Recently, television has been inundated with shows about old things. We've moved beyond the cult hit that was Antiques Roadshow and into a new brand of object-based television. American Pickers, Pawn Stars, Hardcore Pawn, Buried Treasure, Picker Sisters, American Restoration. Such programs are the result of a complex genealogy that includes the cult hit that is Antiques Roadshow and the original shop-based reality shows Mythbusters and American Chopper. And yet, while Pawn Stars might share the same semi-scripted family disfunctionality as American Choppers, and American Pickers features the sort of oddball boyish high jinx of Mythbusters, this new rash of shows are also a breed all their own. Antiques Roadshow segments always end with a treasure chest and a price, but before this finale, the viewer gets a taste of the history behind the objects and the passion behind the antiques trade.
In the new television of antiques, the interpretive potential of objects is forgotten, reduced to soundbites about how so-and-so did such-and-such and it was Way Cool and so this thing is Really A Nice Piece. Our heroes in this brave new world are no less enthusiastic, but in the end the springs in their steps and the glimmers in their smiles comes not from a child-like wonder at the beauty and history of a thing, but from a predatory delight in purchasing something for a steal. In all the hustle and bustle of wheeling and dealing, the rough-and-tumble haggling at the bottom of the pile, the objects themselves are lost. The true focus of these shows isn't things, but the profiteering of people who, when you stop and think about it, you might not even want to have over for dinner, if for no other reason than they'd probably be slipping the silverware into their pockets before dessert was over.
In the end, these shows are not unlike televised professional sports, with most viewers only playing Monday-morning picker quarterback; the real pickers have been hitting the streets since 5 AM Friday. People who actually make their living, or part of it, by picking antiques don't cruise around in branded cargo vans and roll into the driveways of quirky yet congenial sellers. The real American picker is the guy with a rusted-out pickup truck and a dashboard full of fast food wrappers. By the time you see a sign and stop by a yard sale on Saturday morning, they've already been there, knocking on the door two days before and playing every card they have to see if someone has anything worth buying, and if they'll sell early. They don't have a shop full of antiques or a secretary scouting potential picks. They put out their finds on folding card tables at outdoor flea markets on cold fall mornings when the frost is still thick on others' windshields and they stand around nursing steaming Styrofoam cups of coffee. They know what things are worth, but they also know that you can't sell something that lists in Kovel's for a thousand dollars at anywhere near that price on the street these days. So they price things low and pass them up the chain, to other pickers who pass them along to dealers who pass them around to other dealers who eventually sell them to collectors.
Selling at Adamstown, Pennsylvania, September 24th, 2011
Think of the objects that make this long journey as the very tip of a large iceberg. Were we able to penetrate into the murky depths of the trade, we would see at its base dark masses of things found in trash piles, on curb sides, in scrap heaps, and in mildewed cardboard boxes at yard sales in neighborhoods that fine collectors don't even dream of. Most of these things don't make it to the top. They're junk, or mediocre, or broken, or simply not that rare. But some of the finest antiques to come across the market today were at one point or another nearly thrown away or passed over. And in their arduous journey to the top of the heap, they have passed through many homes, some clean and fresh, and others dilapidated and crumbling. Each picker and dealer takes a share and sends them along. The real world of the American picker is not glamorous or hilarious. And yet there is drama here. Because every day presents a glimmering unrestrained potential of discovery. Theirs is the real American treasure hunt, and no matter how cynical these men and women become, they have optimistic souls.
That is, after all, why these people do what they do. For love of the game. They are the modern-day rag-men, picking through the refuse of a society that all too often forgets its past and the objects that went with it. They are chasers of forgotten stories and long-lost dreams. And that's something you'll never see on TV.