June 25, 2007
Elyse Luray is a history detective with a passion for popular culture. A graduate of Tulane University, Luray returns to the airwaves tonight (June 25) as a host of the popular PBS show "History Detectives."
Exploring historical objects and the stories behind them, "History Detectives" crisscrosses the country, delving into legends, folklore and personal histories to discover potentially extraordinary objects in everyday American homes, cities and small towns.
"The first time I was spellbound by a historical subject was my first semester at Tulane University," says Luray, a Baltimore native who lives in New York.
"The beauty of Tulane and New Orleans is the rich heritage, juxtaposition of different types of architecture, the people and the culture. Tulane is so rich in art history, particularly Newcomb Pottery and the birth of 20th-century decorative objects."
Luray says that "History Detectives" spends a lot of time in the South because of its abundant history and attachment to objects reflecting that history.
A past "History Detectives" segment featured Luray uncovering the history of the first Confederate submarine, which was stored in a French Quarter warehouse. Her ties to New Orleans remain strong -- Luray has missed only one New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since graduating from Newcomb College in 1989.
And she has traveled to New Orleans several times since Hurricane Katrina, working on Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village with musician Charmaine Neville in the 9th Ward, and with the Longue Vue House and Gardens auction.
Luray is an independent appraiser, licensed auctioneer and expert in art history, which was her major at Tulane. As a noted auctioneer at Christie's Auction House for 12 years, Luray was responsible for achieving several record prices, including $690,000 for a pair of ruby slippers Judy Garland wore as Dorothy in the 1939 MGM film, The Wizard of Oz.
Other collections she appraised at Christie's, where she was vice president of the popular arts department, included archives of Lucas Films, DreamWorks, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera and a personal collection of legendary Warner Bros. animation director Chuck Jones. Luray also is the host of "Treasure Seekers," a satellite TV program in which she travels all over America to antiques shows to fill in viewers about what's "hot," what to collect and what to pass up.
In addition to other TV gigs, including "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS, Luray spends her spare time lending her auctioneering skills to charities throughout the country to help raise money for various causes. As many as 75 percent of the items investigated on "History Detectives" each season originate from viewer submissions of historic objects, family memorabilia and everyday collectibles found in homes, flea markets and garage sales.
Each hour-long episode features three segments in which the mysteries of an object's provenance, authenticity and value are solved. The investigation of each object puts it into historical and scientific context and presents interesting tidbits on the piece's lineage and social significance.
In this season of "History Detectives," Luray examines a letter that may be uniquely connected to Abraham Lincoln, a book emblazoned with the name and address of the legendary anarchist Lucy Parsons, a Civil War-era photograph depicting two black men standing side-by-side with white men in full dress uniforms, a pin that allegedly was made from metal drawn from the Liberty Bell, and other intriguing Americana.
Speaking on the phone from an auction and antiques show sponsored by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., Luray says she loves anything related to the Wild West. Her dream assignment would be based on the place she would travel, rather than an object under investigation. She would love to investigate the gold rush period in Alaska or the history of the Yucatan. And she has never been to Hawaii.
"The best part of the show is that anybody can do what I do," Luray says. "You don't have to have an MBA or a PhD to do research. You can get information from the Internet but you have to look at primary sources. Books are important! We couldn't do this show without the local historians and librarians."
The new season of "History Detectives" airs in the New Orleans area at 8 p.m., Central Time, Mondays on WYES-TV. The show is co-produced by Lion Television (London, England) and Oregon Public Broadcasting.
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