Friday, December 3, 2010

On The Television Auction Block

Auction and collectible shows are the hottest thing on cable right now. While hit shows like Antiques Roadshow [2] and the British series Bargain Hunt [2] and Cash In The Attic have been delighting arm chair collectors and art aficionados for over a decade, they have often appealed more to people with an eye for rococo antiques of the 'don't touch' variety. Not to suggest that all Antiques Roadshow fans are stodgy snobs who prefer ugly paintings, overly ornate porcelainware, and early American furnishings gushed over by the hunky Keno brothers! But this new breed of collectible show showcases more in the way of ooooh-inspiring pop culture and historical artifacts than its antecedents.

This new spate of collectible series is as much reality tv (as in: you can't believe what you're seeing is actually real) as it is about antiques and collectibles. And, who knows, when the credits begin to roll, a newly rich couple might strike up a pitch-perfect rendition of 'We're In The Money' to an approving panel of celebrity judges, landing the couple on Broadway starring in Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest smash called...

Okay, okay I'm getting ahead of myself here. Still, I suppose the moral of the story is that you are undoubtedly sitting on a priceless treasure trove, so why not wrench apart old family photos to double-check if there's an extra copy of the Declaration of Independence or a real Van Gogh under there (or, maybe just Abraham Lincoln's grocery shopping list)? And, when you inevitably find the Fabargé egg hidden in the last dimple of the egg carton, rush it on over to your friendly neighborhood auction house where you will get top dollar for your accidental find. Before you quit your job and move to your own private island, however, you may want to watch one or two of these super-hot auction shows for inspiration, but.. they're on every channel, they're all on at the same time, and they all have similar generic-sounding names. There are no less than half a dozen them, so it's impossible to remember if the one you liked last week was Auction Kings, Auction Hunters, or Auction Circus. How will you know which one is the real diamond? Let me root out my loupe, and I'll tell you!

Pawn Stars [2] (History Channel) was the leader of the pack, and, in commercials, it seemed very promising. Until I watched it. This reality show revolves around a Las Vegas pawn shop and its four dopey employees. Indeed, some of the rarities that make it into the shop redefined what I expected to see in a run-of-the-mill pawn shop, but I find that the show is more about the people who work at the shop than it is about the collectibles themselves. Unfortunately, this makes Pawn Stars feel a whole lot more like a standard reality show as egos flare and disagreements abound to amp up the drama. This might be acceptable if the staff seemed especially intriguing or knowledgeable, but, as one reviewer described the show, it's as if Antiques Roadshow were "hijacked by American Choppers." Is that supposed to be a drawing point? I have to say that I found the employees obnoxious and unbearable. The staff doesn't appear to have a brain between them (okay, the father isn't as bad), and, when they're not bickering, they're ususally seen playing and irresponsibly mishandling half of the store's consignments. Of course, Pawn Stars appears to be a hit since it is a frequent filler program on the History Channel, and it's often presented in soul-crushing marathon blocks. I rate Pawn Stars as the worst of the bunch. This is cheap, lazy programming, and the few interesting collectibles featured on the show can't right this wrong. [D]

American Restoration [2] (History Channel) is a Pawn Stars spin-off that also takes place in Las Vegas. Admittedly, I haven't previewed it. I find Pawn Stars too painful for me to consider tuning into this one. I'm satisfied giving it a pass. [Not previewed]

American Pickers [2] (History Channel) is a non-descript name for a non-descript show. Basically, a non-descript pair of Iowan 'pickers' travel to people's houses to pick through cluttered garages and warehouses to unearth hidden gems. Unfortunately, they wouldn't know a hidden gem if it dropped on their heads. I finally managed to watch this one, and I was unimpressed with the duo. While the hosts weren't as obnoxious as the Pawn Stars, I felt as if this was almost an affront to true collectors who know a bit about antiques, art, and history. This pair seemed pretty clueless about all manner of collectibles, and the show seemed like a veiled excuse for them to pronounce everything they came across as 'awesome' and paw at adult movie posters and motorcycles. In other words, not very awesome. The emphasis of the show was neither on the collectibles nor the personalities of the pickers. It was about how much money they could make by haggling for the best price. The pickers clearly didn't have an idea about the true worth of half of the stuff they 'picked,' and it was obviously a very arbitrary process. It was all about the bottom dollar. Trash begets trash, and, since life imitates art, I'll give this show a pass. [D+]

Auction Kings [2] (Tuesdays on Discovery Channel) has been called a Pawn Stars rip-off, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Auction Kings revolves around the fast-paced world of an Atlanta auction house. I appreciate Auction Kings because the stars of the show are the collectibles. Each episode revolves around a few set pieces that the house has acquired and takes the viewer from the authentication process, through restoration (sometimes) and appraisal, and ends at the auction block. It's an interesting behind-the-scenes look at a real auction house, and every week, they manage to have a fascinating selection of wares that holds the viewer's interest. The selection of collectibles is exactly the sort you would hope to see at a real auction: valuable art and antiques mingling with other interesting niche pieces. Something for everyone. Recent episodes have featured fancy Venetian mirrors and finely-detailed Fabargé pens paired with real spies' recording devices masquerading as watches and cases of Billy Beer (worthless!). The viewer comes away from each episode with a better appreciation of the auctioning process and for the histories of the individual collectibles. The staff of the auction house, Gallery 63, are both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about antiques and collectibles, and that makes for an entertaining half-hour show. For this reason, I think Auction Kings would appeal to any variety of collector, and it is the perfect supplement for Antiques Roadshow fanatics. [A]

Auction Hunters (Spike) is on at the exact same time as Auction Kings so I have never seen this, but the advertisements make me feel as if I'm not missing too much. It's on Spike and, like everything else on that channel, it seems to be skewed to a male audience. I believe this is one of the shows in the 'treasures in storage units' sub-genre, and each episode appears to highlight a vehicle and a gun. That's just not enough variety for me. [Not previewed]

Hollywood Treasure [2] (Wednesdays on Syfy) is a must-watch for pop culture addicts like me. Syfy's auction show takes place in Los Angeles, the capital city for iconic movies and television from the past century. The concept is similar to Auction Kings; each episode follows a team as they track down, authenticate, appraise, and auction incredible film, television and pop culture memorabilia. Where else can you take a ride in the real Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, get your paws on the original Eddie Munster jacket, and learn all about the history of Hollywood costume design? Plus, there are cool cameos, including Dawn Wells (Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island) and the grown-up Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory! Each episode runs the gamut of twentieth century memorabilia, and fans of every genre of entertainment will delight in the museum-quality valuables they rediscover. Hollywood Treasure is a show about eye-popping pop culture treasures for pop culture addicts, and the show is presented by a team of pop culture addicts (and, dare I say, experts) who can barely contain their enthusiasm for their classic movie, television, and comic wares. If that isn't endearing, I don't know what is! Honestly, when I watch the show, I can't tell who is more excited: me or the guys from Profiles In History. All I know is they certainly don't seem as if they're taking for granted that they have the coolest job, and I can't get enough of this show! [A+]

Just as I was about to make this post, I stumbled upon Oddities (Science Channel), the newest twist on the collectible craze. An ode to weirdness, Oddities takes place at Obscura Antiques & Oddities, a Manhattan-based shop of strange curiosities. The store's relatively benign staff play like the straight man in this sideshow, so as not to distract from its wares. The curios are classic: taxidermy experiments gone wrong, mummified cats, and various other weird whats-its and got-to-have-its. The thing about the show is that most of the perversities the store peddles in are relics that are more cool than truly odd. Many of the objects would be at home in a natural history museum. I believe the show's name might actually be referring to the store's clientele. The customers are more curious than the curios; they are living extensions of the shop's wares. One campy customer knocks out Vincent Price in his enthusiasm for a strait-jacket and a handful of Brooklyn artistes set skin a-squirm with their passions for mummified remains and used morgue gear. They're characters popping out from the pages of Poe and Edward Gorey and tumbling off b-movie screens. The show smacks of theatricality. In a genre where one has to constantly question the veracity of what we see, this show is less reality tv than twisted fairy tale come to life. Still, I think the curiosities are fascinating enough to stand on their own without needing the over-the-top acting from the store's customers. Despite, or possibly because of, these individuals, it's hard not to watch Oddities. It draws you into its topsy-turvy carnival ride, and if the show will be a weekly wonder, it will make my new auction show habit a trio. And, for any goths or steampunks that have televisions, this will be an instant favorite. [B+]

I've seen advertisements listing similar concept shows on HGTV and TLC, but I'm not even going to go there. Three's enough in my weekly tv schedule, and I'm confident that I've chosen the best of the bunch, each unique and satisfying in its own way.

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