Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pawn Shops, Pickers, Storage Lockers and TV Auctions ... you've got to be kidding!

 There's a popular show on cable television where folks walk in off the street, to pawn the most amazing things. From 18th century firearms to George Washington autographed signatures.  From rare instruments to rare automobiles, they seem to flock to this particular pawn shop. When I first watched the show, I enjoyed it.  A new concept in antiques trading. But after a few episodes, it began to wear a bit thin.  Haven't some of these people heard of any of the major auction houses, where the real experts are, and where world wide exposure is offered, with access to the biggest collectors and museums in the world?

Any pawn shop I've ever been in seems to have an abundace of cheap goods with a heavy leaning toward cameras, cheap guitars and questionable jewelery. If I had an eighteenth century firearm, or a signature of George Washington, a pawn shop would be the last place I'd take it.  Are we to believe that nobody understands that.

And what about the never ending supply of friendly 'experts' who so willingly drop by to freely give their opinion. In the real antiques world, knowledge isn't cheap and it surely isn't free. Try taking a painting which needs to be authenticated to a recognized expert.  As likely as not, they'll charge you, at least, $300.00 for their opinion ... regardless of what it is!   Of course, I recognize it's just an entertainment show and they've got to keep digging up things for people to bring in, but I get annoyed when, week after week, people keep showing up with things that ought to be going somewhere else.  Too phony for me.

And don't get me started on people who uncover fortunes that have been left in storage lockers by people who couldn't come up with the rent.  I mean, ask yourself ... If you had several thousands of dollars worth of antiques or whatever, in a storage locker, and you couldn't come up with a couple of hundred dollars for the back rent ... would you walk away?  And what was several thousand dollars worth of antiques doing in a storage locker in the first place!  The concept of that show is pretty far down on the food chain as far as I'm concerned.

Another popular show involves pickers, bottom feeding in the antiques pool.  They constantly discover absolute treasure troves of their type of merchandise each week, but only seem to buy one or two items from each find.  Why wouldn't they go mad and buy as much as they could carry ... then come back for more.  Sorry guys ... not buyin' it.

I notice, too, that after the pickers have purchased an item, they reveal what it's really worth and how much 'profit' they've made.  I also notice that they never show the pickers actually selling the item, and making this so-called 'profit'.  Those of us who earn our living in the antiques trade learned years ago that the road to poverty is paved with the mythical 'profits' that we all seem to see when we buy something, but never quite seem to realize it when we actually get around to selling it.  I think a little more transparency is called for here.

It seems the television people have hit a new vein. (or a new low) in programing.  People must be fascinated to watch other people, either buying junk, pawning rare antiques for peanuts, or crawling through filthy storage lockers looking for treasure. I notice too, an uptick in knock-offs of these shows.  More people picking through junk, more folks pawning things and lately, a ridiculous auction program which is about as far from reality as it gets.

And speaking of television auctions, did you ever wonder how the camera man at a televised auction can miraculously capture each individual person as they bid, or hold up their bidding number. The bidding moves so fast, that the camera man wouldn't have time to re-focus, let alone move the camera from one side of the room to the other. That always puzzled me until one day, I became involved, and learned how they do it.
A few years ago, I attended a provincial auction in England and It just happened that this particular sale was being televised for a popular British antiques show at the time.  The premise was, that the (TV) antiques expert would preview the sale with the auctioneer, then both would discuss (with the TV audience)  what certain items would fetch.  Then later, after the sale, the expert would again discuss the items, what they sold for, then show how clever he was.  Well, at least, that was the idea.

I happened to be wearing a red baseball cap that day with the letters USA emblazoned on the front in large white letters. Not a particularly smart thing to do in Europe, but that's another story.  As I moved around the preview, I was fascinated to watch the expert being filmed while discussing an American art deco cocktail shaker.  I watched and listened as he explained (to the camera) that if there were any American buyers at the sale, they would snap that up and there should be some spirited bidding on it.

Later, in the sale, when it came up, it didn't even draw a bid.  They couldn't give it away.  I thought nothing of it and the auction moved on.  (Although I did wonder how their expert was going to explain that!).  As it happened, I was located fairly close to the podium and noticed that the camera man, positioned behind the podium, seemed to point his camera at me several times throughout the sale.  I bought a variety of items, mostly furniture, but I certainly didn't buy the deco cocktail shaker.

Imagine my surprise, when I actually saw the show on the BBC a few weeks later, and there I was, with my prominent USA cap, bidding vigoroursly on the cocktail shaker and looking as if I bought it!  They had cobbled together a variety of different shots and totally fabricated the event to match their expert's opinions, Goes to show ... don't believe everything you see on television.

About a year later, I saw a rerun of the same episode while I was In Florida and believe it or not, they had re-edited it again.  I still bought the cocktail shaker, but this time, they had me bidding on all sorts of things that in fact, I didn't do.  I'm not complaining, mind you.  At least I did have a shot at stardom ... although I'm still waiting for Hollywood to call.

Pickers, Pawn Shops, Storage Lockers ... No thanks, I'll stick with the Roadshow.

In my next blog I'll talk about real auctions, with some tips on how to avoid getting burned, an inside look from a dealer's point of view, and a couple of amusing anecdotes from some of my own auction experiences. Oh, and it goes without saying, that the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

Dave Young ... Black Buggy Antiques