By Robyn Jensen, Vermont Country correspondent.
American Pickers, a History Channel reality show in which the hosts visit antique collectors and negotiate for pieces from their collections, made a call to Vermont collectors for a visit to the Green Mountain State this fall.
“If you or someone you know has a unique item, story to tell, and is ready to sell…we would love to hear from you!” read a call for contestants.”
What might getting “picked” look like — and feel like — for a reticent collector?
American Pickers is hosted by Mike Wolfe and a variety of cohosts. The show follows them around the U.S., meeting collectors and negotiating for pieces of their collection to sell at branded antiques stores. This year marks the fourth time the show has visited Vermont.
Season 11, episode 3, the first time that the Pickers visited Vermont, provides a typical model. Mike and his cohost, Frank Fritz, are chatting on the road, when they get a call from their mission control, Danielle, directing them to a collector named Ken. The Pickers drive to Ken’s house and introduce themselves.
Ken has a lot of things that he’s interested in collecting, but our Pickers’ main interest is his bike collection. Ken first shows his large collections of normal bikes, but the Pickers are on the lookout for more unusual items.
Slowly, they find them: an antique bicycle from one of the early companies to get into motorcycle manufacturing, and a stroller shaped like a Corvette from the 1955 World’s Fair.
As Ken tells the Pickers the stories behind these items, little infographics pop up, giving the viewer an extra look into the histories of those items. Then, the Pickers find the holy grail of the collection in a trailer off the beaten path: a life-size plaster Elvis statue. Some intense negotiation occurs between Ken and Mike, but eventually, the Pickers are able to get a good price for The King, and from there, the pick begins to wrap up, and the Pickers head out.
The show has been running for more than 20 seasons and 300 episodes. The main way it gets guests is by sending out requests for collectors who want to be visited by the hosts and a film crew.
The show displays a pretty typical non-Vermont-resident understanding of what the state is like: beautiful, full of maple syrup and dairy, and rustic. The rustic part is of most interest to the show. In season 11, episode 10, host Mike Wolfe says that he loves picking the Northeast because, “If you want to buy old stuff, you have to go to an old place”.
That same episode features Mike talking to his cohost Frank Fritz about an idea that seems pretty clearly hammed up for the camera: What if Vermont, a place known for its dairy and its syrup, were to produce cheese-flavored syrup?
Every episode features banter back and forth between Mike and his co-host, most commonly Frank, so this dialogue isn’t particularly out of the ordinary, and the conversation is obviously framed in a way that makes Mike the butt of the joke, and yet it feels a little insulting to the state.
Unlike some of the other banter, this comes up when a collector, Dan, leads Mike and Frank into his sugar shack. Dan is a kind of old man that Vermonters will recognize easily: tough, sturdy, good at farming, and not good at talking. He is clearly out of his element with the very TV-charming Mike and cameras being shoved in his face.
Mike brings up his idea, which, again, is clearly a joke for the camera, to Dan. Dan, faced with the wicked, abominable thoughts forced upon him by the presence of a film crew, turns to the fact that, from a purely logistical angle, cheese syrup feels impossible. Mike, mercifully, leaves the topic alone.
This is not the only time throughout the episode that Dan seems uncomfortable. From the moment the hosts, and their cameras, drive up to his off-the-beaten path house, he seems on-edge.And as the hosts go through his collection, an element of the show that is often a little obscured comes into focus.
Dan has a very good sense of what his items would be worth to an interested collector, and tries to stick to that price with the Pickers. However, the Pickers aren’t interested collectors; they are selling to interested collectors, and they need to make a profit on what they are selling. And so they need to buy it for less than market value. This is clearly something Dan is uncomfortable with.
Eventually, an easier rapport is found, and the show resumes its normal cadence of the seller making the first offer, then the Pickers, and so on until a number is found that both can agree on.
But tensions start to rise again when Dan shows the Pickers one of his prize possessions, a massive, classic advertising board for the greatest soda of all time, Moxie. Mike, when he sees that, wants it. Dan is not interested in selling, but you can see him get tripped up a bit. Mike is a very shrewd negotiator, and Dan is not.
Luckily, Dan holds strong, but watching the episode, it is very easy to imagine an alternate world where Mike is just a little more aggressive, and Dan is just a little more unsteady, and the Pickers leave their pick with one of Dan’s prized possessions. This should be a cautionary tale to people interested in selling on the show.
In a talking head, Dan says, “I mainly just brought Mike and Frank in there to show them that I had some nice stuff, and it isn’t all for sale.”
The idea of getting your collection broadcast on national television, immortalized in a way, is very tempting, but in the end, the show is about people who purchase antiques, and then sell them at antique stores for a profit. If you have something that you don’t want to sell, you should be prepared to hold your ground.
The best example of the good the show can do comes in season 20, episode 3. This episode features the Pickers going up to Hartland to visit the Franklin Museum of Nature and Human Spirit, a collection put together by the late Edwin Battison. Battison was a collector and inventor of machinery, precision equipment, and the stories of the people who worked on them. He amassed a massive collection in his time, and even curated for the Smithsonian.
He has a team dedicated to keeping his spirit alive, and as a collector, his spirit is in his collection. The Franklin Museum, now also called the Battison Museum, is operated by a team led by Jay Boeri, with whom the Pickers met on their visit. He told Valley News in an interview in 2019 after the episode was filmed, “The purpose of the publicity, we’re not trying to make money, we’re trying to get the story out.”
In the end, there aren’t that many opportunities for Vermonters to see themselves on the TV screen.
The show tries to give itself a backing of history, in fitting with the brand of the channel, but you aren’t going to be getting deep dives into the nitty gritty of how these parts were actually made. It’s entertainment, first and foremost. But, from all indications, it seems to treat its collectors pretty well, and for those at home, it’s a chance to see the faces from a place that “mass media” doesn’t often visit. And that’s worth something.
Robyn Jensen is a young whippersnapper who spends all her time on that dang phone. On the brief occasions that she gets off it, she works as a freelance writer with interests in media and theater.