No offense to baseball, but buying and selling collectibles has become the new American pastime.
The best-known high-tech method is eBay, which claims to have sold 12-million items since 1995. For those into a slightly more low-tech style of collecting _ using that near-antique called the television set _ there is Antiques Roadshow on PBS, which has 14-million viewers a week. The show's producers organize events around the country to which people bring their treasures for free appraisals by experts.
Fans of the show may want to pick up the new armchair companion, Antiques Roadshow Primer (Workman Publishing, $19.95). The book was written by Carol Prisant, the New York editor of the British magazine World of Interiors and a former Long Island antiques dealer. She has condensed a lifetime of knowledge into 10 chapters, on furniture, silver, porcelain and glass, clocks, paintings, jewelry, metalwork, textiles, toys, and books and manuscripts.
The subjects are mostly American. "I wanted it to be very American-oriented," Ms. Prisant said, "because I've been to the Roadshow and two-thirds of what comes in is American."
The book should be useful to first-timers but is of necessity very general. "It was an ambitious undertaking," said John Hays, the head of the American furniture department at Christie's in New York. "If it were more specific, people might understand the jargon we art specialists tend to overuse. Our experience is our ace in the hole, which is hard to convey in 300 pages."
There are mistakes. The photograph accompanying an item about a painting by Robert Henri, founder of the Ashcan School, is actually of a Currier & Ives print. Another item, about a famous Boston highboy, is illustrated with a photograph of a Connecticut River Valley highboy.
There are some odd designations, for example, a Marlborough chairback depicted in the book's "Visual Guide to Styles,"
but the text is lively and records several discoveries. The show's most valuable scoop was a demilune table that a woman took in 1998 to a Roadshow event in Secaucus, N.J. The table, which she had bought at a yard sale for $25, was instantly recognized by Leigh Keno, a New York dealer in American antiques, and his twin, Leslie, the American furniture specialist at Sotheby's, as a Thomas Seymour table, circa 1797.
"I told her it was rare, labeled, in excellent condition and was worth $200,000 or more," Leigh Keno recalled this week. "It was incredible."
Ms. Prisant tells of the woman who brought in her mother's antique silver spoon with a diamond-shaped handle tip. Neither the woman nor her mother knew anything about it, but the owner guessed it was from the late 1800s. The silver expert for Roadshow, John Culme of Scottsdale, Ariz., said the spoon was 600 years old; made in England around 1380, during the reign of Richard II; and worth $10,000 to $20,000.
The primer may be as useful for evaluating grandma's silver as it is for valuing collectibles at flea markets. Giema Tsakuginow, the photography editor at Workman, was collecting pictures for the book when she realized that she had a coveted antique in her own apartment.
"I'd bought a Stickley bookcase for $150 at the Sixth Avenue flea market 10 years ago," she recalled after the book came out. "I knew it was a nice Arts and Crafts piece, but I didn't pay any attention to the signature on the back. Using the book, I discovered it was a Stickley by Harvey Ellis. I sold it at Sotheby's in December for more than $40,000."
In the book, Ms. Prisant is fearless about condemning certain categories as "old news," genres of collectibles that are so ubiquitous that they have little worth. "Even when marked with famous names, most ceramics are just too common to be of great value," she writes. "Most blue-and-white Dutch Delft is purely souvenir quality."
She recommends against buying "Royal Doulton figurines, amateur decorated Limoges, ordinary and modern blue-and-white Wedgwood anything, Hummel figures of any type."
For rookie collectors stepping up to the plate, the Primer may not guarantee a home run, but it might get them to first base.