Spoiler alert: In an upcoming episode of Antiques Roadshow, appraiser and New Mexico artist Tony Abeyta informs a woman she owns a painting by Taos Society of Artists founder and painter Joseph Henry Sharp. And the dollar value he assigns to that painting brings tears to her eyes. The first installment of the show’s three Santa Fe episodes that filmed last June on Museum Hill premiered Jan. 23; Episodes 2 and 3 will begin airing on Jan. 30 and Feb. 6 on New Mexico PBS (with free streaming thereafter on the PBS video app).
While Antiques Roadshow had visited Albuquerque three prior times, last June marked its foray in Santa Fe. Show officials say 3,356 people attended, delivering Santa Fe the highest turnout of the 2022 tour. Top finds included a Plains Indian child’s beaded shirt; a 1969 Alexander Calder sculpture; and a 1977 Keith Haring Bean Salad lithograph. Approximately 70 appraisers worked the event, including Abeyta, who made his debut this season. Abeyta, a contemporary Diné (Navajo) mixed-media painter from Gallup, works in both Santa Fe and Berkeley, California and is represented by Owings Gallery in Santa Fe. Abeyta also has had work in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, among numerous other institutions, and he and his family were the focus of a Wheelwright Museum exhibition that ended earlier this month: Abeyta | To’Hajiilee K’é. SFR spoke with Abeyta this week about his new gig; the interview has been edited for style, clarity and concision.
SFR: How did you come to be on Antiques Roadshow?
Tony Abeyta: The show is trying to promote diversity and they wanted to get some people who could represent people of color, and also to look at the diaspora of ages and interests because each one of us comes with expertise and interests. My focus is with American Indian, Spanish Colonial and painting and art, especially in the Southwest. There were a few recommendations from other appraisers who said, ‘Maybe Tony would be a good fit’…and it was something I was interested in, of course.
The appraisers are all volunteers; you pay for your travel. What are you getting out of it?
I make my income doing my art. I’m putting this in the category of a pretty hard-core hobby. I don’t think anybody does it because they’re going to get rich off television. But you get experiences and you get stories and you learn; not only from other fellow experts; you learn from the people who have these things. They’ll tell you where it came from—its journey and the emotional connection they have. It’s not always the appraiser who gets to dictate value. Often it’s the people that have these things and will say, ‘There’s something about this that has been animated and it’s got the juice inside of it. It’s just something that I can’t explain.’ And then you begin to see it and you recognize it. And you say, ‘You’re right.’ Since I was a kid, I’ve always been a treasure hunter. I collected marbles; I’m a record collector…I collect art, American Indian pottery. It’s also challenging me to do more research and to follow up with the things that I don’t know about that are really interesting to me.
What was the moment like when you told that woman she owns a Joseph Henry Sharp painting?
It was really fun. I’m learning along the way as it goes. They want an authentic experience; they don’t want you to lead somebody into any kind of narrative. You don’t want to inform them in the preliminary. So, you have to sort of keep a straight face and tell them you’re looking into it…you’re doing some research. But I knew exactly what it was and [had to wait] to see if [the producers] were willing to take it on camera. And I thought they would because it had an interesting story. But you don’t want to undermine the impact; you want to make sure that people are having real emotional reactions to the appraisal… there’s sort of an art to that.
Was it exciting personally for you to see a painting from such a well known artist of this area show up like that?
You know, my gallery in Santa Fe handles all of the Taos founders, American modernists. They’re very well versed in that period of painting. So, I see a lot of the art, but what I don’t get to see is where it comes from—somebody walking into the room who didn’t know what it is and only knew that there was a story about it. She had it in a basement and then recently brought it out, sort of stimulated by the fact that the Roadshow was coming to town. It could have sat there for another 15 years. It could have been sold in an estate sale. Somebody could have come in and offered them $1,000. So, it’s knowing that it not only has real value, but you recognize that there’s something really amazing out there that’s fresh, that nobody’s ever seen…Discovery is the thrill of being able to recognize something with intrinsic value and historical significance, and then inform people so that they’re prepared. We’re trying to not only discover treasures; we’re also trying to discover truth.
As an artist, and as an artist who’s from a storied art family, what is it like encountering valuable art that’s ending up in people’s basements and closets?
I think it’s a lesson in appreciation. Often people…don’t really appreciate art or our artists until they know they’re valuable. Many artists are unsung in their lifetimes and they die and maybe 25 or even 50 years later, their work becomes recognized and appreciated. The market changes and often will dictate the values. I get to watch the trends and I also look at myself as an artist. How do I fit into that narrative? I have a full-time professional career in art painting. I love what I do. I’m passionate about it. I’m also a student of art and art appreciation and I learn from each experience; knowing more about the history of art, the trends, the contribution that artists may have had. But I think it’s good for people to know what they have. Wouldn’t it be good to know if you had a Ming vase; if you had a First Phase Navajo Chiefs blanket; or a very early painting by Jackson Pollock? Those things do happen. I think it’s kind of like the lottery ticket. And that’s what Antiques Roadshow is famous for: giving people the opportunity to believe that there still is that lottery ticket, and they have a chance to find something and to have that experience in their lifetime. It’s rare, but it happens. It happens every episode.