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Antiques Roadshow: More than just a lottery?

Antiques Roadshow is the lottery of the middle class and offers far more than light Sunday afternoon entertainment.

Antiques Roadshow is an unassuming little show. Many pass it off as the obsession of a small few, who spend their days rifling through deceased estates and boxes in the attic. But it is so much more than that.

For the uninitiated, let me set the scene. Antiques Roadshow is usually set in a grassy field; that grassy field is typically adjacent to a building or structure of historical significance — like a centuries old church or a town hall — and all of this is smack bang in the middle of the lovely English countryside. Throughout the day, people come to have their trinkets and trifles assessed by a panel of experts, who will determine an artefacts’ worth, origin, and legitimacy. This assessment stage forms the bulk of the program, as the experts can go on at length about how this particular jewellery box is in fact not a jewellery box but rather a seed planting device used by Viking raiders and left behind during occupation, for example. It’s all very fascinating. But that is merely what Antiques Roadshow is at first glance, and this article seeks to go beyond the surface and feast upon its fleshy interior.

Antiques Roadshow, in an abstract sense, is a modern fantasy. Every culture has a mechanism of miraculous wealth, a means by which someone can gain a vast amount of money purely through luck (or some other unearned attribute, like a very wealthy aunt). For many countries, that mechanism is the lottery. The great presumed equaliser. Anyone, rich or poor, can have a chance at being catapulted into the upper echelon of income. But no one wants their wealth’s origin to be rooted in luck or lottery. It’s quite an unsophisticated way of joining the 1%. It reflects no positive qualities about the person in question and paints them in quite an unworthy light. 

Antiques Roadshow offers an alternative. The best part of any given episode is when one of the expert panel finishes their assessment with a deeply generous valuation of what is objectively quite an unremarkable object. The huddled crowd all gasp and the owners of said object might utter a quiet “oh my”. It is this moment that makes Antiques Roadshow the perfect alternative to the lottery. Similar to the lottery, it doesn’t require any skill or knowledge, but unlike the lottery it feels significantly more earned. As the artefact in question is typically a family heirloom, the audience recognises that this person deserves its newly discovered value. While not so much earned, it feels justified. 

Aesthetics also play a critical role. The aesthetics of the lottery can be best described as dingy, flashy, and nigh on sticky. These are not pleasant aesthetics to be associated with. Wealth achieved through the Antiques Roadshow method on the other hand, is noble, sophisticated, and ceremonial. The sort of aesthetics we’d all like to eat for breakfast and politely ask for second helpings of. Deservedness and aesthetics are the two qualities that make wealth achieved through the Antiques Roadshow method infinitely more worthwhile than any measly lottery dollars. Anyone would be delighted to be remembered as the person who pawned off a part of their ancestral history for a cool £50,000, but not a soul wants to be remembered as the person who came into money on the basis of luck alone.

In a world where everyone wants to be rich, but don’t really want to take the time to get there, Antiques Roadshow is the perfect escapist fantasy. Instead of faffing about in the stock market or tinkering in the lab, why not have a poke around the attic. You might just find something.