Not long ago I planned to have some fun in these pages by running a sly taxonomy of the current television shows about old things-from the somewhat shopworn Antiques Roadshow down through Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Market Warriors and the rest of the Roadshow’s offspring. I expected to spare only Storage Wars, which I find the sunniest of guilty pleasures and the most amusing.I know the argument: however demented, these shows bring welcome attention to the field. I don’t really buy it. Even the Roadshow, despite its virtues, strikes me as guilty of deforming our appreciation of art and decorative arts by always building to its main event-the “Land sakes alive!” moment routinely squeezed from pilgrims whose treasures have been appraised for those really big sums. Works of art have always been commercial objects, of course, but they are crucially more than that. What a show like Market Warriors does is to sever the connective tissue that binds us to the texture of the past-the person who made an object, the one who bought it, and those dealers and collectors who keep it alive. If you haven’t seen the show it goes like this: The four warriors (three men and one woman) are sent to markets such as Brimfield or Pasadena, where they race around to find old stuff- art glass, native American artifacts, advertising signs-that they can then sell at auction. The four are in competition to beat the clock and each other for the biggest profit. Usually they lose money at auction because they have bought unwisely (subtext: dealers’ prices are too high). All good fun, right? I wish.
Because it comes on right after Antiques Roadshow and because it is promoted by PBS, Market Warriors has a certain unearned prestige. Besides making the buying and selling of old things seem dreary, there is the persistent suggestion that dealers are not to be trusted. Which brings us to the matter of the homely little nineteenth-century box Dan Olson was shown selling to one of the warriors for $150 at Brimfield. When brought to Cowan’s Auction in Cincinnati Olson’s box was rejected as a fake, a confection of the 1960s or 1970s. Not a good moment for Olson, known to all as a stand-up guy and a completely reputable dealer. He bought the box back and showed it to, among many others, his colleagues in the ADA, all of whom agreed that it was indeed a nineteenth-century item, albeit as Olson himself admits, one “without much visual appeal.” What bothers me in this is obvious, but what I miss is not: one of the central pleasures of antiques is watching the way two people relate to each other through a third thing (the object at hand). A great dealer at work is a performance artist, a deeply informed historian of material culture, a relentless detective of the fraudulent, a virtuoso connoisseur, an esthete, an economist, an entrepreneur, and an enthusiast. In short, a work of art. Where is the show that gives us theater as good as that? Oh, and what happened to my taxonomy? Not worth our pages, especially when you have what follows here in our annual painting issue.