Turning left off Tamiami Trailand cruising down a palm-lined lane towards the entrance to The Ringling Museum, I make a deal with myself: If this painting is worth anything close to $1 million dollars, I’m stealing it. My employers want it appraised by the visiting experts of the Antiques Roadshow, who have turned the Ca d’Zan into their temporary base of operations for the weekend, evaluating area antiques and filming for the upcoming season. I want a trip to a non-extradition country with enough cash to debauch myself to an early ex-pat grave. Sitting on the passenger seat of a rickety Honda Civic that rattles with every strained respiration of the AC, the painting lies motionless—as most paintings do—serenely unaware of its predicament and offering little moral guidance. Snaking around the side of the museum on a canopied side-road under dappled sunlight, the bright green foliage spawns visions of Equatorial Guinea. I’ll buy new clothes when I get there. Something colorful perhaps. Maybe a hat. It’s worth a shot, right? Besides, as the Good Doctor once said, many fine books have been written in prison.

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On the estate of the Ca d’Zan, the commotion has already hit full swing. Signs, cones and what appear to be massive tour buses demarcate entrances and walkways for the special event. Great white-topped tents shield hundreds of appraisers and hopeful visitors from the afternoon sun and everywhere—everywhere—people mill like wandering postulants over the museum’s manicured landscapes and sidewalks alike, clutching their chosen treasures like offerings to the gods of the Antiques Roadshow, who are uncompromising but fair. Each visitor is allowed to bring two items for appraisal, with the chance to not only discover hidden value in family heirlooms and garage sale finds, but perhaps end up on television as well. 

I snag a parking spot of questionable legality but excellent location, haul the painting out after me and join the plodding pilgrimage toward the check-in.

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Assisted by a young lady from WEDU, the local PBS member television station that brought Antiques Roadshow to Sarasota and staffed the occasion with 110 volunteers, we make our way to the triage tent—the first stop in the appraisal process. Despite the name, the process has little to do with elimination and more with categorization. Depending on the type of item, the folks at triage either send you to one of the white tent areas around the Ca d’Zan or into the mansion itself, contingent on where the relevant experts hold court. Paintings are appraised in the mansion. On our way in, we meet a fellow member of the criminally minded on his way out.

“I rob the train in Parrish,” he says, introducing himself as David. All the way up from Myakka City, his wife brought a couple heirloom cameos. David brought an ornate model train of wood and metal, with wheels that spin. He cradles it in his hands, almost like there are train-robbers about. He knew it was old, because the man he got it from had carried it around for more than 30 years—long enough to get tired of lugging it from place to place and be looking to trash it. David saved it. “I just couldn’t see it exiting this Earth forever,” he says. Ultimately, the train was dubbed a relatively unremarkable Chinese reproduction from the early 20th century, but that doesn’t matter much to David. “My wife talked me into this and I’m really happy,” he says. “This was a lot of fun.”


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Checking our pockets as David departs, we turn back to the entrance of the Ca d’Zan, where a minor tragedy nearly unfolds as three old-timers laden down with elegantly framed paintings have lost their tickets. But after frantic searching and more than a few accusations, the tickets appear and we all move forward together into the cavernous confines of the famed mansion. 

Inside, it’s all red carpets and velvet ropes, gilded architecture and vaulted ceilings and other various indicators that one has arrived at the intersection of wealth and taste. Arranged around the edges of the rooms, appraisers sit crammed three to a table, dutifully working their way through never-ending lines of aspirant antiquers. In the middle of the floor, a man unrolls a great canvas like a scroll, revealing a central figure with a Madonna’s tilt of the head, her face cracked and broken with age like old leather.

Painting in sweaty palms, I’m taken to the attention of one Meredith Hilferty, director of fine art auctions at the Rago Arts and Auction Center in New Jersey and one of the 65 appraisers touring with Antiques Roadshow. After a brief introduction where I assure her I know nothing about the painting or the particulars of extradition, she takes out her trusty flashlight and gets to work.

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“First we’re just looking in general,” she says, taking in the condition and the overall feel of the piece. She notes a signature in the lower left and the nameplate on the frame, which declares the artist to be “E. Bouters” and Dutch. Then she flips the painting over. “You always want to look at the back too,” she says. “You can always find clues.” Here, Hilferty notes good aging and what appears to be the original stretcher. There are modern looking numbers stamped on the back too, but this doesn’t concern her. “Framers stamp things, auction houses stamp things, galleries stamp things,” she says. “It could relate to so many things. I’m most interested in what appears to be an inscription at the top.” And there it is, faint pencil scratchings previously unnoticed. It could be a note from the artist or previous owner, but proves ultimately illegible. But it’s definitely old, she says, evidenced by everything from the color of the canvas to the nails used in the construction.

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But something bothers Hilferty about what she’s seeing and she temporarily retreats to her computer for some quick research. After a minute or two, she points to the nameplate and “E. Bouters.” “There is no artist with that name,” she says. The nameplate, which Hilferty found suspicious, is a fraud. Closer examination of the signature reveals no ‘s’ at the end of the last name, and the first initial looks little like an ‘E’ and more like a ‘C,’ as in Cornelius Bouter, a Dutch painter born in 1888. A relatively successful painter of family scenes and landscapes, hundreds of his paintings remain in circulation, most from the early 20th century. “You can’t always trust a nameplate is the important lesson here,” says Hilferty. This one was probably added a bit later, she says, but the painting itself is “lovely” and “in great condition for the age.”

That’s great, Doc, but let’s get down to brass tacks—how much is the thing worth? “About $800 to $1500 at auction,” she says, and desperado dreams of Equatorial Guinea fade like footprints in quicksand.


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Before I leave the grounds, I bump into an old man named Hal and a woman named Linda. Hal brought a pair of antique Chinese cloisonné vases that he bought in Beijing back in the day, when work regularly took him to Hong Kong and back. The seller told him the vases were late 18th century, and Hal paid $175 bucks for the pair. The appraiser today told him that they were more likely from the early 19th century, but were now worth $600 to $800. “It’s not going to buy me a new car,” he says, “but maybe a couple of tires.”

Linda holds an old coffee pot, one of the few items her mother-in-law took with her when she fled Vienna after the Anschluss of 1938. “She was allowed to bring her husband, her son, a few household items and $50,” says Linda. One of the items was this coffee pot, which Linda assumed held monetary value. “And they tell me it’s worth $50,” she says. “But I don’t care. It’s a special family treasure. 

They don’t measure that.” 


See more of Sarasota and the Ca d’Zan on season 23 of Antiques Roadshow, with relevant episodes airing January 28 and February 4 and 11 on WEDU PBS.