Why Found-Treasure TV Is Just Another Game Show

January 2013

The hunt for old treasures is changing as television creates narratives that appeal to youth. Courtesy of thespec.com

Everything has a price, and that speaks to the best and worst of human nature, especially when intrinsic value has all but been replaced with a race to the cheapest. If you really want to understand this, try putting a family heirloom up for auction to see what the marketplace thinks your heritage is worth.

Yet those heirlooms are hitting retail at an unprecedented rate as old and weird things smother the North American consumer radar. Since 2007 television gatekeepers have created dozens of Antiques Roadshow knockoffs that have tens of millions of viewers believing that buried in their attics or basements are old signs, pottery, jewelry or art that are worth a great deal of cash.

Buying and selling antiques have always been an obsession for thousands of people, but it’s mostly been done in the niches of antique stores, flea markets and occasional auctions. Until now, that is, as TV  replaces home-renovation lineups with hour after hour of “found treasures.”

Shows like Canadian and American Pickers, Pawn Stars, Pawnathon Canada, Storage Wars, Market Warriors and Auction Kings are shining new light in old places. They’re even spawning derivative programming (Hardcore Pawn, Barter Kings, Storage Wars Texas and New York) as people rise to the hope that only extra money can bring. This excitement isn’t diminished even when something sells for less than appraised value. If the cameras are rolling, it means credibility; and if it can happen for George and Ida Schwartz from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, it can happen for anyone.

There’s no lack of sociological explanations for why we’re loving these shows; reasons vary, but most seem to coalesce around contemporary insecurities.

We’re in an economic recession, and old treasures represent found money; we’re nostalgic for simpler times when things were better made; we’re desperate for the comfort of shared history. Even the New York Times’ had a lovely quote from a story about the similarities between Pawn Stars and museums:

“These trends include evolving notions of taste, value and authority; the public’s desire to understand the inner workings of once rarefied worlds; and the growing demand of audiences that their thoughts and feelings be put nearer the center of cultural experiences.”

Very comforting but also babbflegab from TV public-relations departments. Found-treasure programming is like every other game show, artificially generated and hyped narratives coupled with winners and losers, wrapped around advertising.

Once the cameras are rolling, auctions become just another game show. Courtesy of Auction Kings.

Quiz masters (experts) are the new reality stars, pulling in as much as $80,000 an episode. When a recurring contestant (Dave Hester on Storage Wars) sued his producers for scripting the show with planted treasures, it bothered no one and simply kicked the marketing machine into a higher gear, creating more excitement for someone who has an old lamp in the den that kind of, sort of, looks like the one that just got appraised for $2,000.

Canadian TV viewers love this stuff, even if we tend to be a little less cutthroat than Americans. History channel’s Canadian Pickers gets huge ratings across the country in the young 25-34 demographic. In Ontario alone there are about 300 self-storage operations that auction off abandoned units. MacLean and Associates has been doing it in Ottawa for the past year and a half (the crowd of players bidding has risen from about 20 to 200 in that time) , and it’s surprising that Mountain Road Productions, the city’s biggest reality TV creator, hasn’t picked up on the trend.

MacLean’s Diana Fuller told me mid-20th Century stuff is immensely popular right now because younger people are looking for reminders of their parents’ era that they can afford. And she agrees that quality and nostalgia are driving the whole industry.

I asked Ottawa auctioneer Michael Spooner what he thought. He scoffed, calling it a bunch of bullshit with little relevance to the tradition of antiques. Maybe it was because I caught him washing his hands in the bathroom, but then again, how else would an old-style auctioneer respond?

It’s easy to fall in love with these human-nature responses that found treasures produce: discovery, history, connection and value. But splashed across television screens, these emotions inevitably homogenize into the macho strut and sexual innuendo that television needs to compete. Where does that take us?

Some see the pure entertainment of found treasures as an opportunity to blow away the idea that auctions are something other than reality TV shows, and to remind us that we all crave racing pulses and winners and losers to help navigate our increasingly unpredictable and alienating culture.

New treasure hunters won’t be the core fans of Antiques Roadshow, those who love the program’s charming continuity of class, style and as Peter Ustinov joked “Oh yes, that old piece, we bought it from the artist in 1820.” Today’s attention spans are too short, their desires too immediate, which has turned ebay and Amazon into the world’s biggest retailers. For auctioning/picking/pawning to stay in prime time, future customers will have to come from TV-influenced youth.

A few months ago, at age 28, Ken Trowsse decided to start an auction house in Ottawa. He’s never studied the difference between Cloisonné and Champlevé, and he’s still a long way from perfecting his “You bought it!” But he’s acquired and sold things since he was 11, mostly on the Internet, and he’s tired of paying the middleman’s commission. He also craves credibility because online commerce requires multiple personas and he’s fed up with lying to people.

Now with two young children, he sees Studio 17‘s bricks-and-mortar role as a chance to become big-time legitimate. “I want my kids to be proud of me. It’s TV that has turned it around: fast cash, getting things that people can’t find anywhere else. And they want it now because 75 percent of stuff sold at an auction will be resold as soon as possible,” he says.

Trowsse is only part mercenary, the remnant of an Ottawa childhood of poverty where “everyone in the ghetto is trying to make money.” He chose legitimate goods, moved into antiques as a teenager, and has become seduced by the hunt, the research and face-to-face selling. To say nothing of the chance to create a new auction vibe that’s as much about a night out on the town as a polite afternoon of bidding.

With only one event under its belt, Studio 17 will bring in a guest auctioneer February 9 -  Jeff Schwarz from the OLN’s The Liquidator. This is the buzz that Trowsse wants to create, part game show, part celebrity and the idea that everyone should spend more money than they expect to once the bidding starts.

It sounds simple, and there are growing signs  that the industry is changing. Last weekend at a McLean’s estate auction, its space was packed out by 400 or 500 people. Many were young, and the ones I spoke to had never been to an auction before. They just loved the excitement. Found treasures can quickly become addicting, but audiences today are fickle.

Studio 17’s Website hasn’t been updated for almost two months; its Facebook page in six weeks and its Twitter feed in three weeks. Traditional treasure hunters probably wouldn’t notice, but if you’re aiming for a youth demographic, these are warning signs. But that doesn’t mean Trowsse doesn’t see the future correctly.

In two weeks when he brings in The Liquidator to focus on the antiques that Ottawa gobbles up – gold and silver, tin advertising and vintage hockey cards among other things – local pickers will get a taste of what that future might look like. In Toronto, Los Angeles and New York, it’s already morphing out of all recognition.

There’s talk that a new L.A.-based series called Picking The Stars is scheduled for 2014. Contestants pick through garbage dumps to find things that belong to celebrities, which will then be auctioned off. It’s thoroughly degrading and completely embarrassing – the prefect ingredients for great TV.

2 Comments »

  • lisa said:

    Thank you for this interesting article. Apart from your opinion I like Barter Kings and you can believe it or not, but you can really trade up from a low item value to a higher one. I do it all the time on barterquest.com! It’s a great site where you can swap for goods, services and real estate.

  • MLevin (author) said:

    Lisa. Thanks for the tip on barterquest. Mike Levin.

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.