NEW YORK POST
At least, that’s what we’re being led to believe by the spate of trash-to-treasure TV shows now sprinkled across cable channels. From History’s “American Pickers” to Spike’s “American Digger,” it seems as if there’s a copy of the Bill of Rights hidden behind every Whitman’s sampler and a Chippendale chair waiting to be exhumed in every basement, crawl space and shed in this country. You just have to know where to look.
We now have a host of television shows that help us preserve Good Humor bicycles, Victrolas, pine-board paintings and other vestiges of the past. There’s big money in it and an audience ready to exhume curios and other assorted junk to see if they’re as good as gold. At History Channel’s “American Pickers,” co-host Mike Wolfe estimates that they now get 5,000 e-mails a week from people with a tip about a cache of riches hidden inside an old theater, a barn or an abandoned store. In junk lies our treasure.
“Everything [we find] is about character, history and stuff,” Wolfe says. “All we’re trying to do is tell your story. That’s our No. 1 priority. And people can appreciate that.”
“The memory is everything,” says Rick Dale, host of “American Restoration,” also on History. “There are tears of joy in people’s eyes when they see my work. Bringing people to that emotion is driving me to new heights.”
The History Channel has had the greatest success with trash TV, with shows such as “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers” making the cable top 10. But the granddaddy of treasure shows is “Antiques Roadshow,” the PBS classic that’s now going into its 17th season. First airing on the BBC in 1979, “Antiques” didn’t hit American shores until 1997, and the WGBH Boston-produced show quickly became PBS’ top-rated program, long before everyone fell in love with “Downton Abbey.”
Working with a team of 70 appraisers who cover 20 categories of collectibles and antiques, executive producer Marsha Bemko is always on the prowl for a gem, but what really turns her on is the story behind the found treasure. She recently filmed a woman who was the subject, along with her twin brother, in two Norman Rockwell paintings commissioned by Kellogg’s. When the cereal company rejected the artwork, Rockwell gave the paintings to the sitters. The painting was appraised at $50- to $60,000 (with another $50K thrown in for the Rockwell chair she brought along).
The same thing happened last season a man came on when the show visited El Paso, Texas, with Campbell soup cans, Interview magazine covers and a poster signed by Andy Warhol. The collection was appraised at $27K to $36,500 — hardly a fortune — but the pride the owner displayed in his collection made Bemko give him more air time. Plus, there was the one irresistible detail.
“The owner couldn’t cover the check he wrote to Andy for the poster and Andy agreed to hold it,” she says.
“Antiques Roadshow” was the only game in town until History launched “Pawn Stars” in 2009, in the wake of 2008’s economic meltdown, and “American Pickers” six months later.
Wolfe first pitched “American Pickers” to Bemko, showing her a DVD he had made, but she dismissed it.
“She said, ‘You’re never going to be able to do this show. You’re never going to find enough stuff to sustain a series. No one’s going to give you the budget.’ And then I met [History Channel president] Nancy Dubuc, who is amazing,” Wolfe says. “She saw what this could be. She saw my DVD and said, ‘Give me 10 episodes.’ ”
Speaking to The Post while on location with the show in Chatham, NY, Wolfe has just spent the day in a barn, going through a stranger’s stuff. He bought a cast-iron urn with cherub faces and a tramp art table.
“It was made by hobos out of cigar boxes. I gave the owner $200,” he says. “It was missing half the drawers; I can repair the drawers.”
A lifelong “junkologist,” Wolfe got his start early, from about age 4 or 5, and now offers an alternative to the “elite” haul on “Antiques Roadshow.” Says Wolfe, “When people think of antiques, they don’t think about what I find. I’m talking rustoration, crustoration. I don’t clean anything. I put it out exactly the way I found it. I’m making rust popular.”
The trash-to-treasure shows also strike a chord deep within the American psyche, like playing the lottery or heading to Vegas. With a little luck, riches might be around the next corner.
“It’s the hope for treasure,” says Clinton “Ton” Jones, co-star with Allen Haff of Spike’s “Auction Hunters.” “Treasure hunting is what the US was founded on — the gold rush, the ore, the minerals. People are always looking for the new, biggest thing, the hidden treasure that’s been lost away somewhere.”
“It’s a sign of the times. People are looking to rethink their careers,” says Thom Beers, executive producer of “Storage Wars,” as well as other cable hits Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers.” “It’s high risk and high reward. These guys don’t risk their lives, but they risk their own money. They’re in there buying blind.”
Dallas art gallery owner Bob Banks has been an appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow” and “Storage Wars: Texas” and supports this theory, saying that the days when people could buy a storage locker for hundreds of dollars are over; now a locker is more likely to go for thousands.
“They buy five and only one is good,” Banks says. “There’s a lot of storage lockers out there with a lot of valuable stuff in them. People move, get jobs out of the country and don’t come back. It’s not worth the money to go all the way back to Texas.”
People also seem to be trying their hands at auction hunting. “I’m definitely seeing a wider, more diverse group of people out there on the circuit,” says Haff. “People see these shows and think, ‘I can do this. I have a flashlight. I can get $500 out of the ATM and go out there and try.’ If you pay attention to these shows, especially ours, you will learn a lot and you’ll be able to be competitive,” he says.
And many of the pickers are happy to split their proceeds with the person who originally held an item.
“I bought two hand-painted circus banners for $700,” says Wolfe. “After getting the posters appraised and selling them for $10,000, I went back to the original owner and gave him $5,000. You want good karma and good mojo. You don’t want dried-up karma. You have to have a moist mojo.”
Truth be told, though, TV makes it all look glamorous, but digging, picking and auction hunting is mostly lots of hard work. And sometimes the treasure hunters find they are not welcome.
“I’ve had people run me off property,” says Dale. “I was in Mississippi. I’m in a truck. I look to the right. A drug store with a ’40s look is closed down with everything in still in it. I’m knocking on doors. Then someone comes out and says, ‘You shouldn’ t be here.’ You always find something that you can’t get.”
“When you are at your wits’ end, your back hurts, you’ve broken a finger and busted a lip and you want to quit, you dig through that next box and find a jewelry case that’s worth $15,000 that you can melt down and sell,” says Jones. “When you hit a good one, all you want to do is come back for more.”