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Seller beware?

Treasure Hunters Roadshow comes to town, and leaves disappointed patrons in its wake

With additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

BRATTLEBORO—The over-the-top media package that preceded the Treasure Hunters Roadshow’s (THR) five-day blitz at the Quality Inn was designed to get attention.

A slim black box sent to The Commons, with embossed images of golden coins on the front, included a Confederate bank note and a buffalo-head nickel. Opening the lid of the media kit exposed a DVD of a “syndicated television show” and pages of information for the press and triggered a recording of a man with a British accent inviting one and all to an event much like the setting of the long-running PBS series Antiques Roadshow.

But at almost every turn, the pages of information contained in the portfolio — and documents filed in a federal lawsuit by the public television station that holds the U.S. rights for the British Antiques Roadshow franchise — contradicted the actual events on the THR’s first day in town Jan. 4.

No appraisals

According to the press package, “During a visit, local residents are invited to bring their antiques and collectibles to learn their age, place of origin and to ask everyone’s favorite question, ‘What is it worth?’”

But eight or so seekers lined up at the Quality Inn before 10 a.m. last Tuesday only to hear,  “We don’t do appraisals.”

And though the press kit said THR’s “treasure hunters are hoping to see item such as coins, paper currency issued prior to 1965, dolls, trains, vintage jewelry, old and modern musical instruments, war memorabilia…swords, knives, daggers, and the unusual,” the representative also told the visitors that THR was particularly interested in coins, precious metals, and jewelry, but couldn’t accommodate paintings or toys, or random objects from the attic.

Discouraged by the staffer’s announcement, John Papale, of Saxtons River, left with a 4-foot-by-5-foot painting of two women in elaborate period dress, gold-framed and with a distinctly recent sensibility.

Papale, who used to own the Brick Tavern and antiques store on the Townshend Green, said he thought the painting was Spanish.

Another group, including a voluble and frustrated young woman, hastily left after their objects were rejected for consideration.

“Look, they gave me an express card,” she said, “in case I want to come back, and I can go to the front of the line.”

She said she had seen ads — designed to look like editorial content — as well as an advance article for the “Antiques Roadshow” in the Reformer.

When it was pointed out that the information printed about THR doesn’t say “Antiques Roadshow,” she said, “Well, it’s totally misleading.”

A young man from Halifax, Joel Nemeblski, came to have his misprinted dollar, a gift from his mother, valued. He was in the experts’ room only a short time.

“They can’t help me,” he said.

Another woman brought in two rings: a modern, half-inch-high gold ring with one sizable diamond and some sapphire chips; the other, a turn-of-the-last-century gold ring of elaborate design, attached to a large, flat base filled with many rectangular uncut diamonds.

Out came the loupe, and the examination began. The expert said she had to ask the manager about the rings because one of them wasn’t marked with karat information.  The manager, after more loupe exams, told the expert he couldn’t do anything with the older ring because it wasn’t marked, but instructed her to work with the newer one. 

The expert asked the customer how much she wanted for the ring, and the customer asked her what it was worth. She couldn’t say, but if the customer named a price she could get an idea from all her buyers online.

The transaction was canceled.

Technical glitches

To be fair, the expert couldn’t put the ring online (if that indeed was her intention) because the Internet was down. For that matter, the heat wasn’t working, either.

THR Field Manager Frank Walton was semi-frantic because of the heat and computer situation which, he exclaimed, “is why I’m losing my hair.”

Earlier, when the troupe opened the room — the room named “Winter” — they found no heat. Space heaters were brought in, but those “blew the circuits,” Roadshow staff was told, and caused the Internet failure.

Walton also said THR didn’t appraise paper money — despite the presence of antique bank notes in the company’s press materials — and that currency mistakes are very tricky to evaluate.

But Matthew Enright, vice president of media affairs at the THR home office in Springfield, Ill., contradicted what his staff was telling the customers, first pointing out that he needed to check with his colleagues on the road to make sure they were being quoted correctly. 
         

“It’s true,” he said with gusto, “We don’t do appraisals.  But there’s a difference between appraisals and evaluations. What we do is give value to the items by finding out about their age, their background. When we found out who had originally owned a Civil War sword by looking up the number on the sword, then that sword could be worth three or four thousand dollars.”

That process does not substantially differ from the appraisals done, for example, on Antiques Roadshow, he conceded, but he said his company gets definitive proof.

“And,” he asked, “have you ever seen anything actually sold on Antiques Roadshow?” His company buys things, he noted.

He said the company most certainly does deal in evaluating paper money and couldn’t understand why someone was told differently. He said the company tests jewelry that isn’t marked but that the test sometimes discolors the object so the decision to test is strictly up to the customer.

What’s in a name?

Enright was particularly animated about the recent lawsuit brought by the WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston. The PBS member station holds the U.S. license to the British Broadcasting Company’s Antiques Roadshow franchise and has produced the show in this country since 1996. It is accusing THR of trademark violations and seeking amends under laws governing unfair competition and false advertising.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield, Ill., where THR Associates is based, takes exception to the continued use of the word “Roadshow,” and other infringements and names Jeffrey A. Parsons, owner of the company. “Upon information and complaint, this is done to induce the public to attend Defendants’ events in the mistaken belief it is Plaintiff’s event[s],” the producers wrote in their complaint, filed in February 2010. “Defendants are preying on this confusion and are using it to take advantage of consumers.”

The action also names THR and Associates, as well as other company aliases or subsidiaries: Antique Treasure Hunters Roadshow, Treasure Hunters Roadshow International Collectors Association, and Ohio Valley Gold and Silver Refinery. It also names “John Does 1–10, persons or entities whose present identities are unknown.”

According to the U.S. District Court, a settlement is in process.

This is not the first time Parsons and his companies have fought over the use of the word “roadshow.” In June 1999, WGBH filed a civil action against Parsons and his company, International Toy Collectors’ Association, for using the phrase “Antique Toy Roadshow.” The litigation was settled out of court the next year.

According to court documents filed as part of the current lawsuit, the 2000 settlement required WGBH to pay Parsons $21,500 and that required him, after March 1, 2000, to limit its language so that the words “antique” (or “antiques”) and “roadshow” do not appear together, or the word “roadshow” is not used alone. The settlement expressly approved the use of the words “antiques” and “roadshow” separately in other contexts.

Further, for 18 months, Parsons’ companies were required in all advertising to present a disclaimer declaring that they were not affiliated with Antiques Roadshow.

THR’s response to WGBH’s current complaint uses the 2000 settlement as one of three affirmative defenses, noting that the settlement affirms its right to use the word “roadshow” without “antique.”

The company asserts that “the word ‘roadshow’ is [a] generic and/or descriptive term which simply names kind[s] of services or events, and cannot attain any trademark protection, and no one party can claim exclusive rights to the term ‘Roadshow.’’ It describes “Treasure Hunter’s Roadshow” as “a suggestive trademark which does not violate trademark infringement or dilution laws or related contract, unfair competition, and deceptive practice acts.”

In response to WGBH’s complaint that TRC appropriated the Antiques Roadshow treasure chest logo, the company claims that “the use of a treasure chest image is not capable of exclusivity to one party,” and that “the concept of a traveling show where antiques, collectables [sic], and other items are appraised is not protectable nor is the concept of filming such activities.”

Meanwhile, Jerry Jordan, news editor of a Beaumont, Texas, weekly, The Examiner, wrote a story that goes into elaborate details relating to coin and gold and silver estimates by THR, which, the article claims, were usually below the going rate elsewhere. The Brattleboro Reformer reprinted the piece last week.

The story was based in part on private undercover operatives from the paper and from selected coin dealers. The story claims that in most cases THR offered prices considerably below other estimates.

Enright, on the other hand, disparaged the article in no uncertain terms.

“What do you know about Jerry Jordan?” he asked.  “His best friend is the biggest coin dealer going in Beaumont. What do you expect?”

Taking care not to disparage local Brattleboro reporters, Enright nevertheless said he took a dim view of journalism in general.

“There are no ethics in journalism,” he concluded.

Ethics in evaluations

The Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice, governed by the nonprofit Appraisal Foundation, establishes quality-control standards and practices for appraisers. Its ethics rule  asserts that “an appraiser must perform assignments with impartiality, objectivity, and independence, and without accommodation of personal interests,” a stipulation that would preclude an appraiser from brokering the sale of an item for which he or she is establishing a value.

Jason Duquette Hoffman, a program official in the Vermont Consumer Assistance Program, part of the attorney general’s office, explained there were specific laws governing so-called itinerant merchants, such as THR, and the right to cancel any purchase within a given period is strongly enforced.

He said that the office has received no complaints against THR, but he advised anyone who feels misused to contact the office at 800-649-2424 or consumer@uvm.edu. Complaints should be in writing, he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #83 (Wednesday, January 12, 2011).

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