Judith Miller, 'Antiques Roadshow' mainstay, is dead at 71

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Judith Miller, 'Antiques Roadshow' mainstay, is dead at 71
Known for her many guidebooks, she helped determine what was trash and what was treasure on the BBC series that inspired the American show.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK, NY.- Judith Miller, the author of popular antiques price guides and a member of the team of appraisers who determined what was trash and what was treasure on “Antiques Roadshow,” the beloved long-running BBC program that inspired the American series of the same name, died April 8 in North London. She was 71.

Her husband, John Wainwright, confirmed the death, in a hospital. He did not specify the cause, saying only that she died after a short illness.

Miller, known to the British news media as the queen of collectibles, was often buttonholed on the street by Britons eager to share their back stories of Great-Aunt So-and-So’s bibelots, and at antiques fairs, where many attendees clutched fresh copies of “Miller’s Antiques Handbook & Price Guide” or “Miller’s Collectibles Handbook,” the twin bibles of the antiques and collecting world. Once, Wainwright recalled, at the reception for his mother’s funeral, a woman approached Miller and pulled a plate out from under her coat, wondering what it might be worth. (He did not know the woman, he hastened to add.)

Miller’s books, updated regularly, are encyclopedic in their range and eclectic in their categories. They describe thousands of objects — the current antiques edition lists more than 8,000 — each illustrated by a sumptuous color photograph. There were the usual suspects, like Royal Doulton art deco teacups and saucers, Meissen pottery, Murano glass and pages of Scandinavian ceramics. But Miller also covered the world of material and popular culture, including a signed photograph of Whoopi Goldberg; a letter from Lyndon B. Johnson on White House stationery; a first edition of William S. Burroughs’ novel “Naked Lunch”; ’60s-era Barbies; and British utility clothing from the ’40s. There was also Inuit art, Swinging ’60s fashion, ’50s-era Ferragamo shoes, James Bond books, baseball cards, soccer jerseys and what was described as the world’s smallest pen, 1.5 inches long, made by Waterman in 1914.

Riffling through a Miller’s collectibles guide is delicious social history, an intriguing romp through the decades. A reader could learn, for example, that a plastic box purse from the 1940s in bright, jaunty colors took its shape from the telephone cables that were used because of the shortages of other materials in the years after World War II.

A mild-mannered woman who spoke with a soft Scottish burr, Miller was the expert in charge of “miscellaneous and ceramics” on “Antiques Roadshow,” which began in 1979 and she joined in 2007. (The American version first aired in 1997.) One of the treasures she was most proud of identifying was a collection of British art deco transport posters by French artist Jean Dupas, which was brought to the show by a man who had paid 50 pence for them at a yard sale when he was a boy in the 1970s. Miller estimated their value at more than 30,000 pounds (nearly $40,000).

“That was a very well-spent 50 p,” she told the man, who responded with British understatement: “Wow. Gosh.”

Her other favorite discoveries, The Guardian reported, included a stash of 2,000 18th-century shoe buckles and a toilet seat used by Winston Churchill.

Miller was a history student at the University of Edinburgh when she began buying cheap antique plates from local junk shops to brighten up the walls of her student digs. Intrigued by their history, she began to research and collect in earnest.

With her first husband, Martin Miller, she wrote the first “Miller’s Antiques Price Guide.” Published in 1979, it was an instant success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. After the couple divorced in the early 1990s, Miller continued to produce books on collectibles and antiques; she had completed more than 100 at her death.

Her own collecting ranged from 15th-century porcelain to midcentury modern furniture. She was addicted to auctions, she told The Telegraph: “I get sweaty palms, my heart starts beating faster, and I start glaring at anyone bidding against me.”

She loved costume jewelry, as well as pieces by Danish silversmith Georg Jensen and chairs, which she bought in abundance. She was agnostic with regard to period and preferred buying single chairs to buying sets. Her favorites included an 18th-century ladder-back chair, an Arne Jacobsen piece from 1955 and a Queen Anne chair from 1710. When Miller set out on an antiques expedition, Wainwright invariably sent her off with these words:

“Repeat after me: We do not need one more single chair.”

Judith Henderson Cairns was born Sept. 16, 1951, in Galashiels, Scotland. Her father, Andrew Cairns, was a wool buyer, and her mother, Bertha (Henderson) Cairns, was a homemaker.

Judith grew up in an antiques-free household; she always said that her parents were part of the “Formica generation” and had paid to have their parents’ things carted away after their deaths. She had planned to be a history teacher, but in 1974 she took a job as an editorial assistant at Martin Miller’s publishing company.

After they married in 1978, the Millers embarked on a career of publishing and house flipping; they would move 12 times in 16 years. In 1985, they bought Chilston Park, an enormous estate in Kent, England, with no running water or electricity, where they lived for a time with their two young daughters before turning it into a luxury hotel.

In addition to Wainwright, her partner since the early 1990s, Miller is survived by her daughters, Cara and Kristy Miller; her son, Tom Wainwright; and four grandchildren.

Cara Miller has been working on “The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder,” the first in a series of mystery novels to be published next year for which Judith Miller was both consultant and inspiration. At one point Cara asked her mother the crucial question: “What antique would you kill for?” Her answer, as Cara recalled by email, was “Of course for an antique for someone to kill over I suppose it would have to be worth a vast amount — a Ming vase, a Fabergé egg — but that’s not nearly as interesting as what item we love and why we love it. So often the value is in the story behind it and what that story means to us.”

In 2020, Judith Miller told Fiona Bruce, the host of “Antiques Roadshow,” her own story of an object she particularly valued.

It was a late-19th-century cranberry glass claret jug. It had belonged, Miller said, to her great-aunt Lizzie, who had been a downstairs maid at a grand house in Scotland and had married the footman. The jug was a wedding present from the lady of the house. The footman died in the trenches during World War I, and Lizzie never remarried.

“To her, this was her most precious object,” Miller said. “We used to go see her twice a week, and if I was a very, very good girl I was allowed to pick it up.”

When Great-Aunt Lizzie died, she left the piece to Miller.

“I think on a good day it’s worth about 40 quid” ($50), she told Bruce. “But you can’t put a value on the memories.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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