What Is Picking?

American Pickers, History, Mike Wolfe, Frank Fritz

We’ve all heard of antique dealers, but most of us know next to nothing about antique pickers. And yet these specialists are a crucial link on the chain that drags valuable relics out of obscurity and into our stores, museums and living rooms. In fact, if it weren’t for expert pickers like Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, many antique stores would go out of business. Some historical artifacts would never have made their way into display cases. And an entire fleet of classic cars would still be up on blocks.

These self-described “modern archaeologists” are a far cry from dumpster divers. Ask any American picker, and you’ll probably learn there’s a science to their scrounging, a method to their memorabilia-seeking mission. Antique pickers like Mike and Frank travel the country, meeting collectors, hoarders, amateur historians and other individuals who all have unique stories to tell. Each and every treasure they uncover is a new history lesson, providing a glimpse at American life in the recent and distant past.

And then, of course, there’s the thrill of the hunt. Sometimes, it’s a race against time, with various pickers traveling from far and wide to check out–and compete for–a hot lead. Working for clients such as set designers, photographers, decorators and dealers, pickers go on wild goose chases for anything from motorcycles to military regalia to Ferris wheels.

So where do pickers track down their wares? Often, it’s way off the beaten path, in rural towns across the country, or right on the side of the road, especially on garbage pickup days. Sometimes they literally end up going from door to door, hoping to explore an abandoned barn or a basement packed to the gills with junk and gems.

Like antique dealers, pickers need a fabulous eye, especially when evaluating potential purchases that are covered in mildew, buried under dust or broken into fragments. It’s a risky business, too: after all, one person’s trash doesn’t always translate into another’s treasure. Or, as Mike and Frank put it, “You’re only as good as the last deal you made.”