In his 45-year career, renowned art dealer and “Antiques Roadshow” star John Buxton ’63 has appraised everything from the priceless to the peculiar
Over the course of 23 popular seasons, the PBS program “Antiques Roadshow” has thrilled fans with its whistle-stop quest to unearth the unlikely — and sometimes thrillingly valuable—treasures socked away in attics across the country. John Buxton ’63 has been there every step of the way. An internationally regarded dealer and appraiser of tribal art, including African, pre-Columbian, South Pacific, and Native American, Buxton runs Shango Gallery in Dallas, Texas, and is a past national director of the International Society of Appraisers. During a 45-year career, he has acquired and authenticated objects on behalf of institutional and private collectors around the world. His pieces appear in major museum collections. But to the general public, he will always be known as the avuncular expert behind some of the “Roadshow’s” most memorable moments. We caught up with Buxton between TV appearances.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever been asked to appraise?
I was in Providence, Rhode Island, with “Roadshow” and a middle-aged couple walked up, kind of shy and bespectacled, and they put a hand-painted box on the table. I said, “I’m sorry, I’m a tribal art guy. I don’t do anything like that.” And the man looked at me and said, “Oh, you’ll do this.” There was a little door on the front, so I opened it, and the box started playing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” And inside was a shrunken head. It was the real deal. Jibaro from Ecuador. I thought it would make an amazing segment, so I pitched it to my producer. She said, “John, if we do ivory, we get angry calls. I don’t even want to think what would happen if I put a shrunken human head on TV.”
Yikes! Do you have any advance notice of what you might see?
No, the way it works is we get to a city and guests come in with their objects, and our triage experts sort them. They say, “OK, you go to pottery, you go to African art, you go to fine art.” A volunteer escorts them to the table, and then it becomes about the relationship between the guest and the appraiser. Say you bring me an African mask. I’m only going to ask questions. I’m not going to say a thing about your piece. They’ll tell me, “Well, this was in the attic. My great-grandfather was in the Congo. I want to find out if it’s real.” If I think there’s a good story, I’ll go to my producer: “This person is the great-grandson of a guy who was a missionary in the Congo. He knows nothing about the mask. The thing is 19th-century, worth $40,000 to $60,000.” The producer then asks if the guest would like to have the object appraised on camera. If they would, they go back to the green room until we’re ready to tape the segment. The first time you find out anything is when the camera starts rolling.
Of all the pieces you’ve handled for the show or that have come through your gallery, do you have a favorite?
My favorite piece is not in the gallery. It’s in my bedroom. It’s a beaded Huichol cat, which is Mexican folk art. I look at it every day and it just brings a smile to my face. It’s 1940s or 1950s, not expensive. But it moves me. I have a gallery full of pieces that are worth thousands and thousands of dollars, but I like this $200 cat.
What advice do you give to collectors?
My colleagues may disagree with me, but I firmly believe that if you’re talking about a modest amount of money, who in the hell am I to say you shouldn’t like something? That’s not what art is all about. Art is an experience between an object and an individual. My attitude is—I say this on the “Roadshow” all the time—if a person really loves an object, like my Huichol cat, and they’re not spending much, then go for it. But if someone is overspending, that’s a different story. Collectors involved at a high level have to become serious students or find somebody they can trust to be honest.
Is it hard to deliver bad news? A person comes in full of hope and sometimes you have to be a wet blanket.
On “Roadshow” we work really hard to explain to people why bad news is not as bad as they think. They still have this meaningful object. Of course, there are varying degrees. The Houston Museum of Natural Science did a show called Lucy’s Legacy: the Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia and asked me to appraise everything in it. Lucy is the female skeleton that was excavated in Ethiopia in 1974. The fossil is 3.2 million years old. I used as my comp a Tyrannosaurus rex from the Dakotas that sold for $8 million and was installed in the Field Museum in Chicago for another $8 million. Based on that and other factors, I appraised Lucy at $50 million. So I’m at the Houston opening and the collections manager says, “John, we need you to keep a low profile tonight. We’ve got a political situation.” I asked what she meant. She said, “Lucy is a matter of national pride in Ethiopia. They wanted a $500 million appraisal!”
Looking back on your Williston experience, was there anything that helped prepare you for the career you created?
I think a lot of people now don’t really understand what Williston was like back then. It was a lot more like a military academy. There were no girls. We had dances with Northampton, but they were few and far between. There were all sorts of restrictions. In the winter, for example, you had to wear a hat. You had to do this, you had to do that. It certainly provided a sense of discipline, and it gave me a great academic background. And the friends I made at Williston I’ve had all my life. When I think back, the teachers who had the greatest impact on me were the inspirational ones, the ones who had the capacity to get students excited about what they were doing. I think to be able to dig that out of students, to find out what really moves them — that’s really a big deal. And to do it even before they go to college? That’s pretty extraordinary.
Through your gallery’s internship program, you’re now the one making an impact.
We usually have two interns a semester, and we try to get them in front of the people who will help them later in their careers. I was extremely lucky when I started out in Dallas that there were people who mentored me. I think they looked at me and they said, “You know, this kid is well-meaning, he works hard, but he’s pathetic. We need to help him.” Had it not been for those people, I never would have gotten where I did. I tell our interns, “You have to be alert, you have to be ready for your aha moment.” Young people should try to experience as much as they possibly can, because even the most insignificant thing can end up having a major impact. There’s an art show over at the Dallas Museum, you go and you meet somebody who’s an expert in a discipline you know nothing about. You start talking and all of a sudden you are excited. If you hadn’t gone, inspiration never would have struck. Minor things can have major impacts. I think you have to be really engaged in your life and ready for the moment when it happens.