I’ll get this out of the way right now: I watch Pawn Stars, the show on History Channel featuring the guys at Gold and Silver Pawn in Las Vegas. A lot. I should not. And nor should you.
In case you don't know what this show is, the premise is pretty simple. Whereas other pawn shop-related reality shows put an emphasis on unruly customers, security breaches and the downtrodden locals, Pawn Stars focuses on the items that people bring in to sell. Most importantly, though, it aims to examine the history behind those items. This is how the show is on something like the History Channel in the first place – or perhaps how the channel can get away with showing it. But it’s because of this, the show’s central premise, that it’s actually not worth your time.
There are plenty of websites out there that claim to prove the whole show is staged, and perhaps the creators of those websites are correct. Or perhaps they’re only partly correct. Anyone watching reality TV by now knows that’s always the deal you sign when you sit down. You agree to be entertained, and they agree to entertain you. So you get heightened reality. Fine. The problem with Pawn Stars ultimately isn’t that they might have a falsified or enhanced number of historical items coming into the shop; the problem really is that they pay for them.
Fairly, there is a huge market for historical artifacts. These things get bought, sold, and traded all the time. The fact that they are is what allows the guys at Pawn Stars the ability to assess the monetary value of whatever comes into their shop. If there wasn’t already a market for things like a handwritten letter from Winston Churchill or pictures of Jesse James and his gang, there’d be no show. Further, in a lot of cases, if there weren’t such a market, there would probably be fewer museums, too.
Still, it’s difficult to watch Pawn Stars and not cringe slightly, particularly when what the staff is haggling over is not just simply pieces of kitschy memorabilia like a Teddy Ruxpin doll, but things that do, probably, belong in a museum. The Pawn Stars team will give a (likely scripted) rundown of what makes the item before them noteworthy, and sometimes along with that will be a note of excitement or genuine interest, but that’s all immediately undermined by the process of undercutting the seller with a lowball deal, haggling over a price and then (often) bragging later about the potential profit to be made. Put together, it all suggests, after a few viewings, that perhaps the only thing that really ought to matter in the end about antique items is not the history they represent, or even how much that history can be sold for. It’s ultimately about how much profit you can make on history.
Now, the counter-argument is that the things the Pawn Stars crew are buying and selling were, with few exceptions, originally conceived of and manufactured as consumer products, so by continuing to buy and sell them, it’s only perpetuating the cycle originally intended. Fair enough. But what makes these items valuable isn’t necessarily just the age, or condition, it’s the story. Surely, items that are merely antiques are sold with little fanfare, but what gets them on TV is the tale they tell us – the cool or notable hands that touched them, or the circumstances they were once in. That’s really what’s for sale on Pawn Stars much of the time. It’s why when a man notes that his copy of the original acts of the American Congress is signed by James Smith, there’s immediately the sound of a cash register cha-chinging happily away. A whole new way to think of the phrase “historical value”, perhaps.
This is where I hit a wall with Pawn Stars. It’s a show that bills itself, ostensibly, as one that informs the viewer about history, but is at its heart something else entirely. In a way, Pawn Stars is no different than The Price is Right. It’s similarly simply a setup for how to interpret the world around you – not as a vehicle for advertisers to prime consumers by making a game of memorizing brand names, but still one for learning ticket prices and, most importantly, how knowing that can make you a quick buck. The difference here is that it’s often on things that ought to be considered priceless.