There are two kinds of people who show up for a taping of the PBS television program Antiques Roadshow. The first kind of person arrives bearing family heirlooms for the experts to appraise: old rocking chairs and wooden spindles, painted mirrors and Civil War swords once swung by their great-great-great-grandfathers. These people come to learn more about their items. They’re eager to know the value, too, but they rarely sell.
The second group is made up of people who want money. People like me.
According to Marsha Bemko, the show’s executive producer, I am in the minority, but standing inside the Albuquerque Convention Center in New Mexico, I find this hard to believe. The room is abuzz, as if we were awaiting the opening of a new casino: I hope you win big. Good luck. I’m sure that one’s a winner. Very few people here are my age — early thirties — and no one around me is alone. The two women behind me in line are Daughters of the American Revolution. The couple in front are retired weapons engineers from Los Alamos. Most people are more prepared than I am: They wear comfortable shoes and carry folding chairs. Those with large items have brought hand trucks or small wagons. Everyone’s treasures are tucked into boxes or covered in plastic to keep them safe. The paintings are draped with sheets.
My painting is exposed. With the frame it is forty by fifty-two inches — three times bigger than any box I could find around the house. I have no hand truck or wagon. Not knowing what else to do, I have covered the corners in cardboard triangles held on with pieces of twine. While most people move through the line with ease, I strain and tug, damp with sweat. “Be careful not to put your knee through that canvas!” a woman calls out. She was smart enough to bring a wagon, and her two paintings are meticulously packed and cushioned by a fleece blanket. Another woman shakes her head and asks what I was thinking. I give up trying to keep the painting aloft and just slide it along. When it hits a crack in the cement floor, I cringe. This is not just any painting; it is my ticket to a better future. And many people around me seem to agree about its worth. A man nudges his wife, and they gape at me from down the line. “Well,” the man jokes, “at least we know who to mug in the parking lot.”
What these people don’t know is how much I need this money. I have nine thousand dollars in credit-card debt and almost twenty thousand in student loans. My teaching contract at the university recently came to an end, and I’m not certain I’ll have a job in the fall. In another month I may not be able to pay my rent. But a few months ago my wife discovered this painting, and now here in line I’m convinced: everything is about to change.
My wife, Randi, has been a fan of Antiques Roadshow for years. She’s drawn to the fairy-tale quality of the people’s stories: The woman who bought a framed poster at Goodwill only to discover a far more valuable piece tucked inside; the man with the fifteen-thousand-dollar doll salvaged from the county dump. Randi has always wanted to join their ranks. When she was growing up, she and her mother would wait for the day when the city picked up junk at the curb. They would wake early and prowl the neighborhood, searching for items they could sell for a quick buck. They learned quickly what furniture could be polished and resold and which obscure knickknacks might garner the most cash at the local flea market. For Randi, finding something of real value was only a matter of time.
The painting used to hang in a library on the third floor of the English-department building where I work. The library is small and cavelike, its dusty corners home to ancient computers, forgotten record players, and stained coffeepots. Once a busy hub, it’s now a locked fortress, opened only for class use and dissertation defenses. A few months ago the English department debated whether to give employees raises or renovate the third-floor library. The library won out.
I was not involved in this decision. I work as a term lecturer, which means I teach the same course load as a regular lecturer, but for roughly fifteen thousand dollars less per year. We term lecturers are never certain whether our contracts will be renewed. So for two months every summer we wait with fingers crossed. We’re also not allowed to attend faculty meetings, which is why I didn’t know about the library renovation until one day I rounded the corner and saw a handful of graduate students riffling through leather-bound books, vinyl records, and VHS tapes that were being given away.
I flipped through the books and left empty-handed, but later I returned with Randi, knowing she would want to rummage through the rejects. She took two steps into the room and went straight toward some artworks in a corner.
“Look at this!” she said. She moved aside several frames, and there, tucked behind a print of snowy owls, were the cows. The artist had painted three in the foreground and three more behind them. In the distance, beneath a tree, lounged several others. One cow stared at the viewer. The rest grazed on a rolling hillside, looking the way you might expect cows in an old painting to look.
“Isn’t it something?” Randi said.
“It’s something, all right,” I replied. Over the previous six years I’d seen Randi make a beeline toward many discarded objects: chairs she’d meant to refinish but never had; two-by-fours that might have become a raised flower bed if she’d found the time. Until recently we’d lived in Indiana in a home with a basement and a backyard where such items could accumulate, but now, in New Mexico, we were renting a room in a shared house. Most of our belongings were still in storage back in Indiana. That morning we’d deflated an air mattress to access our closet. This painting would hardly fit into our car, let alone that cramped bedroom.
But Randi is a hard woman to say no to. She convinced me to help her carry the cows to my office, where we propped them on my paper-laden desk. At first I couldn’t keep from laughing: the painting was bigger than the desktop, bigger than the chalkboard on the wall, and absurdly out of place in that dilapidated office, which I shared with three other lecturers, all of us squeezed in tight. But then I considered the gilded frame surrounding the peaceful brown cows. This work of art could have been in a museum or a mansion, someplace with low lighting and an expansive wall. It belonged to a world beyond this building and this department, and far from the pothole-covered road running by outside. Maybe it was the golden afternoon light, but I suddenly saw what Randi had seen in an instant: this painting had value.
Here is what you should know about Randi: She is a tenacious researcher. Once, while taking an undergraduate English course, she became so absorbed by the work of an obscure poet that she scoured the library for every article ever written about the man and produced a paper that read like a PhD thesis. She’s plagued by a fear of not knowing, which is exacerbated by a fear of looking stupid. Neither should be a concern for her. My wife is brilliant — and beautiful. Her Irish-Cherokee roots have given her dark hair, pale skin, and blue eyes that seem to change color depending on the weather: silver when a storm is approaching; green when the day is warm and bright.
That afternoon and evening Randi spent hours on the Internet. It was well after midnight when I heard her cry out and rushed into the bedroom, where she pointed to her computer screen. Sure enough, there it was, the same squiggle of a signature that appeared at the bottom of our canvas, the last name not Champagne, as we’d first thought, but Champney: Edwin Graves Champney.
Randi searched auction sites for Champney paintings that had changed hands within the last ten years and hit upon the information we were seeking: A watercolor by Champney had sold for $1,400. A few oil paintings, including one of a single brown cow similar to the cows in our painting, had sold for roughly $2,000 apiece. And these works were small. Ours was a billboard by comparison. When it comes to oil paintings, Randi explained, size does matter. If these other paintings were worth two grand, ours had to be worth at least twice that. And it was still sitting on my desk in my shared office.
“We have to get it,” I said.
It wasn’t that we thought the painting would be stolen — after all, it had sat in a room full of giveaways for more than a week, and no one had claimed it. We just needed to know that it was safe. So we got into our car and drove across town, pulling right onto campus, where cars are not allowed to drive. We dashed up the stairs and carted the painting down, as quick as thieves. And that’s what we must have looked like to someone passing by: two young women carting away a work of art in the dead of night. The entire drive home I kept glancing in my rearview mirror, expecting sirens. I couldn’t get over the feeling that, although we’d broken no law, we were getting away with something.
In line at the Roadshow people are talking about the cows. I love your cows. Oh, those cows! What weighs more — this painting or a real cow? A woman stops to take my picture. “You’re going to be on the show,” she says, and people around her agree.
I had forgotten about this possibility. I was in such a rush this morning that I didn’t bother to fix my hair, and now I feel it coming out of my ponytail in messy tufts. My jeans are too big. There’s a tear in my top. I wish I’d remembered to wash my face. All around us screens show clips from past episodes of the show, and I imagine myself and my painting in one of them.
A gray-haired woman hands me a business card for a Santa Fe gallery. “Let me know if you’re interested in selling those cows,” she says.
A few people glance from their objects to mine, and the comparison seems to leave them disappointed. Still, they wish me luck. I can tell that, like me, they hope they’re carrying the realization of a dream: a new roof, a trip to Maui, that sports car they’ve always wanted but never believed they could afford. The slot-machine wheels are spinning, and we’re all watching, hoping those blazing 7’s will line up.
Randi learned that a painting’s value increases when the seller has more information about it. For a solid month she devoted herself to Edwin Graves Champney. She had his journals sent over from the Smithsonian and spent days scouring the microfilm, hoping to find a mention of this particular work: Why had it been created? Who had previously owned it? Bit by bit, Randi put the puzzle pieces into place.
Edwin Graves Champney served in the Civil War as a soldier and sketch artist for the Union Army. He studied painting in Europe, and in his later years he worked on murals at Boston’s famous Trinity Church and taught at the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts. As far as Randi could tell, the painting was his largest on record, created at the end of his career in 1884. Despite all this knowledge, she couldn’t say how the cows had wound up in a university library in New Mexico. “Once I learn that,” Randi said, “the value could double.”
At the end of the month we needed a break from our research and took a road trip through New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Along the route we told anyone who would listen about the painting. The more we talked about it, the bigger its potential value became. Could it be worth ten thousand dollars? Twenty? Possibly more?
By the time we returned home, we were fantasizing about buying a house. I am thirty-three years old. Randi is twenty-eight. We’ve been married for three years and want to start a family, but it’s difficult to think of raising children when the only certainty in our future is the increasing size of our debt. The painting, however, could help us reach our hoped-for future. We started stopping at houses with FOR SALE signs. Randi knew how to make adobe bricks and run wiring. If we found a run-down place with good bones, we could do the rest.
One day Randi drove out to her favorite coffee shop, which was located in a converted adobe house outside of Albuquerque. She hadn’t been there for a while, and when she arrived, the door was locked, and the building was empty. A note said, “For the last twenty-five years, we’ve given it our best shot.” It listed a number in case anyone was interested in buying the place.
We drove out to the property together on a Sunday. It had a sloping yard with a stream and an old shed that appeared to be a hundred years old. An herb garden grew amid budding weeds. We could build a chicken coop, maybe have the horse and goat Randi wanted. I wanted the beauty and security a place like this seemed to promise.
After wandering the one-acre grounds, we sat on a bench that faced the building to imagine what our life there might look like.
“Close your eyes,” Randi said. “What do you see?”
I tried to picture the house and the kids and the rest, but all I could see was the painting of the cows. The realness of the house and the land was overwhelming, and our fantasies suddenly seemed to be just that: fantasies.
“I can’t imagine anything until I know what the painting is worth,” I said.
Randi’s face dropped. She picked at the cuticle of her thumb, and I saw a bead of blood that she wiped on her jeans. All her life, she told me, she’d been striving for things people said she could never have. She’d wanted to leave Oklahoma, and she had. She’d wanted a horse farm, and she’d had one. “I’ve always imagined the thing first and then made it happen.”
But I knew Randi had been homeless when she’d moved to Albuquerque, and she’d lost the horse farm. And I wasn’t like her. I couldn’t plan on a future unless I knew that future was possible. Still, I wanted to be able to want it. And sitting there, listening to Randi talk about her vision of our home, I let myself imagine it, too.
At the end of the first line, I am given a ticket and sent to stand in a different line, for “drawings and paintings.” The hopeful energy fades as, one by one, the objects are appraised, and their owners return to reality.
The man behind me carries a landscape of California redwoods painted by his grandfather. He and I can both tell it was the work of an amateur. His wife has already been through several shorter lines and gotten three disappointing appraisals: $50 to $75; $200 to $300; sentimental value only. Now her eyes are on the cows as I shift them forward. The cardboard slides off the corners, and I put it back with the utmost care.
“You want me to help?” the wife asks.
“Thanks,” I say, “but we’re almost there.”
A Roadshow employee beckons me forward.
It was supposed to have been Randi who took the painting to be appraised. She was the one who’d spent days researching its origins. She was the one who knew this world of junk and treasures. But a friend of ours was taking a road trip through the Midwest and offered to let Randi come along; after they got to Indiana, Randi would rent a U-Haul and return with the rest of our belongings. I would have gone with her, but I’d been offered a job teaching a summer class, and we needed the money. So it’s me in this line.
Last night I went on YouTube and searched for “Antiques Roadshow paintings.” I watched a man appraise a nineteenth-century landscape that also contained a small herd of cows. “Cows are common during this era,” the appraiser said. “As a result they’re not usually popular with buyers.” He turned his attention to the background figure of a man in a boat rowing down a stream. The camera pulled back, and I saw that the painting was only a quarter the size of ours. When the appraiser gave the final value, I gasped: three hundred thousand dollars. If our painting could garner even half as much as the one on YouTube, we could purchase the adobe house outright. Maybe this was actually going to happen, I thought. Maybe my luck was about to change.
Here are some things you should know about me: When I was a kid, I was driven and ambitious, aspiring to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or the president of the United States. Then my father died of cancer while I was in college, and I started to question whether all my hard work in school had been worth it. He had worked hard, too. He’d emigrated from the Philippines after medical school and raised his family while starting his career and future. And just when it had come time for him to enjoy the fruits of his labor, the cancer had spread through his brain, and he’d died. I was twenty years old. I stopped thinking about the future and started living for the present. I hung around bars and drank away most of my twenties. Then I met Randi, and I began to plan for the future again. Now those plans had grown exponentially.
After the video ended, I called Randi. She was somewhere near Louisville, Kentucky, and she didn’t understand why I was nervous. “You’re just getting an appraisal,” she said. “You aren’t actually selling it.” She felt guilty that I had to go alone and suggested the experience would be fun. Even though I agreed, she could tell my agreement was forced. I didn’t have to go if I didn’t want to, she said. We could pay to get the painting appraised later.
Her suggestion felt like a slap. Didn’t she understand that this wasn’t about whether we had the painting appraised the next day or later? It was about our dream of buying a house, a dream that I now believed in. The next day I’d be holding that dream in my hands, loading it into the car, and driving it to the convention center. What if the appraisal didn’t go well? I couldn’t even think about that.
“You should be here with me,” I said, miserable. By the time we hung up, I’d made Randi miserable, too.
The art appraiser wears a gray suit. Unlike the people in line, he does not react to the painting. He doesn’t ask me to lift it onto the table. He doesn’t need me to remove the cardboard corners or what’s left of the twine. “I can see it from here,” he says.
He asks me what I know. I tell him about Edwin Graves Champney, and he searches for Champney’s signature on his computer while I wait, the painting leaning against my side. It takes two minutes.
“What’s your history with this object?” the appraiser asks.
I’ve been telling the story to people in line all morning, letting the tale grow more elaborate each time, but this man seems tired, uninterested. “A library was giving it away,” I say. “No one wanted it.”
He clears his throat and explains that the image is “quite unique,” and a Champney painting of this size is extremely unusual. “No one has sold anything like it in the last two decades,” he says, explaining that this is as far back as the databases go.
I knew this already, but coming from the appraiser’s mouth, it feels more meaningful. I find myself nodding the way people do on the show: the appraiser tells you bits of information, and you are interested — you are — but you’re also waiting for the final price.
“From what I can tell,” he continues, “I’d say it’s worth two to four thousand dollars. Cows are pretty common, but you should be able to sell it, especially around here. People here like their cows.”
He gazes at me, this man in a gray suit, and I imagine he sees the crushing disappointment on my face. Clearly he feels compelled to say something kind, but he cannot change the appraisal. “I’m impressed you were able to haul this through the lines,” he tells me. “It’s the biggest painting I’ve seen so far.”
Two to four thousand dollars had been good news when we’d found the painting. It had been enough for us to drive across town and retrieve the artwork from my office. But now I cannot hide how let down I feel — not from the appraiser, and not from the wife of the man behind me in line, who is eager to know how it went.
“Two to four thousand,” I say. “I thought it was going to be worth more.”
When I break the news to Randi, she doesn’t sound surprised. I tell her about the people in line. “They really loved the painting,” I say. “I wish the appraiser had loved it, too.”
“I knew the painting was special,” she says. She tells me Champney would be happy to know how many people got to see it after it had been hidden away for so many years. But I’m not in the mood for her to convince me the experience alone was worth it. I want to wallow.
A year has passed since then, and Randi and I are still scraping by. I’ve grown quite fond of the painting, which we haven’t sold yet. When we wake in the morning, it is the first thing we see, and sometimes I lie in bed and stare at the cows, trying to find comfort in their patient stillness. When the time is right, I’ll dig out that gallery owner’s business card, or Randi will place the painting in an online auction, and we’ll accept whatever is offered (and, yes, maybe still wonder whether we could have gotten just a bit more). Until then, it waits on the wall. Even as I write this, I can almost hear the cows grazing on that century-old grass.
Most people go to the Roadshow looking for a story. They hope their items will earn high appraisals, but big price tags are unusual. Most are probably happy to go home with the Civil War sword or the Chinese drum or the wooden spindle and return it to its place on the mantel or beside the hearth. I imagine someone telling a spouse that the drum isn’t worth much, but it was once used in celebrations, or that a great-aunt’s spindle might bring only fifty dollars, but it’s a piece of family history. These people are a little discouraged, but by the time they turn off the lights and climb into bed, the experience has left them satisfied.
On my way home from the Roadshow that day, I saw a young man with a piece of art balanced on the back of his bicycle. It was a contemporary painting of a military tank, its gun barrel fashioned from a neon sign. The man was blond and in his early twenties. I imagined the painting lit up and hanging on the wall of his living room while he and his friends ate pizza and played video games.
I rolled down my window and asked if he’d just come from the convention center. He stopped and, shading his eyes from the afternoon sun, said he had. “How’d you do?” I asked. By then I was used to making conversation with strangers about money.
“Two to three hundred bucks,” he said with a big smile.
“Not bad,” I said.
“No,” he replied. “Not bad at all.”