Alternative Investing

Reality TV Shows Spawn American Collectible Craze

Shelly K. Schwartz|Special to

Admit it, you’re a dumpster diver at heart. Or at least you would be one if it were socially acceptable.

Storage Wars

Thanks to the popularity of trash-to-treasure reality TV shows, however, you no longer need to roll up your sleeves to get your bargain-hunting fix.

Indeed, the show that started it all, "Antiques Roadshow," which debuted in the U.S. some 15 years ago, has spawned a whole new breed of TV programming that uses blind bidding wars and junkyard jockeying to up the emotional ante on the thrill of the hunt.

Such shows, including A&E’s "Storage Wars" and the History Channel’s "American Pickers" and "Pawn Stars," have frequently ranked among the top 10 cable shows on Nielsen Co.’s weekly TV ratings. ("Storage Wars," in fact, in which teams of eccentric buyers make a blind bid on repossessed storage units, is the most popular series in A&E’s history.)

Their impact goes way beyond the ability to attract ad dollars, says Greg Dove of the National Flea Market Association, noting the reality-based programs have also helped level the playing field between serious collectors and the yard-sale set.

“It’s bringing in new faces, people from all economic strata,” says Dove. “We’re seeing more and more middle-class and upper-class folks coming to flea markets. Some are just curious, others are seeking collectibles and others are trying to stretch their dollar in a bad economy.”

Though no empirical data exist, Dove says the flea market industry, with estimated annual sales of $30 billion, has been energized by the renewed interest in antiques and collectibles.

“These shows are changing the misconception about what flea markets really are,” says Dove, noting vendors are anecdotally reporting stronger year-over-year sales across the board. “They’re small business incubators, where sellers with a business concept can get started without a lot of cash and buyers can find bargains on both vintage and new items.”

Emmett Murphy of National Pawnbrokers Associationsays the demographic of pawnshop clients nationwide has also changed since the successful launch of "Pawn Stars" in 2009.

“These TV shows have created a boom time for the pawn industry and really made pawnbrokers cool,” he says. “Our clients are becoming a little more affluent and we’re opening shops in more upscale neighborhoods, including Beverly Hills.”

Murphy adds the industry was “a little nervous” when the reality show first debuted, because it was the first time many Americans had stepped through the doors of a pawnshop.

“We didn’t know how they would receive us, but viewers love the rock-and-roll meets Antique Roadshow side of it,” he says.

Pawnbrokers offer short-term loans to clients based on the value of items they bring in and use as collateral. They also purchase collectibles, jewelry, and other items of value outright.

“In a down economy, people need a little hope that something they have, a gold bracelet, a cool item they inherited, could be used for cash or to borrow against it,” says Murphy.

Small businesses, he says, particularly restaurants which have trouble securing bank loans, are also turning to pawn shops more for short-term loans to get them through the next pay period.

Other venues are also benefiting from the uptick in demand for collectibles, however, namely online auction site eBay,which redefined the art of collecting when it went live in 1995.

In the third quarter of 2011, sales volume for its collectibles category reached $557 million, up 18 percent over the same three months in 2010, says Colin Sebastian, a senior analyst for Robert W. Baird & Co. asset management firm in San Francisco.

Itsantiquesand arts category posted sales of $263 million, up 17 percent over the third quarter last year; andcoins and stampshit $415 million, up 47 percent year-over-year (likely due to the skyrocketing price ofgold.)

“It’s still a rough economy and I imagine there are still people trying to create some cash by selling things they have around the house,” says Sebastian, noting part of the category’s success stems from efforts by eBay to make its marketplace more appealing to buyers and sellers.

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Live auction sites in the U.S. are also getting a bump from a new crop of buyers and sellers, especially those on the prowl for premium collectibles, such as fine wineand antique watches, says Keith Heddle, sales and marketing director for London-based Stanley Gibbons, which specializes in the $10 billion rare stamps market.

“There’s been a massive groundswell of auction activity in the U.S.,” says Heddle. “There’s definitely a reality TV frenzy surrounding live auctions, but which is fueling which isn’t totally clear.”

Based on the track record of former hit reality shows, it’s unclear how long trash-to-treasure programming will strike a chord with viewers, says Francois Lee of the New York-based media specialist agency MediaVest.

“It’s hard to find reality shows that can maintain momentum year over year,” he says. “The nature of these shows is that they have to keep finding a new formula.”

As such, their most lasting impact might just be the community they have created for buyers and sellers of tchotchke, Americana and other collectibles.