One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. It’s the driving philosophy behind why we have garage sales, storage auctions, and second-hand commerce in general. Whatever you are willing to give up, there’s someone out there who probably wants it and will pay you for it.
American television has taken a keen interest in this idea, perpetuating and capitalizing on its popularity with paid cable and satellite programming like Storage Wars, Pawn Stars, and American Pickers, to name a few.
But just how in line are these “reality shows” compared to what happens off screen on a day-to-day basis for regular folks who do hunting and buying for an honest living? What can people new to picking and selling expect from a real-life experience?
Though they are great for entertainment purposes, let’s shed some light on the truth to some of these shows and what you can expect should you find yourself looking for or selling your own treasures.
When storage unit owners default on their payments, those units are sold in auction to the highest bidder. This is the premise behind Storage Wars, where 5+ regulars compete in auction, searching for merchandise, antiques, and hidden treasures within the units that they can sell for a profit.
The show has been under scrutiny lately, as one of the main cast members, Dave Hester, has filed a lawsuit against the show, claiming he was fired after calling out how the show is “fixed” and valuable items are planted in the storage units beforehand to heighten excitement and drama.
What’s more, fans have called out instances of sloppy editing where cast members have been seen actually placing some of their own valuables – renting them to the show – in the units after winning the storage unit bids.
The show Pawn Stars centers on a real-life family-owned-and-operated pawn shop in Las Vegas. There isn’t anything particularly special to the process of what they do. People bring in their items. Rick or one of the others negotiates how much they’ll pay for it. A deal is made (or not). They shake hands with the customer.
Where the History Channel show really draws interest is in the high valued, rare items that some customers bring into the store – from old American currency bills to guns and weaponry of centuries past. This is where the history comes in. Most of these items are taken to a “specialist” for further examination and value assessment.
But these historical items have also been under further inspection from the public eye of late. Many customers who went to the store before there was a show claim the store used to not carry many of these sorts of rare items. What’s more, only after customers are found, auditioned, and interviewed for their rare items are the cameras set to roll. They say everything from the items to the negotiations and pricing are all scripted and staged for TV.
American Pickers follows two antique hunters as they travel through the back roads of America looking for old and uncommon pieces of Americana that can be restored or sold as is for a profit. Sometimes they make away with a steal. Other times, the owners know the value of their items or hate to part with them, making Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz shell out big cash for a purchase.
Though Wolfe and Fritz do in fact sell antiques in real life, like the other shows, American Pickers too has been questioned for its authenticity. Eye-witnesses claim the pair does not actually travel the country in their Mercedes Sprinter van as the show depicts, and their cab-talk dialogue is staged and filmed on set locations. And, like the others, they are said to have prior knowledge of the prizes they uncover, with negotiations for purchase actually taking place far in advance.
What to expect in real life
Though these shows are based on actual experiences and are grounded in reality, one looking to break into the business of selling or buying second-hand goods should have some realistic expectations that aren’t necessarily presented accurately on the shows. Here are a few things to assume in the real world.
Treasures are rare
There’s a reason why they are called treasures to begin with. Items of any true value found in old storages, barns, or garage sales are not commodities. Finding treasures of real worth can take a lot of time, money, and energy. They are certainly not found with almost every storage unit auctioned. And they are certainly not found in the sheds of every retired vet in the country.
While you can find a treasure, just remember that the fun is really in the adventure and history behind the search, not necessarily in any guaranteed monetary reward.
Auctions and picking are competitive
Unlike in Storage Wars where the few regulars almost always win the bids on the lockers, the fact of the matter is there are usually a lot more able-bodied buyers present with cash to compete. In the real world, it’s anyone’s game.
And if you’re picking antiques, know that there are a lot of other people out there doing the exact same thing and prospecting (if they haven’t already) the exact same places. Some people do this for a living and have years and years of experience. Nothing’s worse than winding up somewhere that’s already been thoroughly “picked over”.
Real picking requires research and tools
TV shows make picking and selling look easy. That’s because they have television crews doing all the research and preparation way ahead of time. But in reality, hunters and sellers don’t have full crews to do all the legwork and should anticipate devoting a good chunk of time to prospecting.
Fortunately, there are tools out there to help aspiring pickers save time. For instance, gsalr.com allows you to search for garage sales anywhere in the country and plot all your stops on a convenient map, so you can quickly hop from one treasure-finding destination to the next.
For those looking to break into estate sales, there are online communities like estatesales.org. This site lets you search for estate sales and auctions all across the country. Find anything, from antiques and jewelry to furniture and homes.
What exactly is true on popular reality shows is up for debate. In the end, it’s TV. No one would watch if it wasn’t entertaining in some way. So some leniency should be given for artistic freedom. And the shows do have moments where the bidders and pickers are not successful. And they do offer some useful advice at times. But viewers should tailor expectations for their own hunts.
With enough legwork, and some luck, maybe you’ll have a show about your own treasure-finding adventures one day.