Volunteering at an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ day involves a lot of standing around. It is long hard slog for everyone, including people who have brought items to be valued, and it is quite amazing how well behaved and cheerful everyone is considering this.
As a volunteer, mostly what you are about is trying to make sure that people end up where they need to be to get their items valued and in good order. The first thing I learned was, whatever your actual station on the day, knowing where everything else is on the site is crucial as people constantly ask you ‘where are ceramics?’ at which point you smile and point to the banner that is emblazoned ‘Ceramics’ in large friendly letters and invite them to take their place at the back of the (very long) queue. I was stationed at one end of a queue – in my case, for books, maps and manuscripts – and another volunteer was at the other end of the queue to keep people in some sort of order. Additionally, we are there to keep an eye on our expert and ensure he did not faint from dehydration and/or not having any kind of lunch break. Otherwise you just chat to people and try and make them forget just how long they have been waiting (and my queue was probably one of the shortest and fastest moving, more on that later).
If you are coming to one of these things I have some advice to impart.
First, get there early. The queue to get into the site was huge long before the event opened and only tails off very late in the day so best to get there from the off. Accept you will be queuing for hours – you will, I guarantee it – and dress/supply yourself appropriately. Be very thoughtful about what you bring. Try not to bring too many items, as it is a bit like turning up at a book signing cradling every book the author has ever contributed to – yes, they’ll sign them, but possibly through gritted teeth. In particular, try not to bring lots of different items. As you will be waiting in some cases several hours to be seen on the more popular stations (especially ceramics – twice as long as any other queue) your chance of getting your pictures, jewellery and first edition Harry Potter being seen as well as your art deco vase is pretty unlikely so avoid disappoint and chose what you really want to know about and get in that queue straight away.
The surprisingly valuable item is often what people focus on, but in fact the programmes are constructed to have a mix of stories, and in terms of getting on the TV you are more likely to get on because you have something with a lot of human interest behind it, especially if it relates to the site or local area where the product is being filmed. The experts are not just looking for value, but something that is interesting (ideally, as well).
I found it interesting listening to my expert talk about it – and how disappointing it can often be, as they are genuinely, professionally, hoping to turn up something exciting. In the case of books for example, a lot of what they get are old family Bibles (of no interest generally to anyone outside the family), Beatrix Potter (which are a bit like valuing used cars, knowing what edition it is, and its condition, defines quickly the market value). People turn up with boxes of books that they have brought along because they are ‘old’ – which is not really a help. If it is not a First Edition, then it is not going to be worth much. Often, the most interesting things appear too late to be included – for my expert, it was after 5pm when someone turned up with a letter from JRR Tolkien, which sketched out some details of the (yet to be published) Lord of the Rings. But it was too late for them to film. Still, it did mean that my expert left with a smile on his face at something he could get excited about. And generally, despite the heat, waiting and usually crushing when the valuation is well below what you might have hoped or dreamed, most people disappointment left smiling.
Do go to one if you can, take something quirky – and plenty of sandwiches to get you through the waiting. Or even better, be a volunteer and get to wear a natty sash and boater for the day (sadly, you had to give those back).