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On the Road Again

PBS's plucky appraisers are looking for regional treasures.



It's called the Magic Jet Propelled Wacky-Quacky," I say, assuming this would be information enough. There is only silence on the other end of the line.

Then the man says, "You're really going to have to tell me a little more here."

"Well, it's a balloon, and it's shaped like a little yellow duckie. It's only two inches tall, and according to the box, a little shot of baking powder makes it 'drink, dive, swim, gurgle, and GO CRAZY!' The Wacky-Quacky says, 'I'll perform in a bowl or a bath tub A circus of fun for everyone, and absolutely harmless.' It's from the 1950s; you can tell from the printing on the box. I even have the original, unopened bags of baking soda, though they are hard and I doubt if they would work anymore. I'm guessing it's worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million."

There's laughter on the line. Gary Sohmers is the toy, music, and memorabilia appraiser for PBS's ever-popular Antiques Roadshow, which, now in its ninth season, makes a pit stop at Memphis' Cook Convention Center on Saturday, July 31st. Sohmers is the man whose Hawaiian shirts, manic energy, and vaguely perverse mantra -- "But do you play with it?" -- set him apart from the Roadshow's more serious, gray flannel appraisers. He's like a flamingo at a pigeon convention. He laughs loudly and often.

"I don't think your duckie is worth a million dollars," he says, giggling sympathetically. "Now if it were a frogman or a submarine, it might be worth a lot more because those are popular collectibles and would also cross over to people who collect submarines and frogmen. Yours might cross over to people who collect duckies, but I just don't know. It's worth maybe $35 to $50."

For Sohmers, collecting antiques is a family tradition. When he was 8, his dad bought a box of old campaign buttons for $50 and sold them for $500. A business was born. Sohmers calls it a "hustle."

"You learn that some items have desirability," he says. "And when I started learning to hustle, I sold my own toys. When I stopped playing with them, I would sell them."

After taking a break from the slightly slobbered-on toy business to try his hand at playing rock-and-roll in the early 1970s, Sohmers bought a sealed copy of David Bowie's first album for a quarter. He sold it for $100. The hustle was back on. He opened up a record store in Madison, Wisconsin, devoted himself to collecting toys and music memorabilia, and got on the road to the Roadshow.

For the record, Roadshow appraisers don't get paid for their services. They pay their own travel expenses and manage their own wardrobes. It's a job that gives them phenomenal exposure and access to regional treasures hidden among miles and miles of glorious junk.

"When I was in San Diego, I was on the lookout for anything related to Dr. Seuss, because he's from there," Sohmers says. "And in St. Paul, I got to see all these wonderful Tonka trucks because St. Paul is close to where they make Tonka." When the Roadshow comes to Memphis, Sohmers will be looking for one thing: music.

"It would be great to see lots of original [Sun-era] concert posters and handbills," he says. "There are so many fakes and repos out there -- all garbage -- that you always hope to see the real thing."

According to Sohmers, rock-and-roll poster forgery is all too common and fairly difficult to spot.

"There was one guy who used to look up concert dates in old newspapers. He'd get the dates and the artists who were performing, and he'd make posters. So somebody comes in with a poster, and you'd do a little research, and all the dates would check out. But they were fake Then you've got some guy saying, 'What do you mean it's not real? I paid $5,000 for it."

Telling amateur collectors they have a piece of junk in their hands is one of the hardest things Roadshow appraisers have to do.

"It was a trivet that got my family into the antiques business," says Leigh Keno, one half of the furniture-appraising Keno twins, longtime Roadshow regulars whose show, Find, is in its first season on PBS. "If, after waiting in line for 20 minutes, somebody told me my trivet was worthless, I'd be pretty upset," he says. "HEY! IT'S A FAMILY TREASURE!

"I hope to see some great provincial Tennessee furniture [in Memphis]," Keno says. "And I imagine there will be a lot of wonderful folk art. And somebody will hopefully come in with some antique musical instruments. Maybe we'll see a great old banjo."

According to both Keno and Sohmers, the best part about their job isn't handling the precious objects, it's listening to the stories. "You get to hear all this trivial, ephemeral knowledge," Sohmers says. "There's no value to it at all, but it's so, so cool."

"And every piece has its own story," Keno says. "You're always looking for a masterpiece, but sometimes a mediocre piece with a great story is even better."

There are no more tickets to Antiques Roadshow available through WKNO, but radio station 103.5 Soul Classics will be giving away tickets throughout the week to a few lucky callers.

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