Did WGBH do enough to guard veracity of its antiques hit?

The popular appeal of Antiques Roadshow turns on magic moments when someone like you learns that a relic found at a garage sale or in an attic is valued at tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

They gasp in surprise, and a smiling appraiser often comments, “You have a good eye.” These sequences ring true to many viewers who tune in regularly, an average of 13.4 million a week, making it the top-rated PBS primetime series by a wide margin.

But recent revelations of on-air fakery by two appraisers specializing in military arms cracked the underlying premise—that the experts who appear on the show are on the up-and-up, and on-camera appearances are spontaneous and genuine. Journalists covering the story reported that WGBH producers had not tried hard enough to protect that credibility.

WGBH acknowledged that one of the most compelling segments on Antiques Roadshow—the so-called “watermelon sword” appraisal—was faked without its knowledge. The station severed ties late last month with Russ Pritchard III and George Juno, former partners in an antique weaponry dealership who frequently appeared on the series. The sequence in question, taped in Seattle during the Roadshow‘s first season, was featured in “The Antiques Roadshow Special Edition,” a March pledge special that was recently withdrawn by WGBH.

On March 29, Boston Herald TV critic Monica Collins broke the story by reporting on a series of court cases in which Pritchard and Juno’s professional integrity were called into question, and on Juno’s “phony” appraisal of the watermelon sword. WGBH knew the pair had been accused of swindling clients, but not of the staged appraisal, the Herald reported. Producers had disregarded repeated complaints about Juno and Pritchard’s appearances. “We’ve never had anything but the best experience with Russ Pritchard and George Juno,” said Peter Cook, who recently succeeded Aida Moreno as executive producer, in the Herald.

“Venomous rivalries”

Pritchard and Juno are controversial figures in the small world of military antiques. Last summer, their company, American Ordnance Preservation Association, was found liable in federal court of defrauding George “Ed” Pickett V, descendent of Gen. George Pickett, a Confederate commander renowned for his bravery. The general led the ill-conceived Pickett’s Charge, the Confederacy’s desperate last assault at the Battle of Gettysburg.

According to published accounts of the case, Russ Pritchard III went to great lengths to befriend George Pickett V and convinced him to sell his famous ancestor’s numerous artifacts for $87,500—less than 10 percent of their market value. AOPA promptly sold the items to the city of Harrisburg, Pa., for more than 10 times what Pritchard had paid Pickett.

A federal jury ordered AOPA to pay Pickett $800,000, and a judge last August rejected the defendants’ request for a new trial. Juno and Pritchard dissolved the company, and Pickett never received the money.

WGBH learned about the Pickett case either “when it went to trial or when the suit was brought”—1999 or 1998—and pondered whether to keep Juno and Pritchard on the show, said Peter McGhee, WGBH v.p. of national productions. “We decided to let the trial run its course and not presume its outcome.” Later, WGBH was led to believe that the matter had been settled out of court, he said. The station didn’t learn the final outcome of the case until it was reported in the Herald.

Producers were inclined to believe Pritchard and Juno’s explanations of their troubles. “They offered no explanation that wasn’t straightforward,” McGhee said. “We knew them to be helpful and supportive and honest with us.”

Juno’s repeated assertion—that his rivals in the antique armaments field were out to get him—was credible to WGBH. “The arms and militaria business is filled with venomous rivalries,” McGhee said. The Civil War News, a monthly newspaper for reenactors and artifact collectors based in Turnbridge, Vt., was a particular target of Juno’s ire because of its continuing coverage of his legal problems.

“They were two well-known collectors and dealers, and when you defraud Pickett’s great great great grandson, that’s news in Civil War circles,” said Kathryn Jorgenson, editor.

Juno claims that Jorgenson’s husband Peter, a former cannon collector and publisher of the Civil War paper, is among those out to get him. But Jorgenson said it was “ridiculous” to claim that the newspaper has an editorial agenda against Juno and Pritchard. A typical response to unwanted news coverage is to “shoot the messenger,” she said.

Confession of the watermelon man

In March, Kathryn Jorgenson told Executive Producer Peter Cook about fakery in the watermelon appraisal. The station didn’t fully investigate her tip until two weeks later, after the Herald’s story ran.

The April issue of CWN reported on a recent court proceeding in which Juno admitted that the man with the “watermelon sword” was a friend of Pritchard’s. The CWN account of the courtroom scene gleefully detailed the presiding judge’s numerous admonitions to Juno during his testimony.

The watermelon sword appraisal was a highlight of the first season of Antiques Roadshow. The segment was taped in Seattle, where an Alaska man showed Juno a rare Confederate sword. He told the appraiser that he found the sword in his attic and had used it to cut a watermelon. Juno appraised its value at $35,000, and, according to published accounts, feigned surprise over its discovery. The appraisal gained notoriety for fakery in Civil War circles long before the recent revelations, according to Antiques and Art Weekly.. Unnamed appraisers who attended the Seattle taping “immediately reported that the incident appeared to have been staged, and that the man’s story was bogus,” the newspaper reported April 7.

“Let’s just say it inspired some interesting chuckles around the campfires at events,” commented Bob Wagner, a Civil War reenactor and inventory manager for QueTel, a software firm based in Herndon, Va.

McGhee noted that the watermelon appraisal was taped during the series’ first season. “We were feeling our way,” he said. “The crowds were small. I believe these guys thought they were doing us a favor.” PBS hadn’t even agreed to carry the show.

“Nobody—the viewers, the people who came to the events, or the appraisers themselves—had any idea of what the show would be or become as a television event.”

After CWR reported that Juno had admitted in court to faking the scene, the appraiser denied to WGBH that he “said any such thing,” said McGhee. Again the station trusted Juno’s explanation. Producers believed his denial because they could verify it in court records, according to McGhee. Juno’s appraisal of a sword brought in by Pritchard’s high school buddy was not, in itself, a violation of WGBH’s rules for Roadshow appraisers. “The agreement doesn’t preclude the possibility of suggesting someone bring something in,” said McGhee. Appraisers on the Roadshow are “not allowed to appraise things they know about beforehand.” Thus, the watermelon man’s friendship with Pritchard didn’t preclude Juno from appraising the sword. During the Roadshow’s first season, these rules were laid out in “verbal understandings” with appraisers, McGhee said. Every season since then, experts appearing on the show have signed written agreements spelling out these rules.

So the Herald story seemed more of a water pistol than a smoking gun, McGhee said. It only linked the watermelon man to Pritchard. But then the producers found evidence that Juno had helped invent the story about the sword. They tracked down the watermelon man, who was unaware of the brouhaha that had erupted over the incident. He recalled his journey to the Seattle Roadshow, saying that he met with Pritchard and Juno in their hotel before the taping and the threesome “cooked up the story,” as McGhee put it.

The watermelon man’s account was the “first credible proof that the appraisal of the sword was staged,” said McGhee, though the appraisal itself was “impeccable.”

“Juno persisted in his denials for several days, until we told him we’d talked to the watermelon guy, and then he stopped denying it,” continued McGhee. His insistence that “all of this was put out by his opponents had some truth to it. There’s no doubt that the Civil War News is influenced by factions hostile to Pritchard and Juno on pure business grounds, but we got rid of him because he committed a crime in our terms, in our little world with its rules.”

Juno continues to deny the accusations of fakery. “The interview is real,” he said in a brief interview with Current last week. “There is not a problem with it. It’s just our competitors putting pressure on WGBH to try to get us off.” Antiques Roadshow, he added, “is a great show, a wonderful thing.”

Russ Pritchard III could not be reached for comment, and AOPA’s attorney in the Pickett case did not respond to requests for interviews.

McGhee insists that the watermelon sword act was an isolated incident. “We deal with widely respected appraisers,” who are “selected carefully.” Those appearing on the show sign agreements to do things that are “true and keep themselves at arms distance from the items that they appraise and people they know.”

“There’s not too much one can do to protect oneself against outright dishonesty,” he added. “If someone takes an oath to tell the truth, and then lies, the fact that they took an oath hasn’t been a barrier to their lying.”

Jorgenson of The Civil War News thinks WGBH didn’t do enough to protect the veracity of its program. “They were lied to, and you’d think they cared enough about their reputation to check it,” she said. Juno and Pritchard’s business practices had been “talked about long enough in Civil War circles” that their reputations as “not good representatives of the collecting fraternity” warranted some scrutiny. CWN is now engaged in a legal dispute with Juno over threats he recently issued to its publishers, and has retained the attorney who represented George Pickett V in the AOPA suit.

Collins, the TV critic who broke the story, also faults ‘GBH for not responding more diligently to complaints about Juno and Pritchard. If a group of antique buffs and collectors find “something rotten” in Antiques Roadshow, she said “it’s not good for a television station that’s supposed to be sensitive to the public to turn a deaf ear to that. They have to do everything they can to keep it clean and responsive to the public.”

“With thousands of people coming to the show with their collectibles and appraisers flocking to be on the show, suddenly they’re in the business of art and antiques, when really they’re in the business of television,” she continued. “Now is the time when the station might want to reevaluate how they manage this vast circus … and figure out how to keep it well-oiled and honest so that they can hold viewer trust.”

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