Five Offbeat Collecting-Based Reality TV Shows the Art World Should Be Obsessed With

Five Offbeat Collecting-Based Reality TV Shows the Art World Should Be Obsessed With
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The art world has gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to reality television. There are shows pitting artists against each other in creative contests and shows infiltrating the rarified society of the gallery world, but what about the real public drama of visual art, the buying and selling, auction bidding, and the addiction of collecting? While the current crop of art reality TV shows flounder, a set of decidedly less highbrow series have become popular with a wide-ranging audience by appealing to the basic desire to possess interesting objects.

These shows take on the thrill of the hunt, the suspense of the appraisal, and the pursuit of just the right piece. But rather than the perfect late Picasso, the participants of series like A&E’s “Storage Wars,” History Channel’s “American Pickers,” and PBS’s “Market Warriors” (plus its venerable predecessor, “Antiques Roadshow”) are looking for gaudy costume jewelry, rusted gas station signs, and vintage furniture. It may not have the lofty air of Christie’s, but there’s a lot for art lovers to appreciate in these shows, and the mania surrounding them (Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer doesn’t have a t-shirt with his slogans on it, does he?) demonstrates that the appeal of collecting is universal.

These weird and wild shows, starring closet hoarders, pawn shop junkies, and thrift-store owners, already attract more viewers than art auctions ever will. Below, ARTINFO presents a guide to five of the best, with added advice on who in the art world will particularly enjoy each one.


Channel: PBS

Who: Four experienced treasure finders, ranging from a professional picker to designers and appraisers.

Premise: In this show, from the same producers as the beloved “Antiques Roadshow,” our four heroes get a pile of cash and a mission: find the best thing they can, while spending the least money. After their hunt is over, they bring their prizes to an auction appraiser, who tells them if their find will turn a profit or if they came out in the red.

The Objects: Costume jewelry, vintage furniture, lamps from the ‘70s.

Art-World Audience: Gallery-goers and hungry collectors looking for the next great deal.


Channel: A&E

Who: Motor-mouthed auctioneer Dan Dotson, plus teams of buyers ranging from tank-topped and tattooed Darrell Sheets and son Brandon to thrift store kingpin Dave Hester.

Premise: You know those omnipresent storage rental places? Well, sometimes renters don’t always keep up with their fees, and the company takes possession of their lockers (see the cautionary tale of Anthony Haden-Guest). In “Storage Wars,” buyers bid on the contents of lockers, but they’re not allowed to poke around inside, just stand outside and look. The lockers could contain riches, or total garbage — there’s no way of knowing which besides winning the auction. As one buyer said in a recent episode,  “This locker’s not whispering to me, it’s yelling at me — DON’T BUY IT!”

The Objects: Fencing costumes, theater-prop swords, tubs of clothing, old gym equipment, Victorian sofas.

Art-World Audience: Anyone obsessed with artists’ estates and the possibilities of finding treasures in strange places.


Channel: History Channel

Who: All-American dudes Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, from their home base shop Antique Archaeology in LeClaire, Iowa.

Premise: The partners travel American, hunting out homes that look like they might hold a collector or some aging treasures ripe for the picking (a coinage that means sifting through junk for anything valuable). Wolfe and Fritz then attempt to explore the collections they find, offering cash on the spot for the objects they deem worthy. Sometimes, the obstinate hoarders refuse to hand over their hard-won goods, but other winners — like a lovely canoe, for $400 — are sold without rancor. When going out picking, a wide-eyed Wolfe says, “You’re finding your inner self… what you are passionate about, what do you like,” which seems like an apt description of many obsessive art collectors.

The Objects: Rusted-over signs, old gas station advertising props, dusty mechanical farming gear.

Art-World Audience: Auction experts who travel to collectors’ homes and convince them to sell their stashes.


Channel: Discovery

Who: Host Michael Kalish and a crew of four dealers: New York antique dealer Billy Roland, luxury Beverly Hills pawnbroker Jordan Tabach-Bank, international explorer Jake Chait, and blinged-out Los Angeles art dealer Patrick Painter.

Premise: The dealers here are actually the buyers. Ordinary collectors bring their prized possessions to the show to sell them, first explaining what they have, where they got it, and how much they expect to get for it. After the dealers take a look, the collector meets with each one individually, and the dealers make offers in cash, on the spot, for the object. If the seller agrees, great, if not, the offer is lost forever, and they move on to the next dealer.

The Objects: A 1928 baseball signed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, a civil war signal cannon, a 350-year-old painting that just might be a Titian, and the sunglasses from the Blues Brothers movie set.

Art-World Audience: Narcissistic dealers who fantasize about being on TV.


Channel: Beijing Television

Who: Host Wang Gang, a popular actor who starred in a period drama about the Qianlong emperor, celebrity judges, normal collectors.  

Premise: The market for Chinese antiquities is notoriously fickle given the prevalence of high quality fakes, but this show, a smash hit in China, lends a new terror to accidentally picking up a replica. Collectors bring in their porcelain treasures, and a panel of expert and celebrity judges debate if the piece is authentic or not. As the debate comes to a head, host Wang gets out his “Treasure-Protecting Hammer” and, if he deems the object a fake, smashes it into bits. That’s one way to maintain the historical record!

The Objects: Antique porcelain and contemporary fakes.

Art-World Audience: Appraisers who want to get revenge on all the would-be antiquities collectors who have wasted their time.

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