If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have the tsunami of auction shows populating the TV screen like we do now.
It all started with Antiques Roadshow, originally a British show on the BBC that began in the late 1970s. The premise was simple: People showed experts the stuff they thought was valuable. Experts appraised the stuff. People went home either elated or miserable.
The Americanized version started to air on PBS in 1997. The experts became regulars, while the hosts shifted every few years. Stops were made throughout the country as folks had hopes that the plate that Aunt Sally left them or the baseball card they found at the estate sale cha-chinged for big bucks. Then there was the possibility that the stain with which they finished Uncle Henry’s rocker made the value drop from $23,000 to $23.
What hath PBS wrought? Countless shows of a similar theme, some of which are among the highest rated on cable TV, that’s what.
It’s easy to see why these shows are popular now. The economy is in the tank and many Americans would like to take care of their expenses—and debt—a lot more easily. So what better way than finding something that they own or they acquired cheaply to make everything better? It’s a basic wish fulfillment fantasy.
But according to a recent New York Times story, “there’s a cruel irony at play here.
“The types of businesses depicted in these programs traffic in people’s financial problems, not prosperity. Take pawnshops, for instance. On TV they may look like fun places to trade in undiscovered treasure, but have you been in one of these stores lately? During a recession they’re filled with debtors selling more mundane objects. And as for shows like Storage Wars and Storage Hunters, many of those lockers become open for raiding only after some poor soul has been forced to default on his or her personal belongings.”
So there’s obviously more here than meets an eye, more than a batch of wise guys (or gals) ripping on each other while trying to cash in on a good bargain.
Here, then, is a rundown of these shows, which don’t appear to going away anytime in the near future:
Pawn Stars (History Channel) is the second highest rated show on cable behind only Jersey Shore. The show centers on the goings on at the 24-hour Gold and Silver Pawn shop, a few miles off of the Las Vegas strip. Rick Harrison is the even-keeled center of activity. He runs the shop with his cantankerous father (“Old Man”), as well as his heavily inked son (Corey) and his friend (Chumlee), the clown and whipping boy of the group who appears to be either continually wasted or just plain goofy. People with a wide range of items bring them to the shop to either sell or pawn (the former seems to outweigh the latter 10-1). The item’s owners will tell them what they want for their article and the employees will make them a counter-offer, often referring to experts for advice about the value of the article. The array of supposed “treasures,” an ever-eclectic clientele that come through the door, and their close inspection (or mis-inspection) by Rick and family members or one of his experts are what makes this show click. While the goofy interaction between the family members and Chumlee is often straight out of amateur night, it’s endearing in its own little unprofessional way. Besides, any cable TV show that can claim Bob Dylan as one of its guests (he signed one of his albums for Chumlee, decreasing its value), has to be cool or at least a little skewed, right? A testament to the show’s popularity can be gauged by Rick Harrison’s recent side activities, which include writing a book, showing up on the Letterman show, and, with his supporting cast, appearing in commercials and on a limited edition MasterCard. Meanwhile, the show has been given an 80-episode (about four years) renewal in 2011—something unheard of for any show on any network. The show has also begat American Restoration and Cajun Pawn Stars on the same channel. On DVD? Yes.
Hardcore Pawn (TruTV): Harder edged than Pawn Stars, this show is set in a tough neighborhood in Detroit where American Jewelry and Loan is located. Run by the 60ish pony-tailed pawnbroker Les Gold and his family, the shop is a constant flurry of activity, where crises with family rivalry (between Les’ son and daughter) and the often desperate shop patrons in dire economic straits take a nice chunk of the spotlight. The focus is on the human part of the pawn experience, as opposed to the cool, often historic items in Pawn Stars. And even though some of the storylines seem somewhat contrived and, perhaps, even staged, the cinema verite-styled show remains quite compelling as it starts its third season. On DVD? Not yet.
Storage Wars (A&E): The Wild Bunch of the “found treasures” cycle, this show offers a motley crew of Southern California opportunists who bid on uninspected abandoned storage units and often take the competition between themselves personally. Trash-talking abounds between the savvy salvagers, which include Darrell Sheets (“The Gambler”), a scraggly street philosopher perpetually dressed in a tank top; Brandi Passante and Jarrod Schultz (“The Young Guns”), a couple with a struggling thrift shop who feud as much with themselves as they do with their competitors; Barry Weiss (“The Collector”), a hepcat in shades with slicked back hair, driving cool cars, who seeks hip collectibles to sell or keep; and Dave Hester (“The Mogul”), owner of a large thrift store and auction house, who makes a habit out of annoying all of those around him by driving up bids and flaunting his bankroll. Doing the auctioning is motor-mouthed veteran Dan Dotson and ever-grinning wife Laura Dotson. A&E’s top-rated show has already spawned two spinoffs (American Restoration and Storage Wars Texas) and shows no signs of losing steam as Darryl and Dave bring their kids into the game and Brandi amasses fan websites, a heavy flow of Twitter followers and many Facebook friends. Why? You figure it out. On DVD? Yes.
Auction Hunters (Spike): It should come as no surprise that Spike TV’s entry into the genre showcases lots of guns and a big, bald, heavily tattooed guy named “Ton.” Actually “Ton” Jones, a sometimes actor, is the Oliver Hardy to veteran antiques dealer Allan Haff’s Stan Laurel in this L.A.-based reality series that mixes elements of Storage Wars (storage units) and Pawn Stars (experts offer advice and Allan and Ton try to sell off their booty). From items like vintage Winchesters, Asian swords, classic skateboards and sports memorabilia, the show screams GuyTV, and Allan and “Ton” are fun to be around—in a testosterone-heavy, profusely perspiring way. On DVD? Not yet.
Auction Kings (Discovery Channel): The setting is Gallery 63, an auction house/warehouse near Atlanta, where people bring their treasures to be bid on under the supervision of Paul Brown, a genial, second generation auction house owner. His staff consists of right hand gal and office manager Cindy, who takes the phone bids during the auctions; Jon, an assistant manager new to the business; and Delfino, a mechanical wizard who helps get things in working order. The drama of this likable show is heightened when the people who brought in their goods to be bid on watch how they fare in the frenzied atmosphere of an auction. The items that are sold off are all over the map, too, which makes the show interesting—we’ve seen everything from a Johnny Cash-autographed guitar to first editions of classic books, from a snooker table sanctioned by the Rolling Stones to rare dinosaur fossils. On DVD? Not yet.
American Pickers (History Channel): The two punch to History’s one punch Pawn Stars is a mongrel, an amalgam of Storage Wars, Hoarders and a Travel Channel special, as stars Mike Wolf (the skinny guy) and Frank Fritz (the heavier, bearded fellow) tool around the country in their Mercedes truck in search of people interested in peddling their belongings. Sometimes they value what they have; other times they see them as junk, but junk Mike and Frank are interested in. The pickers often encounter older folks who also seem one item away from being a subject on an “Extreme Hoarding” episode. But the eccentricity of the sometimes sad and lonely people (cue the America song here) is what gives this show its human side. Mike and Frank try to cajole them into giving their goods and often partake in tough bargaining duels with them. Mike goes for advertising items, bicycles and motorcycles, while Frank has a thing for old toys and car items. The show isn’t as quick-paced as the others mentioned here–because time is taken to explore the various parts of the country the pickers survey—and the cameras routinely go back to their Iowa home base, where Danielle, the heavily inked office manager of their Antique Archeology, coordinates their efforts. There are some amazing things the duo has picked since the show debuted in January 2010: antique carnival rides, KISS pinball machines, an Empire State Building cigarette machine and nifty carnival memorabilia. All this, and a trip to William Shatner’s home in Kentucky, too. With a new season just underway, it seems that American Pickers is changing its tune a bit, with more emphasis on Danielle and a new Antique Anthology outpost recently opened in Nashville. On DVD? Yes.
Picker Sisters (Lifetime): It should come as no surprise that the women are getting into the act as well, and even less of a surprise that Lifetime has thrown its high heels into the auction action ring. The “sisters” (not!) are attractive, leggy veterans of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition: Tanya McQueen and Tamara Hutson, who is also remembered as playing porn star Marilyn Chambers in the Charlie sheen-Emilio Estevez TV movie Rated X. The gals zip around the back roads and byways of America in a Mercedes to find sofas and chairs and weird accessories (Barbed wire! Wooden planks! Boat parts! A demolished house!) to bring back to Los Angeles, where a contractor named Alan turns the materials into fabulous items—furniture, light fixtures and the like—that they design. If they have to flirt to get the men to make a deal, all the better. On DVD? Not yet.
Oddities (Discovery Channel/Science Channel): The Addams Family of auction enterprises, this series centers on the activity at Obscura Antiques and Oddities, a store located in Manhattan’s East Greenwich Village. The shop offers offbeat items for public consumption, from medical oddities and instruments to magic memorabilia, outsider art, occult artifacts and more. The shop is owned by Mike Zohn, a veteran collectibles dealer, and Evan Michelson, a goth former punk rocker and performance artist. Matthew Ryan, well versed in taxidermy, medical paraphernalia and unsettling arcana, is the store’s buyer. The neat thing about the show is that you never know who is going to walk through the door, whether it’s the well of off-kilter customers in search of stuffed critters, ancient doctor’s instruments or examples of avant-garde art, or such guests as comic Amy Sedaris, actress Chloe Sevigny or various musicians, artists and neighborhood characters. Want miniature sculptures made from human nail clippings? You’ve come to the right place. On DVD? Not yet.
Hollywood Treasure (SyFy Network): At last! A show dedicated to all entertainment items all the time! The premise is promising, and the memorabilia and ephemera that get paraded across the screen are pretty amazing. But there’s something about Joe Maddalana, the star and owner of Profiles in History, that rubs us the wrong way. The show is conceived as something of a treasure hunt; Maddalana and his crew hunt down pop culture items, then try to talk their owners into putting them up for auction. Profiles in History will keep a portion of the purchase price. Sometimes the cast of the hour-long show can’t get the owners of the materials to take them to auction. The star’s overbearing manner doesn’t help—he appears to be acting when being nice to his employees and schmoozing potential sellers—but at least you see the reality when people find it hard to part with their keepsakes. The auction section of the show is anticlimactic, and appears tacked on as well. Still, any program that has given us glimpses of Mary Poppins’ carpetbag, stop-motion figures from James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas, endoskeletons from Teminator 2, a Willy Wonka gold ticket and lots of ultra-rare posters and props can’t be all bad. Maddalana and company also get involved in charity auctions—they did one for Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Disease, a nice gesture. Look for it to return in the second quarter of 2012. On DVD? Not Yet.
Real Deal (History Channel): One of the newest treasure bidding forays is a mash-up of different subgenres, a kind of Pawn Stars meets Auction Kings meets Deal or No Deal meets Poker After Dark. The idea has a person with a collectible item they want to sell. They go into a dark room where they meet a broker with expertise regarding their item, and the broker lays down cash on a poker table. The two negotiate, with more cash (typically $100 bills) being laid out on the table. Eventually, the owner of the collectible must decide whether to take the broker’s deal or have it put up for auction next door (at Orange, California’s Don Presley’s Auction Galleries), where a guy who looks like Tor Johnson offers it to the highest bidder. So far, the items on the show—which debuted in late November 2011—have been interesting; a Houdini autograph, a batch of deflated footballs signed by NFL greats, a rare Joe DiMaggio autographed photo, a ’56 Lincoln Mark II in mint condition—but the so-called experts are a mixed bag. Particularly irksome is Jason McCoon, the North Carolina-based collectibles mogul, who comes across as downright ornery in his business dealings. On DVD? Not yet.
As if these weren’t enough, there have been several more shows of similar themes over the past years, some on hiatus, some already cancelled. There’s been Buried Treasure with identical twin appraisers Leslie and Leigh Keno (from Antiques Roadshow), Auctioneers, Auction Packed, Cash & Cari and What the Sell!?
Will we see them again?
We’re not sure, but it’s not worth haggling over. Or is it?