by MERLIN CROSSLEY
The television program Antiques Roadshow won’t mean much to many of my current students but if you are in my generation, and are a hardened watcher of our national broadcaster, you may have come across it.
The premise is simple – a team of antiques’ experts travels round the countryside to one fancy house at a time, take up residence in the grounds, and invites colourful locals to bring in their treasures for identification, appraisal, and ultimately valuation.
It’s hardly a thrill a minute but it’s oddly engaging, and I think there are messages for all, clues about history, drama, materialism, people, but most of all about quantification. The finale of most episodes unfolds when a local identity either ends up with a Da Vinci they found in the attic, or with a fake Da Vinci that is completely worthless. The tension is carefully built up and the higher the stakes the greater the excitement – if that’s the right word.
The key thing is the valuation. The viewer sort of evaluates at home and the expert drags out the valuing. The unwary local waits in nervous anticipation and then invariably either feigns surprise, if the item is expensive, or calm acceptance, if it is of little value.
Evaluation puts things in perspective. It converts a quality measurement into a quantity. Love into money.
Quality is partly in the eye of the beholder, but we can all understand quantity. The pricing takes something personal and makes it sharable. A large part of human life depends on the tension between quality and quantity, and on the urgent need to render things that should only really ever be judged in terms of quality, into quantities.
The interesting paradox here is that the locals seldom want to actually sell their treasures. They want to keep them. But they want validation. They long to hear that their artefact has a value. To know that it was worth keeping, or perhaps that they or their great grandparent snapped up a rare bargain in days gone by. Giving a quantifiable, numerical valuation, provides precisely the level of certainty and validation they are seeking – or leaves them flat – and the risk of disappointment is where the drama comes in.
Converting qualities into quantities is not always bad. It can make people feel good and it saves time. Life is short, so it’s helpful if we are directed to five-star films, award-winning books, inspiring musicians, or decent local coffee shops. Quantitative rankings enable us to share and communicate. It’s hard to explain the true qualities of something but many people would grudgingly accept that having a Picasso or indeed a Banksy worth a million dollars hanging on the wall in the local pub would be interesting. Going to a coffee shop that was rated best in the neighbourhood may also be worthwhile. Things that are never quantified can be overlooked or quickly lost and forgotten.
Quantifying some things is, of course, hard and worryingly imprecise. But it can be interesting.
I sometimes look back and ask myself – who was my favourite lecturer? Was it the one who was most engaging, entertaining, kindest, most dedicated, patient, the one who knew the most, or who was able to explain difficult concepts?
What was the best research I ever encountered? Was it research that won a Nobel Prize, that was patented and translated, that was published in Nature, or that, like a Van Gogh painting during his lifetime, will be recognised for its genius far in the future?
For individuals, the answers to many quality questions are elusive. So, in many cases the quantification is surrendered either to expert panels or to opinion polls of varying sizes. Neither are perfect, but quite often, these assessors act in good faith. They attempt the impossible (I maintain that it is by definition impossible to quantify quality precisely). But ultimately in trying to rate things, they add great value.
In sport the translation of quality into quantity works well. The best downhill skiers can be measured with a clock. In diving and gymnastics though, a panel of judges is required. In football umpires and scorers provide what’s needed.
The valuers on Antiques Roadshow are gentle as they work as expert umpires and scorers. They talk about what the item “might fetch at auction” or might be worth to a collector or a trader.” They are never certain, but they operate in good faith and treat everyone with respect. They are knowledgeable and they are disinterested, unemotional, and impartial. Their verdicts are final and are not questioned.
he show is never about money but strangely it would be very empty without talk of it. The game wouldn’t be quite the same without the scoreboard.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic