Sunday, February 12, 2012

The bastardization of American history

I'm a fan of the television show "American Pickers,"  the History Channel program where two "pickers," a.k.a. antiques buyers and sellers, visit farms, old houses and dead businesses across the country, buy their best stuff for cheap and then sell it for a profit.

While many have debated the obvious ethical questions behind such a line of work - Is it fair for these guys, who are experts in the field, to swoop in to an innocent civilian's home, buy items for bottom-dollar prices, then sell it at a huge markup? - I've come to peace with that part of it. "Picking" is a business, just like any other. When you get right down to it, everybody tries to make a profit by buying low and selling high. So I don't accuse the Pickers of any ethical violations here - if the owner of the property is unhappy with the Pickers' offer, nobody is holding a gun to their head making them sell. In fact, some of the best parts of the show are the tough negotiations between picker and pickee.

But then, while watching a rerun of the show this afternoon, I discovered something that makes my skin crawl.

The History Channel runs a website called the American Pickers Warehouse. On this site, you can purchase items discovered by the Pickers on the show.

Well... not exactly.

Take this Sinclair Gasoline sign, an American icon you can own for the reasonable price of $115.00. It's scuffed and rusty, which only adds to its beauty.

The problem is, it's a reproduction, made to look like something discovered by the Pickers after being hidden away in a dusty barn for fifty years.

The website makes no bones about the fact that the items are fake. Here's the description of the Sinclair sign:

Get the look of the featured Sinclair Gasoline sign seen in the show with this reproduction metal sign offering the same bright colors and classic logo; you’ll think it was the original!

At issue here is not the production of reproductions. That's been going on for centuries. My problem is the arrogance of selling these items openly to the masses. I don't know how much the actual, real-life Sinclair sign sells (or sold) for, but from watching enough episodes of "Pickers," I can make an educated guess that it would probably cost around $250 or $300. But hey, why sell one sign for $250 when you can sell a thousand signs for $115?

In addition to signs, you can also buy replica hood ornaments, fake record players, faux-vintage telephones, a bicycle costing $660, an inauthentic Coca-Cola soda machine for over a thousand bucks, and even a just-like-the-real-thing gas pump for a whopping twenty seven hundred bucks which, apparently, "has all the retro looks of the original."

There's another big problem here as well. By placing seemingly high prices on replicas, the History Channel is diluting the importance of having the real thing. If you were the owner of a genuine, vintage Sinclair Gasoline sign, and it was displayed proudly in your den... when I came over to your house, how would I know you didn't order it off the History Channel website as an authentic reproduction?

How can you tell the difference anymore between what's real and what's not?

Apparently, the buying public doesn't really care. The Sinclair reproductions have been a big hit. As of this writing, the sign is currently sold out.

But don't worry; there's plenty more fake history for sale where that came from.


  1. As someone who works in a museum, I can verify that there are a lot of people who can't tell the difference between a reproduction and an original. It's sad, but I still think that people who would know the difference, could tell the difference. For me, the story behind an object is always the important thing. I wouldn't even consider buying a faux-historical/retro piece just because it looks cool.

    I think Pawn Stars is MUCH more likely to swipe something for a severely discounted price, buyer be damned. They don't even care if they are being fair, they are just looking for a profit. Mike and Frank, at least seem to really appreciate most of the items that they find for the uniqueness and the story behind it. I think everybody is always looking for a deal and I view them them with a little less judgment than Pawn Stars, but not much.

  2. Well put, moxiemama. I will say that i'm sure it is the history channel, not the pickers thmselves, who are behind this.

  3. Meh – it all depends on what you value.

    It starts with money itself, which is worth exactly what you believe it to be, firmly tied as it is to air.

    So often 'history' is the same. You speak of Sinclair Gasoline with a fond nostalgia and worry that the American public has devalued ‘reality’; I hear Sinclair Gasoline and blame the company, as well as the FUBAR’d state of Delaware, for its critical role in altering American reality into our present downward spiral of corporate fascism.

    History, like reality, is in many cases patently notional.

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