Viewers shouldn’t expect ‘Pickers’ to be fair

After reading a recent article in the Antique Trader by Eric Bradley about the History Channels new TV show “American Pickers” (Feb. 24 issue), I realized that a lot of viewers had a misconception of what they were watching.

According to the article “opponents were angry over what they see as the exploitation and lowball offers.” This worries me, as it reflects on an industry which prides itself on honesty and trust. Having been a collector, picker, dealer, appraiser and a writer on the subject for more than 25 years, I felt compelled to answer these opponents.

I agree that “American Pickers” offers a very realistic and interesting look at a side of the antiques and collectibles business never seen before. Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz are the show’s two pickers who travel the roads going door to door in search of something they can buy and in turn sell for a profit, often not knowing the true fair market value themselves, as they frequently seek the advice of an expert or appraiser.

First of all let me say it’s not the buyer’s obligation to educate the seller, it’s the seller’s obligation to know what it’s worth before they sell it. This is why we have knowledgeable appraisers. So much is said about fair market value, with few even knowing what fair market value is. What is fair market value? Well, I believe the legal definition is a “willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or sell and both having knowledge of the relevant facts.”

My interpretation of the show is that you do have a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or sell, but lack a buyer and seller that have the knowledge of the relevant facts. How could they, when neither party knows what they were going to buy or sell ahead of time. The seller may have had a previous appraisal or the buyer may have sold that item or a similar item in the past, which is no guarantee that the buyer could sell it for the same a second time but both are unlikely.

That being said, there is no way the sellers could ever attain a fair market value price nor could the buyers have even offered a fair market value price without prior research as a basis. For the seller to expect the buyer to establish the price, and then offer the price, would not be a realistic reflection of capitalism. It would also present an inherent and irresolvable conflict of interest for the buyer.

Although not required and not always the case, most dealers I know will try to buy at about 40 to 50 percent of what they think they can sell it for. Is what they think they can sell it for fair market value? Possibly, but first one must take into account several factors that help determine the fair market value, such as changing trends and factors in the market place, the type and location of the relevant market, supply and demand for the subject property, provenance, ranking of the subject among comparable properties, and consultations with other experts in the field. Only after careful review of these things can one begin to establish a fair market value.

Let me ask: If a buyer were to pay too much for an item, would the seller be expected to adjust the selling price downward or even refund their purchase? No, it’s buyer beware! That is unless, of course, the subject property has been misrepresented. So why would some viewers feel people are being low balled or exploited? I think it’s because they lack a full understanding of capitalism. The only downside to the show I see is it that sellers may become more cautious and seek professional appraisals before selling, ultimately making it harder for those who wish to buy low and sell high!

As a word of caution for those looking to have their things appraised: Most reputable and ethical appraisers will never take a personal interest in purchasing the items they are appraising. Unfortunately, most states have no licensing for personal property appraisers, so basically anyone can hold themselves out as a qualified appraiser.

The best way to protect yourself is to look for an appraiser who is affiliated with one of the many professional appraisal organizations such as International Society of Appraisers, American Society of Appraisers or Appraisers Association of America, which require education and adhere to generally accepted technical and ethical standards. It would be wise to ask for references, something most reputable appraisers would gladly provide. Although not required in all cases, find out whether the appraiser performs services in compliance with USPAP (Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice). Selecting an appraiser who complies with USPAP is the best assurance that the appraiser will provide quality services.

There are times when dealers or pickers will purchase something, paying according to what they think it will sell for, and the item sells for much more than they expected. Does that mean they were unfair with their offer? No – prices go up and prices go down. However, this reminds me of a similar experience I once had.

A few years ago I was asked to make an offer on the contents of an elderly gentleman’s home by his daughter. The daughter was there to move her father out of state so she could have more control of his care. This gentleman had recently been taken advantage of by a young man who had been caring for him and his wife for years. The young man had swindled them out of much – if not all – of their life savings. He was found guilty, and is now in prison.

I made an offer to purchase many items, they in turn accepted my offer. While I was packing up, I had noticed some other items which had not been offered to me and expressed an interest.

The daughter said that she had intended to sell the items locally when she returned home; these items had a special importance to her and her father and she was in no hurry to sell, but felt that I had been fair with her on everything else and so offered them to me. I made her an offer not really knowing the value of the items, telling her so, but none the less she accepted my offer. I proceeded to list the items on a well known Internet auction site with a starting bid amount of just what I had paid for them.

The total listing amount was only a couple of hundred dollars, the items sold for several thousand. Even though I wasn’t obligated to do so, I decided to send the daughter a check for a large portion of my profit. She was ecstatic, to say the least.

A short time later I received a phone call and a personal gift from a well known celebrity, thanking me for my integrity and honesty. Apparently the celebrity was her boss. So it’s just goes to show: You just never know and being fair does have its rewards.

Doug Singleton is a collector, picker, dealer, appraiser and a writer on the subject of antiques and collectibles for more than 25 years. He is based in Westmoreland, N.Y.

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