Antiques Roadshow has let us fantasize about finding treasure in our own attics for over 40 years. And the best moments are when the folks on screen discover something truly one of a kind... and worth a lot of money. One episode proved to be unlike any other, though, when a woman and her artifact moved the show’s most tenured appraiser to tears.
The team at Antiques Roadshow are usually experts at spotting diamonds in the rough, and one of their most qualified assessors has to be Lark Mason. When it comes to Chinese antiquities, Mason is one of the best.
Yet even he was in no way prepared for the whirlwind of emotion the day had in store.
Time with the "Roadshow"
After a 24-year tenure with the prestigious Sotheby’s New York auction house, Mason eventually reached the title of director of online auctions. He is also an esteemed expert, teacher, and lecturer and has even founded his own auction company — all the while blowing the minds of eager trinket carriers on Antiques Roadshow..
So, Mason probably walked into filming feeling confident. But what you may not know while watching the show is that all those appraisers aren't getting paid.
They volunteer for the job and cover their own travel expenses — a testament to their love of priceless antiques.
Probability of being seen
On the flip side, getting facetime with an appraiser is a major stroke of luck — let alone making the final on-air cut. The show visits just a handful of cities each year, which means thousands of people line up to get their chance..
Valuables come and go
Honestly, for an appraiser, it’s not that big of a deal when a person waltzes in unknowingly carrying a boatload of money. However, there was something different about the item Mason clocked one woman toting that day..
How the show works
See, every episode follows a familiar rhythm. First, the person excitedly explains how the object they brought for evaluation came into their possession.
Then the appraiser expands on the history of the item. Finally, they drop the juicy info: what it's actually worth.
A day to remember
And the woman's object was a marble lion statue. It was obvious from the initial establishing shot that Mason was bursting to get to his part of the interaction.
Suspense building, the woman explained how the artifact on the table came into her care.
The statue was a family heirloom, passed down to the woman by her mother. They'd first noticed the intimidating artwork on a trip to China decades before, but she wasn't exactly sure when.
Mind you, she thought she may have an idea about the object's past.
Where it came from
A friend who had a better understanding of Chinese art had looked over the statue and guessed that it traced back to the Ming dynasty. That would mean the lion was a relic from between the 14th and 17th centuries.
But what was it about this statue that made Mason so excited?
Finding the words
When the appraiser started his regular spiel, he was overcome with emotion. His voice broke, and he had to take a moment to compose himself to get the right words out.
“Okay. Well, I’ll start out by saying when this came up, I could barely…” he said. And again he choked up.
A rare find
Clearly, the item on the table was causing this unusual break in composure. Then Mason explained the lion didn't date to the Ming dynasty after all.
What the pair had before them was something truly exceptional.
Talking up the statue
“It’s fantastic. This is truly… Sorry, I’m a little worked up.
This is among the finest examples of Chinese art that we have seen on the Roadshow. The carving is beautiful. The workmanship is stunning,” Mason said, adding to the tangible hype.
Stand out details
Mason pointed out the incredible detail — specifically the carved muscles in the lion's back. The marble, too, was of a high standard — the best kind money could buy.
But he did need to correct one part of the statue's owner's story.
Older than anticipated
Getting corrected isn't that annoying, though, when the truth raises the stakes. And Mason told the woman that the statue was older than she'd thought.
“This dates from the golden period of Chinese art, which is called the Tang dynasty — between the sixth century and the ninth century,” the expert explained.
Nothing else like it
Mason said he'd seen other similar statues come to auction, but those were usually much smaller and less grand than the one the woman had brought in. In fact, he let it slip that they were dealing with an object of museum quality..
Signs of age
There were several clues that tipped Mason off to the statue's extreme age — primarily the rough chisel marks on the bottom and the lack of signature. The texture and color of that high-quality marble also confirmed his suspicions..
The big reveal
At long last, Mason spilled the detail that everyone was waiting for: how much was this thing worth? Well, he conservatively guessed that the statue could easily fetch between $120,000 and $180,000! And the good news didn't end there..
Even better news
Mason continued that the insurance estimation for this fearsome lion would be even higher — between $150,000 to $250,000. For years, the woman unknowingly had a small fortune collecting dust..
Passing down treasures
The statue's owner thanked Mason for the information that no doubt changed her life forever. And in the end, she actually decided to keep the statue rather than cash out.
But while the team at Antiques Roadshow are usually great when it comes to valuing objects correctly, they don't have a completely perfect track record.
One of the most special items Antiques Roadshow has ever seen really doesn’t seem like much. In fact, at first glance, it looks like a dime-a-dozen wooden box your grandmother once used to store things like bobby pins or fancy soap....
But this wooden box goes back further than bobby pins. In fact, it goes back even further than your own grandmother.
The small box, which can fit in the palm of your hand, is engraved with the year 1785 — almost 235 years ago.
Still, its age isn’t what makes this box so special. The truly captivating characteristic of the box is the numbers engraved around the lid.
They made for a beautiful design, but as it turned out, they were much more than just decoration.
A captivating watch
When Antiques Roadshow viewer Paul Wisken started the episode featuring the box, he figured it would be like any other — except it wasn't. As soon as the mysterious box appeared on screen, he was intrigued.
The numbers stood out to him.
An expert's theory
Meanwhile, the box’s owner and Antiques Roadshow experts answered the easy questions: It was a Georgian cosmetics box, and as the tradition of that romantic time period goes, it was probably a gift given from a gentleman to his lover..
The box was purchased for around £20 ($30) by the owner’s father. That was all they knew about the box’s lineage of owners.
Then, they looked to the outside of the box, where a romantic message was clearly engraved.
Ring is round
“The ring is round and hath no end, so unto my love, now my friend,” the engraving read. What left even the Antiques Roadshow experts stumped, though, were the weird assemblage of numbers on the lid of the box. .
That said, Antiques Roadshow expert Jon Baddeley was able to give some insight as to the box’s centuries-old origin. He knew it once held rouge or makeup patches, and Jon was even able to confirm the name of the original gift-giver..
The name was J Jones. As for the numbers, Jon was as flummoxed as everyone else.
“You’ve brought in this tiny little box and many many questions,” Jon told the owner. He was forced to say something no historian ever wants to say.
“I think with this one I’m going to be at a bit of a loss,” he said. He estimated the box’s value at $1,500, adding that it had “sentimental value.” Everyone wondered if cracking the code would add to the monetary value, but there was no Rosetta Stone to reveal the answers..
Joining the fray
There was Paul, though, who, back at home, had hatched a plan. “As soon as I heard them say ‘we can’t solve it,’ I thought, ‘I bet I can,’” Paul said.
As confident as he was, the retired engineer (and prolific war reenactor) had his work cut out for him.
His natural affinity for numbers and his love of crossword puzzles made this “too much of a challenge to resist, ”as Paul said. He hoped that his lifetime of amateur code-cracking would help him solve the puzzle once and for all..
Cracking the code
The grandfather created a system to match digits with letters, starting with double 8s he assumed represented LLs. From there, his complex number system grew.
J Jones kept floating into his mind — what was he trying to conceal?
Truth trickles out
Even after five hours of work, Paul was unconvinced that he had cracked the code. He had a smattering of words, including “small” and “love,” but couldn’t figure out what the message truly said.
Days went by, and still Paul was stumped...
Light bulb moment
Until a few nights later, that is. He woke up “with a click,” as he said, and realized the word that had eluded him: “gift.” As a whole, the message read, “The gift is small but love is all.”.
Finally cracking the code was a triumphant moment for Paul, but he was modest about his accomplishment. “It was a beautiful challenge thrown in my lap,” he said, and he even proclaimed himself as “a bit of a nerd.” .
A romantic gift
The fact that the message could be cracked at all was important, since secret codes are pretty much created to be broken. This certainly brought to light even more questions about the lovers who first exchanged this small gift. .
Reading between the lines
The biggest question is, why hide the lovely message behind code? The only answer that made much sense in this case — or, at least, the answer that had the juiciest implications — was that the couple was in an illicit relationship. .
A big increase
When Antiques Roadshow was informed of Paul’s discovery, they dubbed him a “genius” — and estimated an added 10-20% to the monetary value of the box. Still, Jon thinks that the box’s significance goes beyond money..
He feels that the cracked code adds even more to the box’s incredible story. With a backstory involving mysterious codes, centuries of secrets, and possible illicit lovers, the vintage box spun quite a mystery! The Antiques Roadshow team appreciated Paul's help.
It was a rare miss by them, as the team never misses a beat when it comes to antiques.