Is “America’s Lost Treasures” A Lost Cause?

When I first heard about the National Geographic Channel’s new show, America’s Lost Treasures, I was excited. The premise is that folks parade in, Antiques Roadshow style, to have their objects evaluated — not simply for monetary value, but for their historical value — to answer the question, “Could you have a museum-worthy artifact hidden in your house?” The artifacts discovered or uncovered each week then “win” the opportunity to be included in a special exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., stated to be sometime in 2013 (though the exhibit does not yet appear on the museum’s calender— which, at the time I write this is scheduled through the end of April, 2013).

While the series has a game show element of competition, the focus appeared to be on the history and museum-worthy value of objects. Sure, there’s a $10,000 prize to with such an honor; but I fell for the idea of the recognition. What collector doesn’t want some validation? And, let’s be honest, a $10,000 cash prize for loaning an object to a museum seems a low price for objects deemed of such great historical value.

But then I watched the show.

Problems erupted everywhere.

Show hosts Curt Doussett and Kinga Philipps are literally talking heads with little, if any, experience in history, antiques, or collectibles. Sure, their enthusiasm is high; but their knowledge is obviously low.

When Phillips meets a couple with antique shaving mugs, she literally gushes and coos her ignorance. Who hasn’t heard of shaving mugs?! I think Old Spice still puts them out at holiday time. OK, maybe not everyone has heard of shaving mugs; but then not everyone hosts an antiques & collectibles history show either. And that’s my point.

And Doussette, who studied music composition and theory at Brigham Young University with the stated intention of becoming a master conductor, may have become overwhelmed with emotion at having the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream to conduct at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (it was a cool, moving moment), but he continually over-estimates the importance, value, and condition of musical instruments. It’s all rather mind-boggling, really.

And it might be OK, these talking heads who are nearly empty-headed on the subject they are hosting, because there will be experts, right? Well…

Enter curator emeritus Chris Baruth from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who is the expert visited to authenticate and evaluate a walking stick from the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago which contains a map of the fairgrounds. Despite the cautionary comments of the woman who owns the antique walking stick, Baruth rips the fragile old map! And do make matters worse, you can hear Baruth (or perhaps it’s Doussett?) say, “Now what do we do?” While I tried not to cry (or was it faint), Baruth offers to tape it. Really?! Oh. My. Gawd. Thank heavens Doussett promises complete restoration to the owner. You can watch the catastrophe here:

How’s that for damaging your credibility as an expert?

But wait; like a set of Ginsu knives, America’s Lost Treasures has more!

Among the other objects selected as finalists and worthy of expert analysis are a piece of a Japanese Zero from the attack on Pearl Harbor, an antique campaign writing box from the 1700s believed to have been owned by Roger Sherman (the only person to sign each of the four major documents that built this nation: the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution), and Venetian glass mosaics depicting Christopher Columbus‘ “discovery” of America (eighteen feet by five feet panels built on six inches of concrete for the 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair, presumed lost for at least 40 years).

The piece of metal from the WWII Japanese Zero plane was identified behind its frame and glass via webcam connection — something ludicrous, given the images we are shown of the webcam connection. There is no investigation of the owner’s story; his father’s story is taken virtually at face value. Meanwhile, the descendants of Roger Sherman don’t have it so easy; they don’t have the properly documented provenance of the item passing down the generations in wills and so are removed from the running. I guess one father’s story isn’t as good as another’s.

And at the end, perhaps the greatest injustice of all.

When the piece of WWII Japanese place goes up against the Venetian glass mosaics, the museum curator chooses —

The piece of plane.

I’ve nothing against recording WWII history, but this piece was poorly authenticated to begin with; plus there are museums dedicated to WWII (including the one in Hawaii which said they wanted the piece). And they opt for that instead of those incredible, humbling an huge, antique mosaics made of glass from Venetian glass that came from Murano, Italy; some no larger than a seed, some sandwiched with actual gold. Mosaics which not only have been presumed lost, but which would illuminate parts of history and art which many people know next to nothing about. And isn’t that a large part of what museums are supposed to do? Preserve as well as tell the stories of our past so that they are not forgotten?

That choice was an epic fail.

Gunar Gruenke (owner of the mosaics), I feel your pain. (You can visit the site and donate to help restore the mosaics.)

In many ways, it’s the Milwaukee episode which most encapsulates the train-wreck quality of America’s Lost Treasures. (In fact, the examples given here all come from that single episode!) If you can get through that one, and still find something fascinating to watch, then you’ll like this NatGeo series.

I myself can’t say I like it. I’ve watched three episodes so far, and I may watch more. But I’m pretty sure it’s for all the wrong reasons. …Well, maybe not “all” the reasons are wrong. I do like to see old objects, and learn what I can. But the more I watch this show, the more I feel like an expert. And I know that as a generalist in this business and hobby, that would be a rather silly thing to say. But apparently Shakespeare was right: “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

America’s Lost Treasures airs Wednesday nights at 9 pm ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel and is produced by Original Productions, a FremantleMedia Company.

Published by

Deanna

Deanna is the founder of Inherited Values, among other sites. She is also an antique dealer.

2 thoughts on “Is “America’s Lost Treasures” A Lost Cause?”

  1. My thoughts exactly! I think I was more upset than the owners when the “expert” ripped the map in the cane. I think it was also undervalued, and of course how will they ever be able to restore it???

    I think NatGeo could have had a much better set of hosts doing the selections of the objects. We were not really even given their qualifications. At the least, they should be antique dealers or historians….

    You were spot on with the disappointment of the Nat Geo choice for the object chosen as well. The mosaics deserved it hands down, how could that woman have been so narrow minded to pick the plane piece from Pearl Harbor, absoluetly no comparison.

  2. This episode just showed in Australia and while I did appreciate the cool items the people had, I’m still shocked by the piece of the plane being chosen just on the basis of “it’s a similar color red”. The mosaics were by far a more valuable piece of history that seemed to be assumed lost forever.

    I understand Americans are very patriotic about ww2 and especially Pearl Harbour, but to choose that over the mosaics is just sheer insanity. Also, if that actually was Sherman’s writing desk and they glazed past it due to a piece of a plane? Wow.

    I think the items on the show are very interesting, however the judgements are incredibly poor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *