[singlepic id=377 w=400 h=320 float=left]1. They’re current – and they’re hip. Like “Antiques Roadshow,” the hit History Channel show “Pawn Stars” appeals to the collector – as well as the profiteer – in all of us, because they both attempt to answer the most enduring philosophical question in human history: “How much?” One notable difference, though, is that PBS generally doesn’t have to bleep out anything from “Antiques Roadshow.” Another is that the “Roadshow” is a local event wherever it goes, attracting A LOT of people with lots of things to choose from, virtually all of them, well, ANTIQUES, as the show’s name indicates (although they do have some recent pop-cultural items). “Pawn Stars” often gets into newer stuff that is not antique per se but is nonetheless collectible: Super Bowl championship rings, video games, collectible athletic shoes, “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” items, etc. In short, the collector’s next frontier …
2. They feature interesting stuff with broad appeal – but it’s still a “guy” show. Loyal watchers of “Antiques Roadshow” know the drill: Each hour-long program features one or two pieces of furniture, a painting, a couple of ceramic or glass pieces (often Asian), a sports item or firearm, some jewelry, a toy or doll and something distinctly American, like an NRA or War Bonds poster, plus odd item that may not fit into any category. Personally, I’m not fascinated by jewelry, dolls or ceramics – but that’s just me. The “Pawn Stars” guys tend to focus on the stuff that I personally find more exciting, even if I don’t collect it: antique weapons and militaria, motorcycles, pinball and slot machines, old lunch boxes …
There are good reasons for this, of course: Part of it is the personality of the “Pawn Stars” folks, Rick Harrison, “Old Man” (Richard Harrison, Rick’s dad) and Big Hoss (Rick’s son Corey). These guys run Gold & Silver Pawn Shop (also called Gold & Silver Coin Shop, www.GSPawn.com), a working 24-hour pawnshop in Las Vegas, with comic relief from Chumlee (Austin Russell, Big Hoss’ boyhood buddy).The Harrisons have a much better chance of selling a Kentucky long rifle than a stack of old issues of Vanity Fair or Playgirl. And while I don’t know the demographics, I suspect the viewership of “Pawn Stars” is mostly male as well.
[singlepic id=378 w=400 h=320 float=left]It also comes down to numbers. The “Roadshow” has a huge pool of folks bringing in their treasures and trash, in cities around the country, and an army of appraisers to pick out the more interesting stuff – and they aren’t shelling out their own money to buy any of it. “Pawn Stars” is set in a working pawnshop in Las Vegas: They have a much smaller staff; they feature only items that they have an interest in selling in the store; and you better believe an item has to tickle their interest or be an easy sell for them to make an offer.
That’s the business of collecting right there – the buying, the selling, the haggling – and that’s something that “Antiques Roadshow,” by its very G-rated non-commercial nature, can’t match.
3. They show the importance of doing your homework. “Antiques Roadshow” appraisers are experts in their fields: They know what things sell for and, if unsure about an item, they research it online or consult their colleagues before their segments are filmed and they give a price range. On the other hand, again, they are not there to buy what people bring in (although I don’t doubt that some people contact them after the show), and therefore they’re not supposed to be have an interest in the sale or purchase of what they appraise.
The “Pawn Stars” people do. Therefore, it’s not only prudent for them to call in experts to describe and appraise the higher-end stuff – especially things that require restoration – but it provides a little drama, a little education, some basis for negotiation. That makes for great TV. It is also a constant reminder to collectors and sellers alike that it pays to know your, well, stuff before you make an offer or accept one. DO YOUR RESEARCH!
4. They’re pretty up-front about how much an item is worth. When the “Pawn Stars” guys know something about an item, they can be pretty firm in their bargaining, especially if the item in question is not that unusual, not that expensive and/or not in great condition. That’s understandable: As the guys explain, they need to make a reasonable profit; display space is limited and they don’t want the thing sitting around; and if it needs some kind of restoration, well, that’s got to be figured in. However, sometimes they do go out on a limb a little and throw out an offer on something they aren’t sure about, either on a hunch or an impulse. God knows, I do …
(On occasion, Big Hoss has risked a bundle on, say, a Chris-Craft runabout in need of major restoration, but it usually worked out in the end, and he gets a lot shrewder with every new season of the show.)
When the guys DON’T know the value of a potentially rare, high-end or counterfeit item, they call in an expert – and this is what makes “Pawn Stars” great TV. Everything is laid on the table, once an expert prices a piece; it’s just a matter of whether Rick and company want to buy it, and if they can make a deal. That’s when Rick invariably has to explain to at least one dummy on every show that he can’t purchase an item at the retail price and sell it for a profit.
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I’ve noticed that Rick generally offers somewhere between 50 and 70 percent for stuff that he wants, with the higher percentage for really cool stuff that he takes a fancy to and feels he can sell easily. Most collectibles dealers won’t settle for that percentage, let alone tell you what they expect to sell an item for: As I have said more than once in this column, even so-called respectable dealers will screw an unwitting seller to the wall in a New York nanosecond if they can, paying only a small fraction of what they will resell the item for. So I can’t help but laugh when some guy brings in an old flintlock pistol, for example, and wants $500 for it, and Rick brings in an expert who says it’s really worth $2,000, then the seller gets miffed when Rick won’t offer more than $1,200 for the gun. Talk about chutzpah!
5. The show features restoration as part of collecting. The collector’s mantra: “Condition, condition, condition!” It’s ideal to get an item in perfect or near-perfect shape; in fact, the trick is to get stuff in as close to its original, mint-new state as possible.
Unfortunately, life rarely shakes out that way. Sometimes unique or hard-to-get pieces need some professional TLC to transform them from flea-market trash or junkyard rats’ nests to highly prized collectibles, and the “Pawn Stars” guys are quick to get master restorers in on the act. In fact, one of the best “Pawn Stars” spin-offs or imitations that I’ve seen is “American Restoration,” which features one of the guys who restores the “Pawn Stars” purchases. To me, this is one of the best things about the show: seeing a rusty old clunker transformed into a Big Daddy Roth dream machine, with flaring chrome exhaust pipes and liquid-fire detailing. For these guys, restoration is a labor of love – and the results are spectacular!
6. They love history! OK, a visit (real or virtual) to a Vegas pawnshop may not be the same as a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian or the British Museum, but I’m one of the few people I know who has been to both (as well as CBGB), and I barely got past the front door in any of those places. In fact, all I can remember of the British Museum was some Egyptian statuary and the Reading Room, where Marx (Karl, not Groucho) wrote “Das Kapital.” (I also remember the open sewer that was the pissoir at CBGB – and even less about the Smithsonian.) In the case of the two museums, that is a lifelong regret: I just didn’t have the TIME to see more – another reason to be thankful for the Internet: A virtual tour is the next best thing to visiting a lot of places in person …
But I digress. My point is that “Pawn Stars” absolutely screams history, even if it’s pop cultural history. And if you manage to retain a stray fact or two from the segment on the colonial lottery ticket signed by George Washington, or the recent one about the metallurgy book owned by Isaac Newton, that’s worth more than all those hours in a junior high school history classroom from which you took away zilch.
The Harrisons LOVE history: These guys have a certain amount of charisma, but they are not actors; yet, you can see enthusiasm pouring off them – even the normally saturnine Old Man – whenever they talk about an item’s place in history and its possible importance. They may not offer much for the piece, but that fascination with the past – priceless!
History Channel: Wheels of Fortune
Images and video courtesy of History Channel Press.
Coming soon! 6 ideas for improving Pawn Stars