LE CLAIRE, Iowa (ACNI) – They’re just a couple of knockabout guys who happen to get their jollies spelunking through ramshackle barns and disassembling sky-high junk piles, but don’t underestimate the cross-sector appeal of compadres Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, who’ve unapologetically taken the fine art of antiquing to the average Joe’s level. With a burgeoning cult following that has led to enviable first-season ratings on the History Channel’s runaway hit American Pickers, these two intrepid junkers are redefining the way we look at cast-off relics.
Best buds and collaborative junk aficionados since their junior high days in Bettendorf, Iowa, the Mutt & Jeff-like duo have organically cultivated an antiques show that men who don’t eat quiche will actually sit down and watch. Delicate glass and lacy doilies from Grandma’s day? No siree. These pickers are into “mantiques” – hefty stuff that has an engine – or may have had, at some point in time – and things that have the potential to rust or, in many cases, already have.
The Pickers’ adventures, which are followed in cinema-verite fashion as they roam the rural roads of their Midwestern home turf and beyond, often start with a knock on a random farmhouse door after a promising barn or old-car graveyard has been spotted on someone’s back forty during a drive-by.
The bravado that fuels their cold-call technique can lead to marketable discoveries or other less-pleasant surprises – like snarling dogs and loaded firearms. It’s all part of the spontaneity that has charmed the 3.8 million people who tune in each week to follow the Pickers’ adventures.
The American Pickers phenomenon can be traced back to four years ago, when Wolfe, 45, and Fritz, 46, bought a video camera and starting filming each other as they dug through barns and unearthed salvageable objects for resale, such as old motorcycles and bicycles, advertising signs, globe-top gas pumps and any of a host of other curious contraptions from another era.
“We’d come home with amazing stories of how and where we found things, and people wouldn’t believe us,” said Wolfe in a telephone interview with Auction Central News, “so we started posting videos [via YouTube] on our Web site. People at flea markets started to know us, and then the TV production company Cineflix called us from Toronto and said, ‘We think you have something there.’ The next time we were in New York, they flew in and taped us digging in barns. They showed the reel to History [Channel], and the network bought it. There was no pilot.”
The Pickers don’t play to the camera, nor is anything rehearsed. Even if they were so inclined, that method would be impossible. The type of person they encounter when they’re out “freestyling” – their term for just driving around with no particular destination in mind – is not generally amenable to doing “second takes” or waiting for close-ups. On the tolerance-for-trespassers meter, some can range from stone silent/mildly cranky to downright hostile. Others, however, are the same sort of down-home folks you’d run into at Floyd’s Barber Shop in Mayberry.
“I’d say six out of ten are pretty nice, once they realize we’re not confrontational,” said Fritz, who joined the telephone conversation. “They see that we’re just regular guys. We ask them if they’ve got stuff they’re not using, and if so, we’re interested in looking at it. If they’re not comfortable with us, we’re not getting through the front door.”
Wolfe says it’s the people they encounter on their junking expeditions who are the real treasures. “We’re not finding Faberge eggs and Picassos. We’re finding things that people can relate to and learning the stories behind them from the people who know. That’s what’s cool about being a picker. We’re experiencing it firsthand, but then when we sell the piece, we pass the information along.”
What, exactly, do they buy? Fritz says that’s difficult to answer in specific terms. “We buy transportation stuff, but we also like to think outside the box and imagine how a piece might be utilized by a decorator or if it might be regarded as a collectible now.”
“We try to stay ahead of the curve. Nowadays, not all collectors wear a blue blazer and have ten cats,” Wolfe said. “Five years ago we would have bought primitives or clocks. Now that’s not selling for us.”
If you want to travel with the Pickers’ posse, be forewarned: this is not a job for sissies or condition freaks. And if the sight of a needle makes you woozy, run in the opposite direction, ‘cause you’ll need a tetanus shot before you swan-dive headfirst into the great piles of rusty roadside metal that so quickly get the Pickers’ adrenaline pumping.
Next, you’ll need to learn some basic Picker lingo. For instance, when the unyielding owner of a veritable junk kingdom finally breaks down and decides to part with an item Fritz or Wolfe have been dancing around and practically wetting their pants to buy, the appropriate interjection to accompany a high-five is “Bam! Game on!” Make no mistake, some of the geezers they court as they make their rounds of rural America are tough nuts to crack, and money is not a motivator. These inveterate accumulators love their stuff and won’t part with it easily. One such memorable “nut” was a Wisconsin junkophile who declared, “I’m gonna get a big casket so I can take it all with me.” Words to make a grown Picker cry.
While they’re out junking and taping for their show, which is now in second-season production mode, work goes on as usual at their home base, Wolfe’s shop in LeClaire, Iowa, called Antique Archaeology. Wolfe’s office manager and all-around wrangler, Danielle Colby Cushman, serves as a conduit to connect buyers with merchandise, and potential sellers with the Pickers, who routinely call in from the road for fresh leads. She’s also responsible for managing the 500 or so e-mails received each day, which contain questions, offers to buy or sell particular articles, or tips on sources of merchandise.
Many of the queries, surprisingly, come from youngsters. It seems all kids can relate to the concept of ferreting through “good junk,” as Beaver Cleaver might put it.
“It’s very exciting to know that we’re giving collecting a shot in the arm and getting younger people interested,” Fritz said. “A lot of the items we buy were collected by older people. Those items will fall by the wayside without younger collectors. Not everyone can start off by buying $50,000 cars. You have to start with one that has a little rust on it and fix it up. There are all different levels of collectors, and many collectors who buy a sign for $200 with a little rust will get the same thrill as though it were a perfect sign for $900.”
“Our items are farm fresh. They need a little cleanup,” Wolfe said. “People expect that when they come to the shop. Each piece has its own personality, a life of its own.”
Wolfe and Fritz like to keep the turnover going, and although the TV series makes it quite obvious that both men know their antiques and are accomplished deal brokers, at the heart of it all they consider themselves “flippers.” It’s not their m.o. to hang out for the last dollar. Case in point: a Vespa Ape (pronounced Ah-pay) motor scooter the Pickers purchased in rough shape for $5,000 – one of probably three known to exist. “It went to a gentleman in California, who’s restoring it,” Wolfe said. “About eight years ago I started buying up Vespas. The Italians didn’t really care about them because there were so many of them. But then so many Vespas started leaving the country that there was a total resurgence of interest in them. We sold the Ape for $6,000. We like to leave some meat on the bone so the buyer will remember us.”
Life as it used to be no longer exists for Wolfe and Fritz. “There are 1,400 e-mails in the inbox right now, and we’re inundated with leads – the phone never stops ringing,” Wolfe said. But it’s not a complaint. Wolfe says it just means having to “shift gears” to keep up with the pace and the evolution of their business. For example, Antique Archaeology, previously a warehouse that catered to decorators, movie set designers and antique dealers, now welcomes walk-in visitors. That helps to move the older junk out faster so newer loads of junk can move on in.
One thing that you can bet your last dollar on is that Fritz and Wolfe won’t be hanging up their truck keys to languish behind a desk, now that success has settled on their doorstep. The thrill of the hunt and the lure of the road – complete with its cast of characters even Mark Twain couldn’t invent – will continue with the second season of American Pickers. Bam! Game on!
By Catherine Saunders-Watson
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Visit Mike Wolfe online at www.antiquearcheology.com.
Visit Frank Fritz online at www.frankfritzfinds.com.
American Pickers airs on the History Channel on Monday evenings, 9PM Eastern, 8PM Central. The second season of shows will launch on June 7. Past episodes may also be viewed online at www.history.com/shows/americanpickers.
Copyright 2010 Auction Central News International. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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