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Let’s Pick at American Pickers: Real Or Scripted?

Since its premiere in the summer of 2010, American Pickers has become one of the most popular shows to air on the History Channel—and one of the most popular antique and collectible based shows on television. The premise of the show is fairly simple: the show’s two hosts, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, have a resale shop where they sell various antiques and collectibles that they purchase during “picks.” The “picks” are outings where the pair visit various locations—which include private homes, antique shops, garage sales, and more—and buy items in order to resell them at their shop. In addition to the two hosts, the show frequently features their friend and co-worker Danielle, who is the coordinating assistant for the shop.

American Pickers is just one of many “resale” shows to crop up in the last several years. Shows such as Storage Wars, Thrift Hunters, and of course American Pickers, all seem to follow a similar formula: depict the host or hosts finding items to sell; they occasionally find very rare and collectible pieces as well as the occasional fake or disappointing item to add some drama into the mix.

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But just how much of the show is real? American Pickers is a reality show, after all, and numerous exposes on reality TV have shown that producers aren’t afraid to fake everything from drama to storylines and even personalities. Does American Pickers fall under “too good to be true” TV? Let’s take a closer look at some of the aspects of American Pickers that have some reality TV watchdogs looking for the man behind the curtain.

Danielle, Frank and Antiques Archeology

Danielle, who is the ‘smiling face’ behind the desk at the main Antique Archeology store, is a longtime friend of store owner Mike Wolfe. The show doesn’t hide their friendship, but it does muddle the details of when exactly Danielle began working at the store. Danielle did not work at the shop until after The History Channel gave Wolfe the greenlight for the show. Some skeptics have wondered if Danielle even does any work around the shop, since almost all of the footage of Danielle in the shop shows her sitting behind a desk answering or making calls on the phone.

roy williams on american pickers

Likewise, Frank was not Mike’s business partner until after the show was greenlit by The History Channel; before that, he was a fire inspector who sometimes sold antiques and hobby items on the side. They were not longtime “picker friends” who owned the shop together, as the show suggests. Instead, Frank was brought on board as part of the sales pitch, likely since having two hosts with two different personalities makes for more engaging and interesting television.

When Producers Pick

In real life, you could easily stop at an antique store or even a private home (with the owner’s permission, of course!) to “pick” items for your shop. On reality TV, this simple act is more complicated than the show would have people believe. The show depicts the “pickers” learning about interesting ‘pick’ locations from Danielle or other sources, and then going to those locations unannounced in order to look for some sellable items. But there is something that the show does not depict: the producers visiting each location first.

In order for the show to film at any location, the show’s production team must get written consent from the owner and anyone who may be filmed at the location for the show. In other words, no, Frank and Mike don’t just pop by a random location unannounced.

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The producers also reserve the right to look through each location for items that may be interesting to the show’s hosts. It is unknown whether or not the producers plant items—as the producers from the A&E show Storage Wars have been accused of—but it is very probable that they make sure each location has enough items that Frank and Mike would buy on the show before deciding to include the spot on the program.

High Hopes—and Estimates

Most of the antiques and other finds that Frank and Mike purchase on the show are given an estimate which would make for a pretty valuable return, sometimes as much as more than 200% or more of what they paid! The show also makes it seem like it’s fairly easy for someone with knowledge of antiques to find items for a cheap price that they can turn around and sell for big bucks.

The reality, however, is that many of the items featured on the show simply do not have the resale value that American Pickers would have viewers believe. And, as just about anyone who does make a living selling antiques without the benefit of a TV show, it is much harder than it looks.

american pickers

For example: One of the staple purchases on the show is vintage or antique advertisement signs, usually made from tin. There is a market for these signs, but almost all of them do not have exceptional value unless they are in great condition—which means bright colors and no bends, indents, or other damage. Yet the signs purchased on the show are frequently damaged with missing paint, scratches, bent corners, and are generally in poor to fair condition. One particular sign from the show’s third season was purchased for $250, despite having very obvious damage, and was estimated to sell for $500—yet secondary market values for those types of signs in 2013 did not go above $400 for pristine signs, much less ones with such obvious damage.

The Verdict

American Pickers, like any reality TV show, has elements which are staged by the show’s creative team, producers, and the hosts themselves. The extent of scripted elements on the show is not exactly known; however, we can ascertain that Frank and Danielle’s involvement in the shop was added just for the show, producers definitely scope out locations well before the pickers arrive, and the prices of items featured on the show aren’t always realistic.

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