Applying the Seal of Approval

THE ROLE: Sellers often know more about the quality of what they’re offering than buyers do, making buyers wary of the goods on offer. By scouting for what buyers want, screening the options, and staking their own reputations on what they buy and sell, Certifiers provide value for both buyers and sellers. To profit from this role, Certifiers must invest in their ability to tell the wheat from the chaff and in a reputation for quality that pays off in the long run.

“‘IndianaJones Meets Sanford & Son

One day several years ago, Mike Wolfe, in an episode of his hit cable TV show American Pickers, pulled his Mercedes-Benz van up to a rural property that looked particularly promising: out front were several beat-up old pickup trucks bearing “For Sale” signs, and scattered farther back stood more than a dozen trailers.1 Accompanied by his “picking” partner, Frank Fritz, Wolfe was in upstate New York, somewhere between Saratoga Springs and Syracuse, far from Wolfe’s home base of Eau Claire, Iowa.

When a friendly-looking woman answers the front door, Fritz gives one of their typical introductions. “We’re pickers. We’re always out buying and sellin’ stuff,” Frank tells her, handing her a flyer listing the kind of stuff the pickers are looking to buy.

As always, they’re on a quest for what they call “rusty gold”— old motorbikes, signs, and other Americana sitting around in people’s attics, barns, and woodsheds. Things that may look like trash but that are worth real money to collectors and antiques dealers. To uncover these hidden gems, Wolfe and Fritz log sixty thousand miles each year, crisscrossing America’s heartland and driving up and down the country’s coasts. And when they reach a promising spot and are lucky enough to be allowed in, they must rummage around to try to find something of value. The work is both exciting and humble. As if still pitching the show to TV executives, Wolfe often describes his vocation as “Indiana Jones meets Sanford & Son”—a cross between treasure hunter and junk dealer.

In looking for properties to pick, Wolfe completely reverses our notions of good and bad. Staying away from freshly painted McMansions with satellite dishes and manicured yards, he gravitates toward houses with tall weeds out front, buildings and cars painted in dated colors like avocado and harvest gold, and rust on just about anything. The more signs of age and disrepair, the better.

“Our secret to making a profit is that we skip the middleman, meaning we don’t buy from thrift stores, antique malls, or flea markets,” Wolfe and Fritz write in their book, American Pickers Guide to Picking.2 “Instead, we go straight to the source.” Of course they do: to find undervalued treasure, you can’t go to a store or market, whose treasures will already be marked up. To have any hope of making a profit, you have to go off the beaten path.

And that’s exactly what happens on this day in upstate New York. The woman who lets the pickers in explains that her father, who recently died, had been a “collector-hoarder” for as long as she’d known him. Looking for money to pay off her father’s debts and keep the farm running, the daughter is ready to sell some of Dad’s belongings. “We’d be honored to look through this stuff,” Wolfe says, his ever respectful demeanor on display.

We’re led into the first building, where the camera pans to reveal a long-abandoned mess: an old ladder, naily lumber boards sticking out every which way, rusty metal, random piping. Heaps ofjunk to most people. But Wolfe sees potential. He shines a small flashlight under one heap, wondering what’s hiding beneath. “There could be like a car under there,” he says, only half-jokingly. Tall and limber, his muscles flexing through his jeans and T-shirt, Wolfe quickly climbs up for a better view of the room.

Looking around, he spots the first bit of rusty gold: vintage bicycles. As he hauls a bunch of bike frames and wheels out into daylight, we see that the wheels are warped and brown with rust. Wolfe instantly knows he’s found something of value. “1890s,” Wolfe says. He’s not out to swindle anyone, and takes the time to explain to the daughter what makes the bikes special. “Wooden rims, pneumatic tires, very cool stuff. Cork grips.” He dumps all the bike parts on the grass and makes a package offer. “For all this, I can do $200.”

“1890s?” she asks.

“1890s,” he agrees, “But condition is everything.” Then he shows where the frame is broken, separated from the casting. She pauses to think, and he ups his offer. “How about $250?”

“Sounds all right,” she says quietly, and they shake on it.

With an enthusiasm more common in little boys than in grown men, Wolfe speaks to the camera, and says he thinks he can piece together one whole bicycle and still have extra parts left.

Wolfe is a bike collector himself, so he may keep his find after fixing it up a bit, but if he decides to part with it, he can resell it for several times more than he paid for it. For example, later on the same pick, he buys a Harley VL tank for $75, figuring he can sell it to the right guy for $200. Later still, he spends $20 on a toy boat. It’s covered with caked-on mud and has a large rip in its sail, but Wolfe thinks he can sell it for much more than $20 because it’s the kind of toy Benjamin Franklin was writing about back in the 1770s—a true collector’s item. (“That’s what’s great about digging in barns in New

York,” he tells us. “You find so much more earlier stuff than you do when we’re in Iowa.”)

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