More Native Appropriations, Heritage Capitalism, and Fashion on Antiques Roadshow

This post is inspired by Sarah Scaturro‘s comments to one of my previous posts about the Black Fashion Museum Collection. In her comments, she mentions the Save Our African-American Treasures program, which she describes as “an Antiques Roadshow (minus the price appraisal) type of event” that travels to different cities to discover, preserve, and celebrate the material cultural histories of African Americans.

One of the reasons I was so intrigued by this program is precisely because it doesn’t operate through the heritage capitalist logics of the Antiques Roadshow on PBS. From what I can tell, the Save Our African-American Treasures program is primarily a conservation effort and not a public display of one’s vested interest in the heritage of Americana. It’s the Forest Gump-like display and valorization of what I can only describe as “heritage capitalism” by the predominantly white appraisers and guests that irks me about the Antiques Roadshow. (Why is there so little scholarship on the Antiques Roadshow‘s circuits of commodities, capitalism, and racial citizenship?)

I began watching the Antiques Roadshow on and off just a couple of months ago. What I found amusing about the show is the guests’ reactions to the appraisals of their family heirlooms – you can tell when someone is genuinely surprised or disappointed with the estimate and when they’re feigning surprise. Also funny (to me, at least) are the various stories guests tell about how they or their families acquired these objects. Most are pretty quotidian stories about unexpected discoveries at yard sales, thrift stores, and estate sales but some are really grand narratives about their genetic linkages to American founding fathers, European royalty, and a motley crew of adventure-seeking, risk-taking, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants, off-the-beaten-path family relatives who acquired Persian rugs, Chinese Ming vases (always Ming era), French antique jewelry, and Native American dolls in their world adventures. I have to admit that I get a little giddy when the appraisers myth-bust these stories. There was an episode devoted to family myth-busting, if I remember correctly.  Actually, Marie Antoinette never owned this hair comb set you inherited from your great-aunt. It’s likely a reproduction made in the 1940s in Watertown, New York.

Other than the human interest aspects of the show, I never found it that interesting. (It’s probably because I wouldn’t know a Biedermeier from an Oscar Meyer, as Martin Crane put it in the Frasier episode featuring the Antiques Roadshow called “A Tsar is Born”.) But my casual disinterest turned into a serious criticism of the show when I caught this recent appraisal of a Tlingit (indigenous people of Alaska) bowl and ladle.

The guest narrates a valiant story about Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood (the great-great-grandfather of the guest),who was on a “scientific expedition” to the Sitka area of Alaska in the spring of 1877 when he somehow came upon this bowl and ladle. The guest is unclear on the details: “And I don’t know specifically if he was given these or if he may have bartered something.” (That these objects might have been stolen is not a possibility imagined by the guest but one that I immediately considered.)

Note the partial image of Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood decked out in classic imperialist garb.

After her story, the appraiser fills in the details about the history of the bowl and ladle telling her and viewers, “These would have been considered family heirlooms of the Tlingit people.” “These objects are alive in the Native consciousness.” “It’s as rare as can be. It’s a Native American masterpiece.” The guest nods and utters a few “wow”s while she listens. (Meanwhile, I’m screaming, Give them back! Give them back!)

The excitement builds, reaching the climactic event: the actual appraisal. “The mountain sheep horn ladle at auction would sell in the range of about $75,000 . . . at auction this bowl would realize easily in the $175,000 to $225,000 range.”  Overcome with emotion about her cultural-capital inheritance of the spoils of history, she responds thusly:

The guest’s facial gesture projects a self-satisfied smugness that exemplifies the privileges of heritage capitalism. Hardly concerned about verifying how someone elses rare “family heirlooms” and “masterpieces” came into her family’s possession, she’s simply thrilled to have them.

More important than the monetary value of these objects, is the wealth they materially signify: the wealth that comes from centuries’ long and continuous accumulation of property and assets, the emotional and physical security and entitlements such property and assets enable, and the ability to pass down to future generations the socioeconomic status that inheres to such property and assets. This wealth secures and reproduces, as George Lipsitz explains in his book with the same name, “the possessive investment in whiteness.”

Whiteness is more than a racial identification; it’s a racial inheritance of a history of privilege, property, and opportunity secured by and through heritage capitalism. More still, “the advantages of whiteness,” as Lipsitz asserts, “[are] carved out of other people’s disadvantages.” In situating the bowl and ladle within her family history in the context of a public television show, these objects become public objects of a particular heritage of whiteness. Their public display publicly recognizes and reaffirms this racial narrative of American heritage – one that depends on the historical and ongoing disadvantaging of Tlingit people and their descendants. The significance of the bowl and ladle to the Tlingit are contained and limited to the ways their exotica adds to the wealth of the guest’s inheritance, to the way they help to accumulate further the possessive investment in whiteness. Through the  Antiques Roadshow, “the structural and cultural forces that racialize rights, opportunities, and life chances in [the U.S.]” are sentimentalized as heritage and secured as natural (Lipsitz).

Such appropriations are not external to fashion. Mimi’s compilation of blog posts addressing “native appropriations” in so-called hipster fashions as well as the numerous comments we received about this issue bear this out well. The bowl and the ladle at the Antiques Roadshow, like the feather headdress at Urban Outfitters, are put into the service of  “materializing,” in Philip Deloria’s words, “a romantic past” forged by a long and persistent tradition in America of “playing Indian.” This tradition, Deloria reminds, “clings tightly to the contours of power” to create a national subjectivity of whiteness constituted through racially gendered and classed “contrasts.”

The recent addition of clothes as a category of antiques explored on the Antiques Roadshow makes alternative programs like the Save Our African-American Treasures program all the more important for materializing non-dominant histories and for articulating a radical politics of vintage. (Mimi’s already begun this project in her series of posts organized under the category “Vintage Politics!)

If you’re interested in watching the fashion appraisals on Antique Roadshow, look for episodes in which appraiser of antique clothing, lace, and textiles Karen Augusta appears.




14 responses to “More Native Appropriations, Heritage Capitalism, and Fashion on Antiques Roadshow

  1. First, thanks for the heads up about the Smithsonian exhibit- I didn’t know about it until I saw your earlier post but I intend to visit it this summer.

    I had a brief obsession with Antiques Roadshow because I continued to find myself dumbfounded that people would even consider selling objects that, according to their stated narratives, played important roles in their family histories. (I always wished we could get a follow-up telling us whether the guest sold the objects and, if so, what the auction price ended up being. I wanted to cheer for the guests who said, You know what? You can keep your small fortune, and I’ll keep my grandfather’s Union army sword. ) Eventually, I had to stop watching because this began to upset me too much. I’d love to see the type of scholarship on the show that you’re also suggesting we could use.

    Though it’s upsetting to even READ about someone getting so excited about selling someone ELSE’S family heritage, I’ll have to check out this video when I have sound to see how the appraiser handles the interaction. From the quotes you’ve included, it sounds like he/she might have been thinking “GIVE IT BACK!”, too, but had to find a more subtle (and ultimately, unsuccessful) way to indicate that within the context of the show. I tend to think that the appraisers don’t consider the ways their expertise implicates them in the more negative aspects of this practice, but maybe it’s possible that some of them have a little more sensitivity to the issues at stake than I had previously recognized. (Or not. I’m not getting my hopes up too high.)

    • i agree w/ your read on this – when i watched the appraisal, i definitely thought he might be emphasizing the cultural and historical value of these objects in order to coax some kind of ethical response from the guest. but if he was, he wasn’t successful. (how absolutely obnoxious is her reaction??)

  2. sarah

    in some ways a totally simplistic question, but also a real one: to whom dose she give these back?

    and while yes it is pretty likely that her relative was not so much given, as took this objects, what if they were given to him? should she still give them back, is there any need to acknowledge that they’re a part of her family history now too?

    obviously there are ongoing, massive, historical power imbalances still at play, but somehow this feels more complicated than uo headdresses, which i think we can all agree are messed up.

    • Hi Sarah, there’s a massive effort among Native activists, artists, and scholars to retrieve and reclaim precisely the kinds of cultural objects that this show features. The Tlingit people – many of whom continue to live in the American Northwest, Southeast Alaska, and Western Canada – are no exception!

  3. Minh-ha, I am so happy this got reposted on racialicous!
    This piece really provokes thought at notions of sentiment and nostalgia as not pure unbridled feelings, but bound up in a profit motive of who’s memories and histories are to be capitalized on. Your concept of ‘hertiage capitalism’ is ingenious (and provocative for me as a vintage store owner as well! I wanna hear more as I often practice and participate in a type of opportunistic revival of vintage ephemera and clothing)
    I also think your piece questions the ways goods are collected and held onto, the physical ownership and allocation of rooted space necessary to store, as always extremely political, as you and people on racialicious also pointed out.
    If one thinks about the sheer economics of opening a museum (the institutional museum as the only conceived, and legitimate, way to preserve culture) it should then be acknowledged how this bars and prevents certain cultures without access to money/political clout from having the ability to institutionally ‘remember’ their heritage.
    If consumption is the mark of modernity, structural dispossession is its discontents.
    Also, that screenshot is particularly gruesome as well!-totally made my stomach curdle at the juxtaposition of her yippee joy money face and the historical and everyday trauma of continuing colonization.
    Thanks for this,
    threadbared is always an invigorating space!!

    • YES YES YES (to everything!) but especially to this:

      “If one thinks about the sheer economics of opening a museum (the institutional museum as the only conceived, and legitimate, way to preserve culture) it should then be acknowledged how this bars and prevents certain cultures without access to money/political clout from having the ability to institutionally ‘remember’ their heritage.”

      thanks for the blog love!!

  4. In my comments on museums ( I really really hate museums, and this is bad as a material culturalist I kno…but the static presentation of objects bore me to tears…!) I hope I don’t obscure a larger point that memories are strategic acts of power, acts of forgetting and remembering. Some cultures are more equal than others, some cultures are already constructed as less worthy of remembering, or some cultures are banned from possessing the ability to celebrate…

    • Hi Jen,

      As a museum employee involved in the storage and display of objects, I obviously feel that my work has value. I’m really interested in your comments regarding museums – how you really really hate them. I wonder if you have thought of any alternatives?


      • Sarah,

        Your question made me want to clarify my response here. While I totally agree w/ Jen’s assessment that dominant histories and modes of cultural memory have been traditionally constituted through exclusion, your question is an important reminder not to gloss over the important interventions that artists like Kara Walker, Yinka Shonibare, and Barclay Hendrick (to name some of the most influential artists) have made.

        Walker’s exhibition at the Whitney was amazing in and of itself but also fabulous was the Whitney’s willingness to explore the racial history of sexual and gender violence Walker’s work deals with! Also, alternative museum spaces like the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Black Fashion Museum or APAture in SF are doing amazing work creating alternative archives and agents of cultural memory. We need more!

  5. AR

    On the general principle of “guilty until proven innocent,” shouldn’t we assume that these things were acquired legitimately unless it can be shown otherwise? Because unless they were stolen, where’s the reason to “give them back,” as you say?

    • A couple of thoughts come to mind regarding your question. First, while the fundamental principle of U.S. law is “innocent until proven guilty”—this principle has been more of an aspiration than an achievement especially for people of color. We saw this presumption of guilt with regard to Arab Americans, South Asians, and Latinos in the aftermath of 9/11 and we’re seeing it still with regard to Latinos in Arizona under SB 1070. This is also an everyday experience for many African Americans, Latinos, and some Asian Americans who are followed around in stores by salespeople who think they’re going to steal from them.

      For Native people, U.S. law has failed over and over to accord equal protection to them resulting in massive human rights violations (including genocide), the consequences of which are still affecting Native communities today. The issue of repatriating human remains and cultural and religious objects to Native people is one that U.S. courts have tried to resolve w/ the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPR)—passed in 1990. I’m not a legal scholar and I’m certainly not a legal scholar of Native issues but what I do know is that to pass this Act, historians provided courts with ample documentation of the widespread theft of human remains and objects. It’s now up to universities, museums, and other public and private institutions to comply with the Act and repatriate human remains and objects back to Native people—which they’ve been less than diligent in doing.

      But even without such a law, it seems to me that there’s a larger ethical imperative—the historical cultural and/or religious significance of human remains and cultural/religious objects to Native peoples FAR OUTWEIGH the primarily monetary or even scientific value of these objects for non-Natives. (Remember, the guest came to the Antiques Roadshow to find out about the cultural significance of the bowl and ladle. And since the guest has no documentation that her family came by these objects legally, she can’t really assert a legal standing either. Ethically and legally, she has no grounds for keeping them.)

  6. Dawn.

    I would love to see more critical work regarding Antiques Roadshow and “heritage capitalism” in general. I love that term, by the way.

    That woman nauseates me. I can’t believe the probability that her ancestor stole those heirlooms never crossed her mind. Well, it appears to have never crossed her mind. It may have and she just doesn’t care, which is even worse. It’s like she’s blinded by her privilege.

  7. Pingback: The Wholestyle Network » Blog Archive » Heritage Capitalism and “Antiques Roadshow”

  8. MBreinholt

    I just saw a repeat of this episode in 2014. I maybe switch the channel to Antiques Road Show twice a month. I saw this and could not help but think…”did anybody else watch this and think GIVE THEM BACK!” Glad to see I wasn’t alone.