American Pickers: Saving Antiques One at a Time



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From the 2011 Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide: Patriotic, square, depicting gold & white eagle flying w/draped tasseled American flag against a sunburst, all on white silk ground, Oriental export, grain painted frame, some brown spots to background, 19 1/2" sq. $259. Photo courtesy Krause Publications

This exclusive excerpt is from the new book Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles 2011 Price Guide by Dan Brownell (Krause Publications, 2010). Brownell has edited more than 50 books covering a wide range of subjects, including advertising, ceramics, glass, clocks, bottles, records, toys, coins, tools, and militaria. -Editor.


American Pickers, a reality television show featuring antique and collectible treasure hunters Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, debuted on the History Channel on Jan. 18, 2010, with 3.2 million viewers and was the highest rated new cable series for viewers aged 25 to 54. The two “pickers” (buyers who typically resell to dealers) operate their business Antique Archaeology (antiquearchaeology.com) from their van as they travel around the country hunting for overlooked treasures in old barns and other out-of-the way places.

Meanwhile, their office manager, Danielle Colby Cushman, working from their headquarters in LeClaire, Iowa, relies on her networking skills to follow leads looking for potential buyers and sellers. Wolfe and Fritz essentially work as antiques and collectible “flippers,” buying and reselling items as quickly as possible on their field trips.

Some of their buys come from leads that Cushman has provided, while others are a result of what Wolf and Fritz call “freestyling,” driving around at random and stopping at homes and farms that look promising. Sometimes they find a “honeyhole,” sometimes not. They frequently encounter hoarders who have a stash of interesting items but, because of an emotional attachment, are unable to part with any. Wolfe and Fritz have a strategy for such occasions. They try to prime the pump by getting the owner to quickly sell one or more items, sometimes at higher prices than they would like to pay, in order to generate excitement with the cash that they peel off.

No doubt that with the sluggish economy and the lure of making a quick buck, some naïve viewers have gotten the idea that it would be easy to make a living copying Wolfe and Fritz’s strategies. Not true. What these viewers may not realize is that success depends on an encyclopedic knowledge of antiques and collectibles, an uncanny ability to spot a deal and negotiate successfully, a keen insight into human nature, and an extensive network of dealers to sell to.

Their profit margin is actually fairly slim, with their average anticipated resale valued at double their purchase price. The 100 percent markup is considered standard in the retail business. The markup not only has to produce their profit, but cover all their overhead as well. And it has to cover their mistakes, which happens from time to time. No one is an expert in every area, and inevitably all pickers lose money now and then. Losses can be caused by paying too much, by accidentally buying a fake or reproduction, or by not being able to resell an item because there are no interested buyers.

The show sparked considerable controversy, especially in early episodes, as some viewers accused the pair of taking advantage of unsuspecting elderly people by making unethically large profits off them. Actually, there have been relatively few times when either has gotten an especially good deal. One incident in particular incensed critics. Wolfe bought a saddle from a World War II veteran for $75 that was later valued for as much as $5,000 if restored and sold out West. As viewers have seen in subsequent episodes, this was an unusual opportunity rather than a typical event. And the expected bonanza never actually took place.

Even if Wolfe and Fritz had made a big profit, there is another side to the story. First, Wolfe explained that he didn’t know anything about saddles and didn’t know its value. Second, he offered $75 and the owner was satisfied and accepted that. Third, the $5,000 estimate was a best-case scenario, and in order for the saddle to receive its full value, it would have to be restored. In addition, Wolfe would need to sell it in a Western market. That would mean finding a buyer in that area of the country. Finally, to get maximum price, Wolfe would have to sell it to an end user rather than a middleman. If he sold to a dealer, he would likely get only half the value to allow for dealer markup, and if he sold it without restoring it first, he would likely make even less money.

The saddle was valued at $5,000 if restored and if sold to the right person in the right market. Unfortunately, items don’t always sell for their appraised value. According to a WCFCourier.com article posted online June 27, 2010, they were unable to get a $199 bid for the saddle on eBay, so they sold it to a couple for $150. After restoration costs, their total profit was $45. So it wasn’t a windfall after all.

Fritz overpaid in one episode when he impulsively negotiated the sale of a 1939 Plymouth while on a trip to the Northeast. He paid $5,500, plus the cost of having it hauled back to Iowa. Upon returning home, he discovered the car was only worth $3,000 to $4,000 and the cost of restoration would be more than that. The episode closed with Fritz making some calls looking for a buyer to cut his losses.

Another aspect that some viewers have overlooked is that many antiques are rusting or rotting in barns and junkyards. If it weren’t for pickers taking the initiative to track them down and purchase them, they would undoubtedly end up in a landfill and a piece of American history would be lost. It seems fitting then, that Wolfe and Fritz named their business Antique Archaeology, as archaeology is in fact what they do. They are explorers who find antiques and collectibles and return them to useful service. ?



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