American Pickers: Is the public ready to watch how the antiques business really works?

Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz are American pickers. The two have built a career cruising through back roads scouring barns, garages, people’s homes and, yes, even dumpsters, searching for strange, unusual and attractive antiques and collectibles. A picker is a dealer much too busy finding merchandise to sell on the show circuit or in a storefront. These are dealers willing to spend hours driving, dusting, haggling and buying as the first step on an antique’s journey from a forgotten barn to a Madison Avenue loft.

Their exploits are part of a new, 10-part series airing on the HISTORY Channel on Monday nights. A camera crew follows Wolfe and Fritz from home to home documenting their finds, rejections, research and methods. Opening to positive reviews, their exploits have ignited a firestorm of debate among viewers.

Proponents say the dealers are showing the true side of the antiques business: buying low and selling high. Opponents are angry over what they see as the exploitation and lowball offers.

The overwhelming majority of comments are split right down the middle. Love ’em or hate ’em, American Pickers is a hit.

“There are always going to be a few armchair quarterbacks that will pick, especially on anything that’s new,” Fritz told Antique Trader. “This is a business. We travel thousands of miles and have storage. You can’t score on every single thing. Sometimes they tell you to get lost. Sometimes they’re not home. Sometimes they don’t have anything but they’ll graciously open their arms to you and show you around.”

When they are not knee deep in scrap iron or dirt, Wolfe and Fritz pull the veil back on the multi-million dollar antiques business. With enthusiasm, Wolfe and Fritz unabashedly explain how they ask to see the things inside a person’s house, how they haggle to their advantage and how no matter how important the item is, to hide your excitement over a piece so as not to tip your hand and pay too much. In short, for the first time in the history of the trade, Wolfe and Fritz are showing viewers an unvarnished look at how money is made in antiques.

American Pickers, which makes up HISTORY’s primetime line-up on Monday nights, recently produced its fourth consecutive week of stellar ratings. It helps that the show is directly after HISTORY’s recent hit Pawn Stars, which garners 4.6 million total viewers – that’s more people who watch the FOX network’s The O’Reilly Factor, ABC’s Nightline or the 2010 Miss America Pageant.

American Pickers’ Feb. 8 broadcast garnered 3.3 million total viewers. Most surprising of all is not only how many people are watching, but also who is watching. Of the 3.3 million viewers, 1.7 million were adults ages 25 to 54 and 1.5 million adults aged 18 to 49. More young people are watching the show since its Jan. 18 premier. The show airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. EST.

“That’s what we need,” Wolfe told Antique Trader. “One of the coolest things, last night a friend called to say his 15 year-old son watched the show. Even though he plays video games all day, he said he loved it. That’s exactly why Frank and I started doing this. We really need new life breathed into the industry. It’s a changing of the guard and we need to show the next generation that antiques are fun, cool and groovy.”

Wolfe is a professional picker with more than 20 years of experience. His business, Antique Archeology, is based in LeClaire, Iowa, and serves as the headquarters for the team’s strategy and storage. He describes picking as “a cross between Indiana Jones and Sanford and Son – a day to day treasure hunt.” Fritz, Wolfe’s childhood friend, is a relative newcomer to the picking business. He decided to be a full-time picker six years ago after 25 years as a fire inspector. Fritz said the two decided early on they would only sell the best pieces they could find. Their merchandise can’t be defined in any category since it ranges from advertising, firearms, old hardware, motorcycles and even vintage amusement park rides. As a result the two sell to dealers, collectors and prop houses serving movie studios.

“Me and Mike try to have good things go through our hands,” Fritz said. “The good stuff is always good and the mediocre stuff is really falling low on the side. The Internet has made things that are rare pretty common these days. If we tried to make a living off the usual collectibles we couldn’t make it.”

During their travels the two began filming each other talking about their discoveries and the interesting characters they meet on the way. After quickly amassing 40 hours of footage, the two enlisted the help of a friend who ran a production company, which then edited the tapes into five-minute segments. A Canadian production company created a “sizzle reel” and showed it to the HISTORY Channel, which ordered a 10-episode series – a first for the channel.

The show is a success, Fritz said, because the HISTORY Channel allows them to do what they do best, cruising country roads looking for old farm houses in a term coined “freestyling.” “We call it freestyling,” he said. “We drive around just looking for stuff. We open up a barn and look in for the first time. The first time we’re seeing it is the first time the viewer is seeing it. When we talk to the people it is the first time we are meeting the people.”

Wolfe said the controversy raging across the comment boards on the HISTORY Channel Web site and others was fully expected. What they two are showing is unprecedented for this business – which is perhaps why so many young people are not interested in the business. While Wolfe and Fritz offer an unprecedented look inside one aspect of the antiques business, the public’s criticism is equally unprecedented.

“My husband and I were deeply disturbed watching this show,” one viewer writes on the HISTORY Channel Web site. “How inappropriate to show two individuals happily taking advantage of people and laughing … all the way to the bank.”

The complaints don’t stop there. Some are downright libelous, calling for the show’s cancellation, a boycott of the HISTORY Channel and even bodily harm to Wolfe and Fritz themselves.

In one often criticized segment, Wolfe offers an 88-year-old World War II veteran $75 for an old, dust covered saddle. He later takes it to an appraiser who says it would be worth $2,000 with the appropriate cleaning and repairs and up to $4,000 if it were offered for sale out West. Wolfe and Fritz are giddy at the find – which they claim was an uneducated “risk” purchase on their part. One critic of the deal has posted a spoof video on titled “American Swindlers.” The same critic is even producing a line of “American Swindler” T-shirts.

Likewise, viewers have come out in support of the program, including industry heavyweights such as Terry Kovel, matriarch of the Kovels on Antiques business.

“Great show,” says another commenter on the HISTORY Channel Web site. “This show gives people the insight on how antiques are bought and sold and the history of such items. You can have barnyard full of stuff for sale but if you have not got a buyer you don’t have diddly.”

Fritz said one of the goals of the show is to introduce the world to the collectors and characters they meet on the way. In some cases the sellers on the program are friends Wolfe and Fritz have done business with for years.

“We are genuinely interested in these folks,” Fritz said. “When you are a collector or a hoarder your spouse or even your kids don’t understand you. We know you. We’re like you. We know you like to collect tractors or whatever. These people are letting us into their world – totally letting us into their world. Sometimes we even buy for ourselves. I think it shows there are other guys like me.”

The show is more than entertainment. It is a glimpse inside a thriving antiques business, which is something Wolfe and Fritz cannot afford to forget.

“Anyone can go out and pay $400 for a sign that’s worth $350,” Fritz said in an episode. “To buy one for $75, that’s the deal. That’s the hard part. That’s the equation.”

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