating to his uncle’s service as a paratrooper in the Pacific arena during World War II. The photos capture the uncle’s first jump, and his jump school graduation pin was made by Bailey Banks & Biddle, the venerable US jeweler that designed many of the best-known medals awarded by the military. Only the first graduating class of paratroopers received this particular pin; subsequent classes got imitations, made more cheaply by less storied firms.

Piattoni is drawn by how the items highlight a little-discussed front of the war, and the rare pin clinches it. “Would you like to talk about it on air?” he asks the couple, who agree, a little shyly. “Go sit over there,” he says, pointing them to a few chairs outside the curtains that enclose the appraisal area. “Don’t show anyone, don’t talk about it. We don’t need any nosy Nellies”—to ensure that some knowledgeable bystander doesn’t ruin the surprise, which has been known to happen. He also hasn’t mentioned a value, again to ensure that their reaction on camera will be genuine if they’re selected for taping. He asks a nearby volunteer to get a producer and goes on looking at people’s things.

Within 30 minutes, another set of items catches his eye. This time a woman from Michigan, accompanied by her sister, brings a scrapbook and more. Her uncle by marriage, she says, was the copilot of the first US plane to drop a bomb on Germany during World War II. Inside the scrapbook are stories upon stories clipped from newspapers, with headlines like “Michigander Who Bombed Nazis First”; the pilot’s ID cards from the University of Michigan; a telegraph—or copy of one—from General George Marshall. There are also items that the pilot carried just months later when he was killed on duty, only 24 years old, and the Purple Heart sent to his family, engraved with his name.

Piattoni arranges everything on his side of the table and takes a long, careful survey. “There’s a lot to look at,” he says. “I just want to make sure I’m getting the full picture.” After some time, and a few questions, he asks, “You want to try to do this on camera?” The woman most definitely does. Off she goes, with her sister, to a different set of chairs outside the appraisal floor.

Now Piattoni is just waiting for a producer to show. At last one does, Sam Farrell. They huddle and Piattoni sketches out for him each World War II collection. The young pilot’s story tells of a notable moment in the war and Germany’s eventual defeat; his death not long after that historic mission makes the tale especially poignant. Eager to serve, he had joined the Canadian forces before the United States entered the war. The paratrooper’s story contains no such drama, but Piattoni pitches it as a clean, concise, complete set of items that draws attention to paratrooper activity in the often-overlooked Pacific arena.

Farrell gives the green light to the bomber pilot, but not the paratrooper. Piattoni first delivers the news to the Indiana couple, and his assessment of their collection’s value: between $1,000 to $1,500, including $500 to $600 for the Bailey Banks & Biddle pin. They don’t seem to mind not getting on TV and walk off smiling.

The Michigan woman heads to the green room, where both she and Piattoni get makeup. He gathers more information from her. Eventually they’re summoned and walk back, through the curtains, past the appraisal lines, to take their seats at a table on one of the blue carpets. From where I stand, it’s impossible to hear the appraisal. I’ll have to wait until the show airs this fall, like everyone else.