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Could your rags earn you riches? TV's treasure hunters reveal their favourite finds

Priceless heirloom or worthless tat? Ahead of Antiques Roadshow star Fiona Bruce's visit to Hillsborough Castle tomorrow, Audrey Watson talks to four of the show's experts.

Every family has a secret notion of a valuable artefact gathering dust in the attic, or discovering that something previously thought of as trash is actually worth a lot of cash.

The last time the Antiques Roadshow was in Northern Ireland, at Castle Coole, Co Fermanagh, in 2011, discoveries included a gold watch and chatelaine found in the back of a cupboard and worth £9,000, a carriage clock which belonged to the chief physician to Queen Victoria, valued at £12,000, and a drawing of a little girl by Rex Whistler which might have fetched as much as £15,000.

And who can forget the programme filmed at Mount Stewart in 2003, where the star of the show was an unusual Steiff teddy bear which had been kept in a plastic bag for 40 years and was valued at £20,000. It later sold at auction for more than £23,000.

Tomorrow, the popular BBC1 programme fronted by Fiona Bruce, returns to the province, this time to the beautiful surroundings of Hillsborough Castle, where the Queen has just this week been based for her three-day visit to Northern Ireland.

Ahead of the visit, we chat to four of the show's most popular and recognisable experts.

'One woman had a box of gems from the municipal skip'

John Benjamin (59) is an independent jewellery valuer, historian, lecturer and author who has been part of the Roadshow team since 1991. He lives in London with his wife Patricia. The couple have 22-year-old twin daughters.

Diamonds are John Benjamin's best friends. And rubies and sapphires and pearls ...

After leaving school at 17, he got a job working at Cameo Corner, an old-fashioned antiques shop in Bloomsbury, London. He then qualified in gemology and there was no turning back.

He was formerly International Director of Jewellery at Phillips Fine Art Auctioneers in London, and in 1999, set up his own lecturing and valuation consultancy.

John's most memorable find at a Roadshow was a gem-filled box of treasure brought along to Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, by a woman and her son.

"This was quite an unusual lady," says John. "She had an agreement that allowed her to keep any jewellery that she found at the municipal skip in Slough.

"The box was full of what she had gathered during years of trawling – jade, opals, sapphires, diamonds, gold ... you name it, she had it.

"It was the most amazing collection of items that people had just thrown out and was worth tens of thousands of pounds, collectively."

John's interest in antiques stems from his childhood in London, when he would accompany his mother on trips to museums.

"I left school with very few qualifications and no idea what I wanted to do with my life," he explains. "The only real interest I had was in 'old' things.

"When my sister bought an antique gold ring from Cameo Corner, my dad wrote to the owner telling him how although I had no qualifications, I had a real enthusiasm and feel for antiques.

"It turned out that they were looking for someone and in 1972 I was taken on as 'the boy'.

"It was a very Dickensian place, but the stock was amazing – especially the jewellery.

"I took to it like a duck to water and did a subsequent course in gemology, in which I did extremely well and proved I had a brain after all," he laughs.

"My dream find? That's an easy question.

"I would love to discover a superb blue or pink diamond. The value of these gems is astonishingly high.

"I would love someone to bring one to the Antiques Roadshow having previously been told it was worth nothing – and then I could discover it."

'I found an old set of false teeth'

Eric Knowles (61) is an antique ceramics expert, author and broadcaster. He has been part of the Roadshow team since 1981. He lives in London with wife and business partner, Anita. The couple have two sons.

As a young man in 1970s Lancashire, Eric Knowles worked in both engineering and for an antiques dealer. In 1976, he joined London auctioneers Bonhams as a porter in the ceramics department.

By 1981 he had become head of that department and in 1985 he was offered a full directorship.

"I grew up in a working-class area where people didn't have much and I became enthralled with the idea of owning something that might have belonged to someone in the 18th or 19th Century," he says.

"As a teenager, I was never sure of my calling and initially went into engineering.

"But I was made redundant and used my redundancy money to set up my own antique dealing company.

"I also wrote to auction houses in London and got a job as a porter with Bonhams. I was in the right place at the right time, learned quickly and climbed the ladder."

Eric's most memorable Roadshow find came at Dumfries House in 2008 when a lady brought along a small glass vase that she had bought at a car boot sale for £1.

The vase turned out to be an exceptionally rare piece by Rene Lalique which was valued at £25,000.

His favourite ceramics are English regency porcelain, but he would love to find a piece of 18th Century American porcelain by a famous firm called Bonnin and Morris.

"The most unusual thing, I've come across at a Roadshow, apart from a set of 18th Century false teeth, was a beautifully presented album of civic toilet paper," he says. "In the 1950s and 1960s, quite often town councils would print their coat of arms in the right hand corner of each sheet.

"But this chap had put an album together and I couldn't quite believe my eyes.

"It wasn't worth anything, but I told him to sit on it for a little longer," he laughs.

'Good quality antiques always come back into fashion'

Judith Miller (62) is an antiques journalist, author and broadcaster who has been part of the Roadshow team since 2007. She has three children and lives in London with her husband, author John Wainwright.

Unlike many of the Roadshow specialists, Judith Miller's love of antiques did not start at an early age.

A self-confessed child of the 'Formica generation', she didn't begin collecting antiques until the 1960s while studying history at Edinburgh University.

Fascinated by the inexpensive plates she bought in the city's junk stores, Judith began to research their history and in 1979 co-founded Miller's Antiques Price Guide. She has since written more than 100 books.

"It was studying history that set me on the road to antiques," says Scottish-born Judith.

"I was fascinated by the stories behind objects."

Her most memorable Roadshow find was in 2009, when a set of Jean Dupas Art Deco posters were presented at a show filmed at Stanway House, Gloucestershire.

"The story of how this man came to have the posters was almost unbelievable," Judith recalls.

"As an 11-year-old boy, he had gone to a house sale with his mum.

"He found a room that was being sold as one lot and in the room there were lots of posters of trains and liners."

Judith continues: "He asked his mum if he could buy them, but she said no because she wasn't prepared to pay for the whole room.

"It was the early 1970s and the room was sold to another woman for £13.

"The boy went up to her and asked her if he could buy the posters for 50p and she said yes.

"He bought 100 posters and I valued four of them at £40,000."

Judith reveals that arts and crafts antiques are really popular at the moment – especially pottery.

"Handcrafted Martin Brothers animal characters – especially birds – can now fetch up to £100,000," she says.

"Whereas a few years ago, you would be talking £10,000.

"It's the same with costume jewellery.

"Ten years ago, we would have been saying some pieces were very pretty, but not worth much, but now good quality pieces can fetch up to £2,000.

"But trends are always changing and if something is not worth much at the moment, that could change maybe five years down the line.

"Good quality antiques will always come back into fashion," she adds.

When it comes to being part of the Roadshow team, it's meeting people and hearing the stories behind items that makes the day so enjoyable.

"At one show a young girl brought a beautifully hand-painted jigsaw," Judith says.

"Her great uncle had been a prisoner of war and was a gifted artist who painted things for his guards.

"When her mother was a young girl, he painted the jigsaw and asked the guards to post it to her for her birthday and surprisingly, they did.

"It wasn't worth very much money, but it was a wonderful story."

'Irish furniture is collectable and very much in demand'

Bunny Campione (63) runs an antiques and fine art consultancy and has been part of the Roadshow team since 1987. She has two sons and lives in Suffolk with her husband, antiquarian book dealer Iain Grahame.

Bunny (real name Carolyn) Campione worked at Sotheby's for 23 years until 1996. She was also a senior consultant at Christie's between 1997 and 2002.

Since 1988, she has been running her own company, Campione Fine Art, giving valuations and buying and selling antiques on behalf of clients.

The name Bunny has been with her since the age of two when her parents gave her a white rabbit fur coat with bunny ears. When she had it on, she refused to answer to anything other than 'Bunny' and the name stuck.

Bunny is the niece of English actor Stewart Granger and last year appeared on Celebrity Mastermind where her specialist subject was her movie star uncle.

"He was my absolute idol. When I was seven years old, I decided I wanted to be an actress, but he said, 'Darling, don't you dare. It's the most ghastly profession'," she laughs.

After attending secretarial college, her career in antiques began on Sotheby's front counter.

"It was fascinating because in those days, people would bring things in and they would be valued at the counter," she recalls.

"It was a brilliant education because the experts from all areas would come down and value items on the spot.

"I then got a job as a secretary in the silver department before moving to the furniture department which strangely included musical automata and dolls.

"It was a very male-dominated area, but one of my bosses was very kind and taught me an awful lot and I started to get really interested."

Bunny's big break was when she recognised and identified an authentic Chinese doll that had arrived at Sotheby's sister auction house, Bearne's in Torquay. As a result she was put in charge of the new collectors' department.

It was Bunny who discovered the rare Steiff teddy at Mount Stewart, in 2003.

"There were a limited number of these clown bears produced in 1926 but few survived, especially in good condition," she recalls. "The owner, who had kept it in a plastic bag for 40 years, was delighted to discover that it was worth £20,000."

Bunny reveals that while the demand for traditional 'brown' antique furniture has gone downhill, its Irish equivalent has never been more popular.

"Irish furniture is very collectable and very much in demand," she says. "Irish furniture from the Georgian era beats British furniture from the same period in terms of quality and design.

"If you get a Georgian Irish side table from around 1780, it would probably make three or four times what the English equivalent would."

The strangest thing she has ever encountered at a Roadshow was a stuffed toad called Tubby.

"It was brought along by the parents of a young child who had kept it in their home, but it had died and their child was so upset they had it stuffed.

"It was of absolutely no monetary value, but it was certainly a curiosity," she laughs.

Could you have hidden treasure?

  • The Antiques Roadshow is taking place at Hillsborough Castle tomorrow (below). Doors are open from 9.30am until 4.30pm and entry to the event is free
  • There is no parking at Hillsborough Castle and parking in Hillsborough itself is restricted (maximum one hour).
  • Please use the Park and Ride from The Maze/Long Kesh – follow the AA signage to Gate 1 on Halftown Road which is north of the A1 between Lisburn and Hillsborough
  • The Park and Ride will be in operation from 8am until 7.30pm.
  • No dogs are allowed in the grounds apart from guide dogs. Any firearms brought to the Roadshow must have a firearms certificate.
  • For details, visit www.bbc.co.uk/ antiquesroadshow

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