Archive for Thursday, March 3, 2005

Guitar man

Lawrence instrument expert keeps collectors tuned in to value of antiques on PBS’ ‘Roadshow’

March 3, 2005


The room smells like an antique store. In some ways, it is.

It's dusty and unkempt. It seems undistinguished from any other retail business.

But step into the small space with creaky hardwood floors on the second floor of Mass Street Music, 1347 Mass., and you'll find Jim Baggett's guitar room -- where beat-up old cases line the store owner's two-level shelf of treasures.

Baggett pulls out a case and opens it up. Nothing special about this one, you'd think. The dull, dark brown, six-stringed instrument inside has clearly seen better days.

"It's a 1938 Martin, worth about $10,000 -- just a real nice guitar," Baggett says.

This is Baggett's world, seeing the value in things the ordinary person would not. He walks to his work bench and picks up another guitar, at least part of it. This one has no neck. It looks even worse than the first. But he knows better. The 1939 Martin is "top of the line." When he's done restoring it, it will be worth $20,000.

"It will sound better than anything you can buy now," he says.

Baggett doesn't have to play it; he can just see it and know it will sound great. He is an expert when it comes to guitars. But don't take his word for it.

Let the "Antiques Roadshow," where Baggett works as an appraiser, be your source. He has been working for the PBS hit since 2003, when a longtime friend and business associate recommended him to the show's producers.

Since then he's appraised at four "Roadshow" productions: in Oklahoma City in 2003, and in St. Paul, Minn., Omaha, Neb., and Reno, Nev., in 2004. He'll find out in the next couple of months whether the program needs him for the 2005 season.


Baggett enjoys working as an appraiser because it gives him the opportunity to see hundreds of instruments and learn from his colleagues.

It's definitely not for the money. The show doesn't pay any of its appraisers, not even for travel and hotel costs. And it's not easy work. Taping for one episode lasts about 10 hours. During that time, four stages are set up for taping the segments seen on air. Around those four stages are tables where Baggett and his fellow appraisers will look at more than 200 instruments in a day. If one of them finds something interesting, they page the producer, who decides if the item and the story are worthy of air time.

That means sometimes he doesn't come across anything interesting enough to get past the producers.

But working for the show does give Baggett and his store recognition. After one of his episodes airs, he gets about two phone calls a day for weeks from people who want to know how much their attic find is worth. Baggett doesn't mind the calls. He tries his best to give an appraisal over the phone and let's the inquirer know whether they should bring the instrument in so he can look at it closely.

That genuine care for the customer is what Fred Oster, Baggett's friend who recommended him to "Roadshow," says is most valuable in this profession.

"He's one of the appraisers that I choose to spend time with because he is one of the people in the business that is both incredibly knowledgeable and incredibly honest," Oster says.

The surprise element

Unlike many of his fellow appraisers, most of whom come from highly touted auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's, Baggett's resume isn't all glitz and glam. After graduating college with a degree in sociology, he spent a couple of years as a social worker. In 1978, when he was 27 years old, he opened Mass Street Music.

Baggett's interest in instruments and his self-proclaimed fix-it-man attitude combined for a natural progression into what would become his lifelong career. Working for "Roadshow" has helped him continue learning about his field -- whether he's looking at a rare $20,000 guitar or a novelty ukulele worth little or nothing at all.

In fact, despite his love for those old guitars, Baggett's favorite items to see are usually those with no real monetary value.

"The more valuable things are usually pretty predictable," he says. "It amazes me the intricacies and the ends that a craftsmen will go to to build something that is basically almost a novelty -- like a harmonica with little brass megaphones. It's not worth anything, but it's just so much fun to see."

The most valuable instrument Baggett appraised on "Antiques Roadshow" was gauged at $20,000. Most are worth $5,000 to $10,000 but don't have enough of a surprise element to get on air. That's because instruments are continually handled and repaired, so their value is generally well-documented.

"Musical instruments were always something people used. It isn't like the rug that was thrown over the back of the couch that's worth half a million dollars," Baggett says. "It isn't as though they're going to be stuck someplace for a hundred years and then pop up, which could quite easily happen with a piece of art."

Baggett's own collection of about 50 guitars does get played, even though he keeps only one guitar at home. For the most part, his hobby stays stored away in that dusty old room inside the humble store that has allowed him to live a life he loves.

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