American pickers

Back before 2009 I still had a life. One feature of my earlier life was an interest in collectables.  When I was younger I was fortunate to meet a lot of eccentric people who had an obsession with collectables such as antiques (broadly defined). Even after coming to Boston, I would go to the Brimfield, MA antique show about once a year, where about 5000 sellers congregate in large fields just west of Boston. When you luck out, this activity offers the thrill of a treasure hunt.

I wonder if non-collectors have any idea just how big this subculture is.  The activities are mostly unreported, but if correctly measured would surely be a non-trivial share of GDP. It’s hard for me to tell just how large, as I probably know an above average number of obsessive collectors.  (I used to rent out my attic apartment to one.) These people basically devote all of their discretionary income to amassing a large collection of stuff.

There was a line in a French movie that always stuck with me.  A Frenchman with unusually good taste would travel around the countryside looking for undiscovered artists.  One day he bought a few paintings from an unknown artist with Cezanne-like talent.  His friend complimented him; pointing out how much money he could make selling these paintings.  He responded something to the effect “I don’t collect to sell. I sell to collect.” That reminds me of some of the obsessive collectors that I’ve known throughout my life.

There is a show on the History Channel called “American Pickers”, which follows two fanatic (but lovable) collectors as they travel America’s “Blue Highways”, looking for treasure to buy.  (One man’s junk is . . . . )  Tonight’s episode (9pm eastern time) is called “Catch-32” and features two segments.  The second segment involves these two guys visiting my brother, who lives in Wisconsin.  (You may recall that a few years ago I posted a picture of a dragon that is right in front on my brother’s house, which he and his partner created.  Mark lives in an old brick building that used to be an auto dealership in the early 1900s.  The inside of his “house” is full of interesting antiques, although not necessarily the sort of antiques you’d see in an elegant shop on 5th Avenue. Check out the episode if you have a chance, I certainly plan to.  (It will also be rerun quite often.)

There are days I wake up wishing I had his life. (I wonder if he occasionally feels the same way.)

PS.  I suspect that many academics don’t know anything about this subculture.  For instance, I read professors saying that we don’t need cash any longer; it’s only of use to criminals.  But I can’t imagine going to Brimfield without a wad of Benjamins in my pocket.  Serious collectors carry far more cash than I do, in case they find a diamond in the rough and the seller isn’t taking checks.

PPS.  I have a new post on monetary policy denialism over at Econlog.

PPPS.  Many years ago I was with my brother when he found this old barber’s chair from 1887:

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 11.52.37 AMLater he restored it, and gave it to me as a gift.  Here it is today:

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 12.04.48 PM

There are two kinds of people in the world; those who can recognize nickel plating, and those who cannot.




20 Responses to “American pickers”

  1. Gravatar of David R. Henderson David R. Henderson
    16. January 2017 at 09:27

    Among the best critiques of Ken Rogoff I’ve seen. 🙂

  2. Gravatar of Garrett M Garrett M
    16. January 2017 at 10:47

    As someone who’s seen that chair in person, I can attest that it’s quite lovely.

  3. Gravatar of AbsoluteZero AbsoluteZero
    16. January 2017 at 10:52

    More posts like this, please.

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. January 2017 at 11:39

    Thanks David.

    Garrett, Hope you are doing well.

    AbsoluteZero, You mean you find this more interesting than repetitive, mindless Trump bashing?

  5. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    16. January 2017 at 12:56

    I did not expect this hobby. Very lovely.

    When I was in the US, I really appreciated “garage sales”. I did not know this from Europe. You could find really great stuff there (if you knew where to look). And equally important you could meet really nice people there as well.

    Even tough I’m a bit of a germaphobe, I’m always using cash as well. I think I never used a credit card in my life.

  6. Gravatar of B Cole B Cole
    16. January 2017 at 16:10

    Collecting antique American Maps is a lot of fun and not even that much money. You can find maps with the State of Franklinia marked. Maps in which New Mexico is above Arizona, not side by side. Collecting is a lot of fun.

  7. Gravatar of Kgaard Kgaard
    16. January 2017 at 17:25

    Fabulous post Scott, thank you. Reading it I see why my own research clients like it when I write stuff like this. It’s like a learning vacation. You get shown around somewhere by someone you trust and learn lots of stuff and it’s fun at the same time.

    When I was a kid (70s) the big thing was beer can collecting. I had 500 different cans in 1976, and the bottom fell out of the market OVERNIGHT. I sold them all at the flea market for 32 bucks. So stupid. Wish I still had some of them today.

  8. Gravatar of Garrett M Garrett M
    16. January 2017 at 18:46

    Hope you’re doing well yourself Professor. If you have a chance, shoot me an email so I know how to reach you.

  9. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    16. January 2017 at 19:59

    Wouldn’t the Picker demographic tend to be pro-Trump?

  10. Gravatar of JayT JayT
    16. January 2017 at 22:48

    I’m a collector, and I always see these people talking about how you need to get rid of “stuff” and how “stuff” is so terrible, and all I can ever think about is that stuff is the one of the main reasons I go to work every day. If I couldn’t have stuff, than I wouldn’t bother with the job I have. I’d just do some low pay, low thought job.

  11. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    16. January 2017 at 23:04

    Empirical question: for as long as TIPS have existed (since 1997), has there ever been a period where interest rates increased significantly but TIPS spreads did not?

  12. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    17. January 2017 at 01:37

    OT but…I say we are now officially all living in “The Don Trump reality Show”.

    See this:

    IMF boosts US growth forecasts on Trump spending, tax plans
    Global growth estimate at 3.4%

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The International Monetary Fund on Monday said the U.S. economy would grow faster than previously expected in 2017 and 2018 based on the incoming Trump administration’s tax and spending plans, but it kept its global growth forecasts unchanged due to weakness in some emerging markets.

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. January 2017 at 04:53

    Christian, I wish credit cards had never been invented.

    Ben, I like old maps too.

    Thanks Kgaard

    JayT, Yes, there are a lot of people who feel the same way.

  14. Gravatar of Capt. J Parker Capt. J Parker
    17. January 2017 at 05:30

    Dr. Sumner said:
    “I wonder if non-collectors have any idea just how big this subculture is. The activities are mostly unreported, but if correctly measured would surely be a non-trivial share of GDP.”

    GDP is a measure of production. A big portion of exchanges between collectors wouldn’t be counted as part of GDP since they are just exchanges of secondhand goods and very little production is involved. Restoration work would count as production. I’m sure Dr. Sumner and his readers are well aware of this but, I’m always surprised at how many otherwise economically literate people get confused over this point.

  15. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    17. January 2017 at 08:06

    ssumner: “Back before 2009 I still had a life”. – then stop this madness, stop this blog, free us! We come here like zombies, almost against our will, everyday to read the crap that you think up, just to laugh and rebut it. But it takes time, we could be doing better things with our life, and so could you. And besides (complete the blank): “Money is largely ******* ” Blog on!

  16. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    17. January 2017 at 10:21

    free us! We come here like zombies, almost against our will, everyday

    I admit that I had to laugh about this. It’s witty, it’s funny. I especially love the bold use of the pluralis majestatis several times.

  17. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    17. January 2017 at 16:24

    Interesting post. Genuine question : is there any sort of market for a chair like that?

  18. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. January 2017 at 16:56

    Captain, Sales are also a part of output (i.e. markup in sales.)

    Ray, You said:

    “We come here like zombies, almost against our will,”

    That’s because we are all zombies, there is no such thing as free will. You are especially zombie-like, even by human standards.

    Benny, Yes.

  19. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    17. January 2017 at 20:52

    Related thoughts: I know a few VHS collectors and I sometimes wonder if they will have plastic gold under their hands in a few decades. Also I myself in childhood collected comics which taught me a lot about markets and scarcity later in life and why some comics are worth and some not. I could write a whole blog post about that.

  20. Gravatar of Jeff Jeff
    18. January 2017 at 05:00

    The definitive soliloquy on stuff.

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