Spoiler alert: In an upcoming episode of Antiques Roadshow, surveyor and New Mexico artist Tony Abeyta informs a woman that she owns a painting by the founder and painter of the Taos Society of Artists, Joseph Henry Sharp. And the dollar value he ascribes to this painting brings tears to her eyes. The first of the series’ three Santa Fe episodes, filmed on Museum Hill last June, premiered on January 23; Episodes 2 and 3 will air on PBS in New Mexico on January 30 and February 6 (with subsequent free streaming on the PBS Video app).
During Antiques Roadshow had visited Albuquerque three times, last June it was in Santa Fe. Show officials said 3,356 people were in attendance, giving Santa Fe the highest attendance of the 2022 tour. Among the top finds was a Plains Indian beaded shirt; a 1969 Alexander Calder sculpture; and a 1977 Keith Haring Bean Salad lithograph. About 70 reviewers worked on the event, including Abeyta, who made his debut that season. Abeyta, a Gallup-based contemporary Diné (Navajo) mixed media painter, works in both Santa Fe and Berkeley, California and is represented by Owings Gallery in Santa Fe. Abeyta has also worked at the Smithsonian 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: Abeita | To’Hajiilee K’é. SFR spoke to Abeyta this week about his new gig; The interview has been edited for style, clarity and conciseness.
SFR: How did you get into it? Antiques Roadshow?
Tony Abeyta: The show is trying to encourage diversity and they wanted to find some people who could represent people of color and also look at the diaspora of ages and interests because each of us has expertise and interests. My focus is on Native American, Spanish and Colonial paintings and art, especially in the Southwest. There were a few recommendations from other reviewers who said, “Maybe Tony would be a good fit”… and of course that was something I was interested in.
The reviewers are all volunteers; You pay for your trip. What do you have of it?
I earn my money with my art. I put this in the category of a pretty tough hobby. I don’t think anybody does that because they get rich from TV. But you get experiences and you get stories and you learn; not just from other peers; You learn from the people who have these things. They will tell you where it came from – its journey and the emotional connection they have. It is not always the appraiser who is allowed to dictate the value. A lot of times it’s the people who have those things and they’re like, “There’s something animated and it’s got the juice in it. It’s just something I can’t explain.’ And then you start to see it and recognize it. And you say, ‘You’re right.’ Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been a treasure hunter. I collected marbles; I’m a record collector…I collect art, Native American pottery. It also challenges me to do more research and explore things I don’t know about that are really interesting to me.
What was that moment like when you told this woman that she owned a painting by Joseph Henry Sharp?
It was great fun. I’m learning along the way. You want an authentic experience; They don’t want you to lead anyone into any kind of narrative. You don’t want to inform them in advance. So you have to keep a straight face and tell them you’re looking into it… you’re researching. But I knew exactly what it was and [had to wait] to see if [the producers] were ready to take it on camera. And I thought they would because it had an interesting story. But you don’t want to undermine the effect; You want to make sure people have real emotional responses to the judging…it’s kind of an art.
Was it personally exciting for you to see a painting by such a well-known artist from this area emerge?
You know, my gallery in Santa Fe is all about Taos founders, American modernists. You are very familiar with painting at this time. So I see a lot of the art, but what I don’t see is where it’s coming from – someone walking into the room who doesn’t know what it is and only knew there was a story about it. She had it in a basement and recently brought it out, kind of stimulated by the fact that the road show came to town. It could have been there for another 15 years. It may have been sold as part of an estate sale. Someone could have walked in and offered them $1,000. So knowing that not only does it have real value, but that you realize there’s something really amazing out there that’s new that no one has ever seen… Discovery is the thrill, something with intrinsic value and historical significance to recognize and then inform people so that they are prepared. We’re not just trying to find treasures; We also try to discover the truth.
As an artist and as an artist who comes from a family of artists steeped in tradition, what is it like to come across valuable art that ends up in people’s basements and cupboards?
I think it’s a lesson in appreciation. Oftentimes… people don’t really appreciate art or our artists until they know they’re valuable. Many artists live unsung and die, and perhaps 25 or even 50 years later their work is recognized and appreciated. The market changes and often dictates values. I can observe the trends and also see myself as an artist. How do I fit into this narrative? I have a full-time career in fine art painting. i love what i do I’m passionate about it. I also study art and art appreciation and learn from every experience; learn more about art history, trends and the contribution artists may have had. But I think it’s good when people 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? These things happen. I think it’s some kind of lottery ticket. And that’s what Antiques Roadshow is famous for: giving people the opportunity to believe that that lottery ticket still exists and they have a chance to find something and have that experience in their life. It’s rare, but it happens. It happens every episode.