“Antiques Roadshow Effect” and a Flea-Market Renoir

You may have heard the story:

A lucky woman finds a painting with a gold frame in a box of goods at a remote flea market in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.  She purchases the whole lot for $7.  The painting slides around in the back of her car for a while.  It spends a stint in her backyard shed.  Two years go by, and on a hunch, she decides to see if the painting with “RENOIR” on the frame is the real deal.  She carries it in a plastic bag to a local auction house where they tell the lucky woman that she may soon become $100,000 richer.

Once Potomack Company Auctioneers released that they were selling a “lost” work by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the news spread like wildfire.  Newspapers including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and even as far as Al-Jazeera and the UK’s The Guardian and Daily Mail.  Though the lucky woman wished to remain anonymous, news of her story was the talk of the town.

The Flea Market Renoir

And for good reason!  What better story than a woman unwittingly stumbling upon a treasure?  The story had an “Antiques Roadshow” quality to it.  The woman had been living with a lost masterpiece without even knowing it!

But things weren’t like they originally seemed.

On September 27, 2012 just before the painting was to go on sale at Potomack Auctions, The Washington Post published an article titled “Flea-market Renoir allegedly was stolen from a Baltimore museum; auction canceled”.  The FBI quickly seized the work and began investigating the auction house and the now-unlucky lady. The BMA is still feeling the fallout.

Why did the story garner so much national and international attention?  Why were we so fascinated by the prospect of finding the diamond ring in the hay pile?

It may have something to do with what could be called the “Antiques Roadshow effect.”  Antiques Roadshow has now begun its 13th year on the air and remains one of PBS’s most popular shows.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the set-up is similar to what is described above (without the twist ending). A naive person brings an item that they purchased on the cheap or inherited long ago.  They sit across from an expert who explains the piece, often telling the clueless person what they have.  Then there is the big reveal generally phrased like “Taking to account the pristine condition and extreme rarity of this item, I would give an insurance value of between $10,000 and $15,000.” Then, the now-enlightened owner rejoices, and they cut to the next vignette.

Here is a fairly typical example.

Antiques Roadshow EffectHaving worked in an auction house, I can\’t tell you the number of times my colleagues and I hear discussion of Antiques Roadshow as mentioned in a previous post.  People seem to have really latched on to the idea of having a diamond hidden somewhere in their home.  As an auction professional, we want nothing more than for this to be true, but it rarely is.  We love finding the gems just as much, and really that\’s what keeps the auction business afloat.
What do you think about the “Antiques Roadshow effect”?  Has Antiques Roadshow changed the way you look at objects either in your home or while antiquing?  Do you have a story about finding a diamond in the rough?
About Rebecca McCormick
Rebecca H. McCormick is working on her MA in History of Decorative Arts. She is a Collector’s Series Auction cataloger at Quinn’s Auction Galleries. She has worked at the Texas Historical Commission and The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. She received her BA in History and Art History from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Vienna, Virginia with her husband and their two cats.

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