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Financial Value in Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers

 

As evidenced by a string of new and varied antiques shows, Americans are interested in the value of historical objects and the ability to find highly valued objects in unlikely places. The inherent problem in these television programs is how to determine the value of an object. Financial values are almost always the most important ones considered on these shows, but what these values actually mean and how they are justified differs from show to show. Two shows that consider financial value, Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers, differ somewhat in their definition of what these values mean, the methods of evaluation, and the market forces at work in determining these values. They both, however, focus almost exclusively on financial value, which leads to an artificial commodification of history and culture.

 

First broadcast in Britain in 1979 and brought to America in 1997, Antiques Roadshow was the first American television program focused on valuing antiques. Indeed, Roadshow’s success most likely inspired the creation of several related programs. The program involves antique owners showing their objects to professional appraisers – usually historians, researchers, or antique dealers – that explain the historical relevance and provenance of said object. After discussing the significance of an object, the appraiser ends with a rough financial approximation of the object’s value “at auction” or “retail,” ranging anywhere from a few dollars to over a million dollars.

 

The History Channel’s American Pickers, while dealing with similar objects, depicts a very different method of assigning value. The show follows Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe, two “pickers” who travel around the United States buying antiques to resell at their own store, Antique Archeology. The show opening has the two stars explaining, “We travel the back roads of America looking for rusty gold… What most people see as junk, we see as dollar signs. We’ll buy anything we can make a buck on… We make a living telling the history of America, one piece at a time.”[1] The tone is clearly different from Roadshow, with Fritz and Wolfe roaming around junkyards and bargaining with owners about prices over certain objects. After they have taken their loot, they compare the price they paid to the “value” of the object – what price they believe they can sell it at in their store. The prices of objects are not innate like they are on Roadshow, but rather negotiable and relative to consumer demands.

 

The key difference between Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers are the criteria for assigning value. While both shows comment on financial value, it is important to keep in mind the difference between financial value – price – and artistic value. Felix Salmon makes this abundantly clear in a Reuters article criticizing the idea that “if a work has great artistic value… it must have great financial value as well. And, conversely, if a work has no financial value, then it cannot have artistic value.” Artistic value is not, Salmon argues, directly correlated to financial value. He argues that this belief in correlation is “a dangerous and invidious notion” that “really has no place in any museum devoted to art rather than money.” [2] The same can be said for historical objects. However, in both these shows, a work without a high financial price seems meaningless to the appraisers.


American Pickers addresses artistic value only as a way to increase financial value. While they usually look for pieces that they can sell to collectors, they sometimes shift into “decorator mode” and try to find objects that customers may use for personal decoration. In one episode, Wolfe purchases a dollhouse that he knows is too damaged to sell to antique collectors. Instead, he calls an interior designer who agrees to buy it to use as decoration.[3] These artistic items, though, are still valuable to them financially only because someone else values them aesthetically and is willing to pay to own these objects. Otherwise, what they value is very arbitrary. They buy things to sell to collectors that “like the same stuff [they] like,” and are very interested in what collectibles are “hot” at the moment.[4] Their choice of what objects to purchase, and thus their implicit choice of what has value, is very often a matter of personal taste. Considerable market forces are at play in how Fritz and Wolfe value objects financially: they are bargaining with owners of objects while also trying to determine at what price they can successfully sell objects. Collecting fads are an important concern to them, and can make certain objects more or less valuable. Fritz and Wolfe have to factor in transportation costs as well as finding buyers for their objects. Objects only have value to them if they can track down a potential buyer, and if they believe they can buy the object for a lower price than their retail price. If they cannot make a profit off of buying an object, then that object is deemed valueless.


Antiques Roadshow, while still focusing primarily on financial value, discusses in depth the historical value of objects. Roadshow appraisers usually delve into lengthy discussions of why an object matters or how it fits into history. Their expertise allows them to explain what makes objects special and worthwhile, and in turn desirable to a collector. Since they are not selling the objects themselves, however, they can give a more general financial value based on the condition and historical relevance of an object. Their position allows them to evaluate objects without considering the potential profit in reselling it. Objects seem to have an innate financial value, and market forces tend to be ignored.

 

While their valuation methods differ, the success of both Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers indicates the artificial commodification of history and culture. In Roadshow, historical objects take on an innate financial value, which is seen as directly correlated to its historical relevance. The show American Pickers, on the other hand, does not delve into why an object is important to history. The pickers see these historical objects solely as a way to make money. If history is discussed, it is only in the context of how historical events could potentially make an object more financially valuable. Historical objects in these shows are defined almost exclusively by the price they can be sold for, rather than for their potential artistic or historic value.

 

Salmon Felix would be displeased by this popular definition of historical worth. When studying museums, we need to consider the price of objects and how this relates to historical or artistic value. Museums should be focused on creating a space for interpretation and celebration of history or art, and not showing off high price tags.[5] Thankfully, it seems the values on these shows are for selling to personal collectors and not museums. However, as Felix points out, “collectors collect art, and museums collect collectors: that’s how great museum collections are built up.”[6] Collections based solely on financial value often end up in museums. Because of this relationship, the commodification of history and culture, as epitomized by Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers, is an important issue to explore in museum studies.


[1] “Guys and Dollhouses,” American Pickers, episode no. 77, first broadcast September 3, 2012 by History Channel.

[2] Felix Salmon, “When Museum Curators Confuse Price and Value,” Reuters, July 23, 2012, accessed October 14, 2012, http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2012/07/23/when-museum-curators-confuse-price-and-value/.

[3] “Guys and Dollhouses.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Elaine Heumann Gurian, “What is the Object of this Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums,” in Reinventing the Museum, 269-283.

[6] “When Museum Curators Confuse Price and Value.”

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Bibliography

 

Gurian, Elaine Heumann. “What is the Object of this Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums.” Reinventing the Museum, 269-283.

 

“Guys and Dollhouses.” American Pickers. Episode no. 77, first broadcast September 3, 2012 by History Channel.

 

Salmon, Felix. “When Museum Curators Confuse Price and Value.” Reuters, July 23, 2012. Accessed October 14, 2012. http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2012/07/ 23/when-museum-curators-confuse-price-and-value/.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.