In the often fickle world of reality television, American Pickers has proven to be one of the shows with the greatest staying power. Recently beginning its 20th season for the History Channel, American Pickers has been on the air since 2010 with over 250 episodes under its belt. Making household names out of “pickers” Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz (to the point that Mike made a cameo appearance last year as himself on NCIS), the show also includes the duo’s various employees, colleagues, and partners-in-crime, most notably, Danielle Colby, Robbie Wolfe, Lauren Wray Grisham, and Dave Ohrt.
The main setup of the show is that Mike and Frank are buyers, sellers, and personal collectors of various antiques and other collectibles, which they most commonly obtain by “picking” through people’s homes, barns, storage sheds, backyards, and anywhere that people have a bunch of random stuff that might contain something unique and/or valuable. The pair then negotiate with the owner of the item(s) in question, trying to buy for as low as possible so that they are able to re-sell the item for a profit via their respective antique-selling businesses. Of course, Mike and Frank aren’t just flying by the seat of their pants and making things up as they go along, there are various rules that they need to follow, be it general guidelines for the industry or specific restrictions put on them by the nature of being on television. That said, rules are made to be broken, and Mike, Frank, and their teams don’t always toe the line like they’re supposed to. Here are the 15 Rules American Pickers Have To Follow (And 5 They Love To Break).
20 Have To Follow: Don’t Intimidate People Into Selling
Reputation means a lot in this business, and it doesn’t bode well if it gets around that antique buyers are pressuring people to sell things they weren’t completely ready to part with. While it is certainly fine to know how to sweet-talk people to a certain extent, it is absolutely frowned upon for Mike and Frank to outright force people into selling.
Mike and Frank say that all business conducted on American Pickers is cleared by producers in advance insofar as it is determined that people are 100% ready and willing to part with their items before the pair even show up to make their offers. In fact, it makes for better television if the sellers want to sell and are eager to negotiate to get Mike and Frank to pay more.
19 Have To Follow: Don’t Compete For Profit
Though they are co-stars on American Pickers and mostly travel together to sites to look for treasures, Mike and Frank actually run separate (and therefore, technically rival) antique shops. Shows of this kind are often most compelling to viewers when there is some sort of competitive aspect, and that is certainly true with American Pickers as it is entertaining to watch the two men bid against each other to try and score the deal for their respective businesses.
However, the show isn’t about cutthroat competition as with series like Storage Wars or Wicked Tuna; Mike and Frank keep their rivalry friendly and lighthearted and don’t compete for profit, giving American Pickers a more laid-back vibe befitting its subject matter.
18 Have To Follow: Avoid “Modern Antiques”
The term “antique” means a lot of different things. While the general consensus is that it describes something old, there are a lot of things that are considered modern antiques in that they are newer items that were just created and marketed in an antique style. To use a mainstream example, it’s the difference between vinyl LPs manufactured in the last few years of albums from the ’60s and ’70s, and vinyl LPs that were actually released in the ’60s and ’70s.
The Pickers are not interested in modern antiques. What they focus on buying and selling are legitimately classic items, generally avoiding anything that has been made in the last four or five decades so that their shops are exclusively stocked with actual antiques and genuinely classic curios.
17 Love To Break: Don’t Go Back On Agreements
When making transactions at an actual antique shop, things are pretty cut and dry – the buyer pays for the item and they take it home. But, things aren’t so simple when it comes to deals made “on the field,” where trust becomes of the utmost importance. Once a deal is made, it doesn’t look good for Mike or Frank to go back on it.
However, that’s what happened when an American Pickers viewer saw a piece of farming equipment on the show that he wanted to buy and reached out to Frank directly. After coming to a mutual agreement on the price, the buyer sent the check and Frank confirmed receipt. Then, for no apparent reason, Frank decided not to sell, and even though he hadn’t yet cashed the check, the buyer still took him to court and won.
16 Have To Follow: No Trespassing
Just because you are rummaging through people’s old barns and storage sheds that they haven’t looked at or thought about for years, it doesn’t mean that you can just help yourself to what is there. Entering people’s property without permission is still trespassing, and it is not something that Mike and Frank do.
Besides it obviously being illegal to trespass on private property, anything you then remove from that property constitutes stealing. According to the book American Pickers Guide to Picking, reputable collectors like Mike and Frank take every necessary step to enter people’s property with full permission, and not remove anything from said property without disclosing it. The last thing a dealer wants is to get caught selling items that were obtained dishonestly and illegally.
15 Have To Follow: Don’t Pay “Retail” Price
While Mike and Frank do occasionally buy items for their own personal collections, the vast majority of what they obtain (especially on camera for American Pickers) is to be “flipped” at their respective antique shops. It wouldn’t really be worth their time and expense to travel to a location, spend the day looking through items, transporting the item back, and doing any necessary refurbishes on it just to break even or take a loss.
So, as they explain in American Pickers Guide to Picking, one thing they can never do if they hope to earn any profit at all on an item is to pay retail price for it – that is, what they would be able to sell it at their shop for. Only by buying below retail can you make money selling at retail.
14 Have To Follow: Only Buy What Will Sell
Following from the previous entry, there is another very important factor that everything Mike and Frank buy has to have in common: it has to be something someone else will actually want to buy. Otherwise, the piece will just sit in their shop taking up space and never recoup the cost of obtaining it.
While the duo encounters a lot of really cool, interesting items on their travels, they have to be realistic about the things they are buying to resell. Something that people are just going to get a kick out of looking at in a store but not actually pony up the money to buy isn’t a smart investment for a picker, so such items need to be avoided, or at least only bought by a picker who plans to keep it for himself.
13 Love To Break: Don’t Lie About A Sale
Every single reality show on the air has at least some facet that is at least partially scripted in order to make for good television. It needs to be pointed out that “scripted” doesn’t necessarily mean “fake,” it just means that a certain aspect of the job or activity being portrayed has been reconstructed a bit in order to make for a smoother, more streamlined viewing experience.
To that end, most of the transactions on American Pickers are somewhat worked out in advance, with only the final details being hammered out for the cameras. What’s important is that the show be honest about the sale after the fact. Unfortunately, that hasn’t always proven to be the case, and Mike and Frank have been accused of not being completely accurate in how they’ve represented the numbers of various transactions.
12 Have To Follow: Don’t Buy Items Connected To A Crime
It’s not enough that Mike and Frank themselves not obtain items illegally, they also have to make sure that anything they buy wasn’t obtained illegally by any past owners. Moreover, they have to ensure that there is no criminal activity of any kind connected to an item before they find it in their possession.
American Pickers Guide to Picking explains that every effort must be made by a picker to find out if everything is above board about an item they are buying, and that there isn’t anything questionable attached to it. If they are found to be in possession of such an item, they need to be able to prove without a shadow of a doubt that they had no knowledge of it and bought it on good faith that nothing was illegal about it.
11 Have To Follow: Don’t Fake Expertise On An Item
A recurring theme in this list is honesty, and it’s in Mike’s and Frank’s best interest to conduct themselves with as much integrity as they can. One of the ways that they need to remain honest even when there is the temptation not to is when it comes to a potential seller not knowing very much about the item they are selling.
Everyone trusts an expert, and Mike and Frank are certainly experts in a lot of things. But, they don’t know everything about everything, and they don’t pretend to be experts on things they aren’t actually experts on. Not only would this hurt their reputation if found out, but some sellers feign ignorance on an item to test a buyer’s knowledge, and if a picker is called out on that, the whole deal immediately goes sour.
10 Have To Follow: Stick With Items Made In The U.S.
The title American Pickers isn’t just based on where the show takes place – although there are versions in other countries, including Canadian Pickers and Aussie Pickers. More specifically, and this is the case with other versions, It is titled American Pickers because it is a show about finding treasures unique to America and its history.
While there is definitely a market for wanting international antiques, Mike and Frank simply choose to focus on this aspect in their buying and selling because that’s where their particular interest/expertise happens to lie and also what viewers want to see. There are plenty of shows that focus on international antique collecting, but American Pickers prefer to fill a particular niche.
9 Love To Break: Pay Taxes On Items Bought
Like any non-traditional, self-guided line of work, it is up to pickers and their employees to do the proper reporting of their purchases and assets to the government and then pay the appropriate taxes as required. Anything from a hefty fine, losing your business, or going to prison awaits those who try to get away with not paying taxes.
Unfortunately, Mike’s office manager, Danielle Colby, was found to be doing exactly that, being served multiple tax liens between 2013 and 2015 exceeding $15,000. It’s unknown how much she has paid on her outstanding debts, but seeing as how she isn’t in jail and is still in business, she must have come to some sort of an agreement with the government on what she owes and is working with them to make it right.
8 Have To Follow: Always Have A Poker Face
Bartering is largely a game of wits, with each side trying to get what they feel is the better “deal.” One thing a seller is looking for is how excited a buyer is to obtain an item because this gives away how badly they want it and puts the buyer at a disadvantage, giving the seller most of the leverage.
A seasoned picker like Mike or Frank knows this, and as such, they need to refrain from showing any outward excitement about an item they encounter. Their book, American Pickers Guide to Picking, has them explaining how important a poker face is when scavenging for items and how they’ve dropped the ball by letting too much excitement show after spotting an item they wanted. As a result, these actions made negotiations that much tougher to go in their favor.
7 Have To Follow: Don’t Buy Items That Need Costly Repairs
The nature of rummaging through people’s inventory to find the diamonds in the rough is that a lot of what Mike and Frank find aren’t in the best condition. Most often, a certain amount of restorative work has to be done on what they found in order to make it resell-worthy.
The trick is making sure that anything they buy that is going to need repairs of some kind can be brought up to snuff as cheaply as possible. Mike and Frank need to do quick math and take their best guess as to what a restoration is going to cost on an item, and if that, plus the seller’s asking price, exceeds what they’ll be able to flip it for, then it’s not worth buying it.
6 Have To Follow: Avoid “Classy” Antiques
When most people think of antiques, they think of the kinds of things they see on programs like Antiques Roadshow: fine china, ornate vases, Fabergé eggs, classic music boxes, et al. And none of that stuff is what Mike and Frank are interested in buying or selling.
American Pickers isn’t about antiques in the traditional sense, it is about items that lean more toward mainstream or pop culture interests, just from a long time ago and that aren’t easy to come by. Besides, things that are usually considered fine antiques probably aren’t going to be found lying in someone’s backyard among rusted-out cars and the like. If they are, there is no way they’d be salvageable at that point.
5 Love To Break: Buy Low
As has been pointed out in various ways in other items on this list, the golden rule of pickers is to buy low and sell high. That first part is extremely important, as overpaying for an item makes it difficult (sometimes even impossible) to earn a profit on it later.
But, Mike and Frank are human, and sometimes, they let their excitement over an item get the better of them, which leads to bad decisions. One famous example of this is when they jumped at the chance to buy a classic Indian motorcycle, and inadvertently ended up overpaying for it before realizing that not only did it need costly repairs, but demand wasn’t what they thought it was. None of which would’ve been as big a deal if they didn’t overpay for it in the first place.
4 Have To Follow: Don’t Buy Items That Have Mass-Market Versions
What makes people come to Mike and Frank and buy their wares is that they are selling things that are unique and not available anywhere else. It’s not enough to just have the original version of something, you need to have one of the only versions of it.
The average person probably doesn’t care if they are buying an original version of something or a mass-produced reproduction of it, which makes it risky to sell things when its cheaper versions exist. For this reason, Mike and Frank avoid items that have mass-market alternatives and try to stick with things that people can only realistically have if they pay for the antique, original version of it.
3 Have To Follow: No Grave Robbing
While some things should go without saying, they still need to be pointed out as not everyone is willing to let their common sense precede their actions. Just because Mike and Frank are in the business of rummaging through people’s unwanted items doesn’t mean that they can help themselves to the property of the deceased, even though nobody is less in need of material possessions than those that have passed on.
A lot of less-scrupulous amateur pickers take to grave robbing to find potential scores, which needless to say, is not only immoral, but highly illegal. It is definitely not the “nobody gets hurt” crime that some people think it is, and Mike and Frank have never, and would never, stoop so low just to try and find a piece to sell.
2 Have To Follow: Avoid Potentially Offensive/Inappropriate Items
The world wasn’t always as progressive as it is now, and a lot of products exist from the old days that are now seen as either insensitive at best, and outright offensive at worst. Everything from stereotypical portrayals of minorities to misogynistic ads featuring women can often be found among the items for sale at antique shops.
While a lot of people see such items as simply a part of history and don’t think there is anything wrong with collecting them, many of them have no place on television. In spite of what Mike and Frank might be willing to sell in their own respective shops, they have to be very careful about what they show and buy on American Pickers as its an all-ages show and isn’t about pushing boundaries or potentially offending viewers in that way.
1 Love To Break: Be Honest About Value With Sellers
The truth is that most of the people who sell to Mike and Frank on American Pickers don’t know what their stuff is worth, and they rely on Mike and Frank to be honest with them and offer them a fair price. Unfortunately, Mike and Frank don’t always seem to be able to resist the urge to be less-than-forthcoming about the value of people’s items and willingly buy them for much lower than they’re worth.
One of the most common complaints levied against American Pickers is that Mike and Frank knowingly mislead the elderly about the value of their items, knowing that older people are especially susceptible to believing what people tell them. A particularly damning quote from the Pickers themselves has them saying, “if they are only looking for a hundred bucks, we don’t want to offer them three!”
What are some other rules that the stars of American Pickers follow or break? Let us know in the comments!