Accustomed as we are to instant gratification, Americans will only stand in a really long line for one of two reasons. Some lines are necessary, like those leading to the counter at the DMV or crawling through customs at the airport. Others lead to something so exciting it's worth the wait, like a roller coaster, a traveling art exhibit or a 12-hour sale. Barring either of those conditions, lines in this country tend to match the attention spans and tempers of the people in them and stay relatively short.

So I was surprised when I arrived in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, on a Saturday morning last summer. I had trekked six hours from home the night before with one goal in mind: to participate in a taping session for Antiques Roadshow. I knew the event would be popular the show is PBS's highest-rated prime time program, after all, and I had read on the show's Web site that 6,000 free tickets would be handed out to optimistic antique-toters. Even so, I figured there was no reason to head downtown right at 7:30, when ticket distribution began. "It's not like there's going to be a line around the block," I reasoned.

When I arrived at 8:00, there wasn't just a line around the block. The line wound around every block in downtown Des Moines, breaking here and there for major roads and intersections. Well over 6,000 people were waiting to get into the convention center where the taping would take place. Some had come from as far away as Florida and Hawaii. Of the hopefuls, 2,000 had picked up their tickets the day before. The rest of us had to just join the queue and hope we'd make it in.

In case you're not familiar with the show, here's how it works: A team of antiques appraisers sets up in an arena somewhere in the United States. Members of the public are invited to bring their heirlooms, flea market finds and other articles of interest to be evaluated. A camera crew catches the highlights an ugly lamp worth thousands of dollars, a famous painting lost for decades, a rare and expensive coin bank then producers edit the day's work down to a one-hour TV show. Sometimes one 10-hour day of taping will yield two hours of programming, but often each venue turns up only about 15 broadcast-worthy items.

The people standing in line in Des Moines knew those odds. They also knew that, if they were fortunate enough to get a ticket, they'd have to stand in line for at least four more hours inside the building just to get the chance to spend a few minutes with an appraiser. Yet none of them seemed bothered by this. Apparently, this line was either necessary, or the terminus sufficiently exciting, to propel them on. I discovered that, in a way, it was both.

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In the course of a day's worth of standing around, I had plenty of opportunities to ask people about their interest in antiques. One 50-something woman who'd brought a bellows-driven vacuum cleaner ("They had to clean those Victorian hotels somehow," she explained) said, "They don't make anything today with the quality they used to."

I could see her point. When my fiancé and I were shopping for bedroom furniture, our budget allowed for a simple set from IKEA or an ensemble from a dealer at the Kane County Flea Market. The flea market set wasn't in perfect condition, and we needed to replace some of the hardware, but the wood and craftsmanship were of much higher quality than any of the new pieces we could afford. We figured, if it's made it through 100 years already, at least we won't have to worry about it falling apart.

While waiting in a different line, I stood in front of a couple in their 70s who had brought some glass serving dishes. When I asked the husband why he thought antiquing was becoming more popular, he reasoned, "With Columbine and all, people want to be reminded of a simpler time."

I could see his point, too. In the last five years or so, I've noticed restaurant decor (particularly in chains such as Chili's, Friday's and Houlihan's) tending toward an eclectic mix of 1950s-'60s icons. There must be something about Marilyn Monroe posters and old soda pop ads that makes people feel relaxed and at home even people who are decades too young to remember when these items were originally popular.

Of course, as another fellow line-stander pointed out, '50s and '60s collectibles aren't quite the same as antiques. The people in Des Moines seemed to appreciate this distinction, as I didn't notice anyone carrying an item that didn't predate WWII. But fortunately for most "antique" dealers, the majority of consumers don't see much of a difference. For example, a few years ago I found a Strawberry Shortcake lunch box just like the one I carried to school in the early '80s at an antique shop in northern Indiana. I hadn't even passed my 25th birthday, and already my childhood was deemed antique.

The Boomer Antiques Boom

That lunch box was apparently an aberration, however. According to antique guide author Harry L. Rinker, writing in the August 1999 issue of Antiques & Collecting magazine, "The 1960s and '70s are the hot decades of the moment in the traditional collecting marketplace. The 1950s are quiet. The 1980s have yet to be discovered." The reason, not surprisingly, is that Baby Boomers are currently driving the antiques and collectibles market, not 20-somethings like me. And, as Rinker notes, "Objects that speak loudest to the decade during which the buyer grew up are those most likely to sell quickly and for the highest dollar."

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A Boomer-driven antiques market is certainly an interesting and lucrative place for dealers. Customers are plentiful, nostalgia runs high, and strong nesting tendencies cause these customers to love shelling out new money (quite possibly acquired thanks to technology stocks) to fill their homes with used items.

Linda Kupecek, an "award-winning author and button collector" writing for Antiques & Collecting, reports that household goods like cookie cutters, garden pails, iron gates, chocolate pots and small appliances are becoming extremely popular. Even old sewing machines are making a comeback, but probably only as conversation pieces, since almost no one sews his or her clothes these days.

According to Paco Underhill in his new book, Why We Buy, fewer than five percent of American households own sewing machines, compared to more than 75 percent back in the "good old days" of the 1950s. Kupecek sees this trend of stocking up on purely decorative household items as a nod to Martha Stewart. An old bench in the garden and a flour sifter on the counter, and suddenly people who couldn't possibly keep house like Martha does, or even the way their mothers did, can at least look like they're trying.

In addition to influencing the range of antique goods available, today's buyers are effecting a sea change in the way those goods are sold. Enter eBay, the third most popular site on the Internet (measured by minutes of usage per month) and first among e-commerce sites.

Now in its fourth year of business, eBay boasts more than 5 million registered users and more than 2.5 million items for sale. Hot categories include antiques, books, movie memorabilia, toys and collectibles which is fitting, considering that the site started as a trading post for collectors of Pez dispensers. It first made a splash on the general market as "the Beanie Baby site," but it currently prefers to be known as "the world's personal trading community." eBay's phenomenal success has prompted's foray into online auctions, and other mainstream media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, are looking to stake their claims in this new gold rush as well.

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The fact that antiques and collectibles are constantly available (eBay is open 24-7, excepting the occasional site crash) still doesn't explain why they have taken on such a super-commercial significance. Anthropologist Daniel Miller, in his rather odd book A Theory of Shopping, offers this explanation, not for antique-buying per se, but for the mysticism of buying as an institution: Shopping is essentially an act of sacrifice. According to Miller's theory, a person, usually a woman, performs the twofold function of providing for her family and saving the greatest possible amount of money on her purchases. The goods used by her family represent the portion of a sacrifice that, historically, would have been eaten by the sacrificing community, while the savings are equivalent to the portion of the sacrifice that would have risen as smoke to the reigning deity.

The shopping-as-provision half is easy enough to understand, but the saving-as-oblation half takes some work. To make his point, Miller examines that sector of society one might guess would be least likely to save the elderly, for whom "saving for a rainy day" is no longer a serious motivation. Yet these shoppers often display fastidious saving habits; they're famous for comparison shopping, coupon- clipping and hitting restaurants' "early bird" specials. Miller concludes that, for the elderly, "Thrift then is turned into the constitution of the sense of descent line that is a devotional gift to the future of the past. It is perhaps a vestigial remains of the sense of transcendence and immortality that is represented by 'the house' as a descent line."

Never mind the fact that the elderly can remember the Great Depression, they've probably been clipping coupons for decades, and eating dinner at 4 p.m. makes sense if one plans to be in bed before 9. For Miller, the saving habits of the elderly clearly indicate that thrift is an end in itself, a means to honor and benefit the familial "other."

Far afield as Miller's theory wanders, his point about descent lines does bring us back to antiques. In a much more concrete way than thrift ever could, antiques constitute a "gift to the future of the past." When Antiques Roadshow participants tell the stories of their items, the most common tale by far is that the pieces were handed down from grandparents or even earlier generations. That might be all the current owners know a rough time-frame and a snatch of a family story. Sometimes people just surmise that an item must be valuable, because Grandma kept it right there on the mantel or in another place of honor. So the item has a dual charm, containing a nugget of its own history and anchoring the stories of the family that grew up around it.

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The Roadshow appraisers love stories like that, and they're often featured in the broadcasts. What I've never seen on a broadcast, however, is any non-white participant, not even in crowd scenes. The Des Moines group was completely monochromatic. Granted, Des Moines is not a very diverse city. But I suspect that the real reason for the show's homogeneity is a phenomenon observed by Yale anthropologist Dalton Conley in his recent book, Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America.

Poring over statistical data on income, race and assets, Conley noticed that disparities in income level couldn't explain the gap between white and black families' rates of success in education, employment and other socioeconomic indicators. The factor that seemed to make much more difference was assets, wealth, the possession of capital. To have heirlooms, in the sense of possessions or of successful legacies, one must have a traceable lineage and some history of privilege. Many non-white families don't have these gifts from the past, and their futures suffer for it.

While Roadshow participants can only tell their own stories, the show's producers endeavor to make the program a link to the world's past, opening each show with some background on the visited town and turning every appraisal into a miniature history lesson. Participants and viewers learn about Chinese dynasties, ancient trade routes, artistic trends through the ages, and why a lot of 18th century furniture from New York ended up in Canada (prominent Tory families took it with them when they fled post-revolutionary America).

Like the show as a whole, this transfer of information has both educational and commercial value those who do not learn from the appraisers' history lessons are doomed to buy forgeries and overpriced collectibles. It's difficult to say how significant a role commercialism plays in the popularity of Antiques Roadshow. To be sure, the climax of each appraisal is the unveiling of the item's value, and most items that make it onto TV are worth several thousands of dollars. However, because most items are also family heirlooms, it's a safe bet that very few owners decide to sell upon hearing their item's price.

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Besides, if the people bringing the antiques were really interested in the price, they would have done their homework (almost none of the participants venture a guess as to their item's worth when asked directly by the appraiser), and they would have taken their items to a shop, not a show. In fact, offering to buy or sell at item at a Roadshow taping is strictly prohibited, as proclaimed on the bright red flier handed to every ticketholder. Viewers may be enticed by the idea of instant wealth, but the people waiting it out in line aren't there for the money.

The wilderness

Getting back to my theory of long lines, only two things will give people the stamina to stand in them: necessity or excitement. And while it seems odd to suggest that talking to an antiques appraiser would be wildly exciting, let alone necessary, I truly got a sense of both from the people I met in Des Moines.

One woman who had brought a fairly plain-looking Asian vase spoke for almost everyone there when she told me, "I don't care how much it's worth I just want to know what it is!" She went on to tell me a little more about her vase. She had picked it up in a shop while she lived in Okinawa several years ago, and while she couldn't read all the characters pressed into the bottom, she was sure the vase wasn't Japanese. I never quite caught the name of the island she thought the vase came from, but she said its culture had been all but wiped out during WWII. She liked the ugly vase because it was a piece of disappearing history, and she really wanted to find out about that piece of history before it was too late.

Not every Des Moines participant's "need to know" had quite so much historical or cultural significance, but they were definitely motivated by curiosity. In some ways, the entire day seemed geared toward building ever-heightened suspense. In every line, participants were very inquisitive about each other's items, especially since most had been transported in unmarked packaging laundry baskets, duct-taped cardboard boxes, suitcases and old quilts.

The line outside the convention center sparked curiosity about what the venue looked like inside, and trivia questions, such as "What's the most valuable item ever appraised on Antiques Roadshow?" were plastered along the wall we walked next to. The trivia answers were not posted, at least not where I could find them.

Once inside the convention center, we were all herded into a switchback-style line that filled the entire floor. From the back, no one could even see what we were winding toward. Periodically someone would unveil and item, prompting an impromptu huddle. The only items we could all see a pitchfork and a plane propeller that stuck up above the crowd became the markers by which we gauged our progress. A flurry of whispers arose when our section of the line was getting close: "The fork's in. It won't be long now!" But to what?

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The appraisers themselves were separated from the crowd by tall, brightly colored partitions and banners. To pass into that promised land we had to split into six lines, each terminating at a checker who handed out tickets for our item. At this point we all had to bare our treasures, and it was funny to see what our more secretive neighbors had been hiding. These last tickets were color-coded and categorized: Books and Ephemera, Textiles, Glass, Pottery and so forth. With tickets in hand, we were ushered individually past the first partitions into a maze of tables, more banners, and, inevitably, more lines.

I was led by a Roadshow volunteer to the books line, which was unfortunately one of the longer ones. In front of me was a woman with a leather packet of WWII ration cards from Britain. Immediately behind me was a 30-ish woman and her 5-year-old son bearing badly damaged law books that had once been in a congressional library. Behind them was a pompous gentleman carrying an enormous book in an attache case. When someone begged to see his book, he unpacked a brass-clasped leather Bible that he said was hand-dated in 1682.

It was his family's Bible, so naturally he'd never sell it, even though an earlier appraisal had placed its value at over $150,000. Which made me wonder, if he was sure of its worth, why in the world had he lugged it to Des Moines and carried it all day?

I guess he was just there in hopes of getting on TV, but he was the only person I met all day who even gave serious consideration to a possible PBS cameo. No, most of us had trudged to Des Moines because there was something we needed to know, and we hoped the wise appraisers (who reminded me of nothing so much as the Great and Powerful Oz) could satisfy our quest.

And my perseverance was rewarded. I found out that my 1936 copy of T.S. Eliot's Collected Poems really was signed by the author. The appraiser was sorry to tell me that Eliot signed a lot of books, and mine wasn't in perfect condition, so it was probably only worth about $100. But I was the happiest I'd been all day. "It's OK," I told the bespectacled man. "I was just curious."

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Elesha Coffman is Assistant Editor of Christian History magazine.

Related Elsewhere

The Antiques Roadshow Web site has antiquing tips, an appraising quiz, stories from people who've been on the program, and, perhaps most importantly, a tour schedule.

Every week, Elesha Coffman (or Christian History editor Mark Galli) writes about church history in the free Christian History e-mail newsletter, which includes a section on "This week in Christian history." See a sample here or subscribe here.

Earlier Books & Culture Corners:

Cockroaches for Jesus | America's most respected newspaper stoops to cartoon history at millennium's end. By John Wilson

1984, 50 Years Later | Stop the spinning, I'm getting dizzy. By John Wilson