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British TV Had a Lock On 'Roadshow' Before Its US Debut

The expert turns the antique music box around, inspecting it closely. "Before 1850" she suggests. "What one might call 'top of its range.' "

Its owner, a middle-aged woman, looks pleased in an undemonstrative English way. The expert launches into a detailed analysis of the object. She clearly thinks it's special. Her words build to high praise. "But," the appraiser says, rather shocked, "it looks as if it has been given to a gang of road repairers to go off and play with."

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"My five children," explains the owner with an untroubled smile, "and their friends. It's given a lot of pleasure to a lot of children."

"Well," says the expert, "even in this condition it could fetch between 1,500 and 2,000 [$2,300 and $3,100]."

Then the punch line: "But it would have been worth 4,000 or 5,000 [$6,200 or $7,700] if it had not been subjected to home wreckers."

This is just the kind of thing out of which "The Antiques Roadshow" is made. The long-running British TV show (on BBC 1) is currently recording its 19th series, to be seen this fall and winter.

The formula is simple enough: Top experts, on a single day, assess and evaluate antiques brought to a specific local venue. It might be in Islington or Cleethorpes or Liverpool - or even in Sweden or Holland. Lines of people with packages under their arms have been known to start at 4:30 a.m. Everything brought along is seen (though only a selection of the appraisals is on camera).

Anyone can turn up with an object (or have it transported if unwieldy). At least theoretically they want to learn more about their treasures. And they are offered a veritable education. But the excitement tends to focus on the final valuation.

"So what do you think it's worth?" asks a book expert of the wife of one of J.R.R. Tolkien's grandsons. She has brought a first edition of "The Hobbit" with a handwritten and signed letter from the author and corrections on the dust jacket. The letter is stuck in with Scotch tape (anathema!) - but all the same, the expert believes a collector would give 3,500 ($5,400) for it.

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To an American who, on a whim, wandered in with a Tsuguharu Foujita watercolor, the expert strongly advises insurance. "You should probably insure it for 50,000 [$77,000]." The American looks profoundly bemused.

Most of the items viewed on a particular day are unlikely to have anything like this kind of value. On the busiest days, the experts can "see something like 20,000 items between them" says Christopher Lewis, the show's producer. We like to think the 'Roadshow' alerts people to just what they might have lying around the house."

"The Antiques Roadshow" made its original presenter, a great, rich-voiced character called Arthur Negus, a household name in Britain. He retired in 1983, and Hugh Scully has done the job ever since. He calls it "the most spontaneous program on television." And he attributes its success to the fact that it is "essentially a conversation between two people with 13 million eavesdroppers."

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