Reality TV subgenre mines storage unit auctions

LOS ANGELES - November 29, 2010

Each time Haff shifts his weight while slashing open the sealed boxes, the dingy mattress bends as if it will suddenly give way and toss Haff down on top of the mounds of junk beneath him.

He doesn't care. At this moment, he doesn't want to be anywhere else. Haff makes money by uncovering goodies inside storage units auctioned off because of unpaid rent,

"I'm falling in love," he says after finding some pottery inside one of three units that he and his business partner bought at a recent auction. "Every time I open one of these boxes, I feel like there's an arrow pointing me to the next one. I can hear them saying, 'Keep looking. Keep looking.' I want to see it, and I want to be the first one to see it."

The addictive exploits of Haff and his burly 32-year-old partner Clinton "Ton" Jones are the focus of Spike's "Auction Hunters," the latest entry in the popular trash-or-treasure reality TV subgenre. Much like such predecessors as PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" and History Channel's "American Pickers," "Auction Hunters" fixates on finding gems among garbage.

With only a few minutes to peek inside units at their potential purchases - no touching allowed - Haff and Jones must use clues to decide how much to bid or whether to bid at all. If they win, they must take everything. They picked this unit because it has a vintage case and the boxes are still intact, which might mean something valuable is inside them.

Haff, a sometimes actor and TV host who also scours thrift stores and estate sales, prefers his form of modern-day pirating versus "the guys that go out and haggle with old guys to take their treasure away." He says starring in the show, which premiered in early November, has made him a target at auctions though, and that he and Jones usually pay more now.

Jones, the less hyper of the duo, says "Auction Hunters" only offers a glance at their true findings. The show documents just 10 percent of their purchases because "no one wants to see that we bought a room, and it turned out to be crap." Most stuff goes in the trash or to charity. Photos and other personal items are returned to the owners.

"We're not taking away anyone's history," assures Jones. "That's not what this is for us. These people put stuff in storage and left it there for a reason. They didn't have any use for it anymore. We're cleaning up other people's messes then recycling it back to people who can use it. If we can make a buck in the process, that's the American way."

A&E must think so, too. The network is debuting its own storage unit auction series on Wednesday. Instead of examining one team of auction hunters, "Storage Wars" focuses on four buyers. Rob Sharenow, senior vice president of alternative programming at A&E, says he hasn't seen "Auction Hunters" but believes there's enough room on cable for both shows.

"I think any other show that's out there just doesn't have the level of access, characters and dramatic rivalry that we have," boasts Sharenow. "We've got the real deal here. The differentiator for me is the characters and the drama. There are a lot of treasure-hunting shows and shows about valuable objects out there. That's really only a piece of this show."

A&E's take on the storage unit auction game follows several competitive players. Among them are fast-talking married auctioneers Dan and Laura Dotson, renowned relic raider Barry Weiss, and newbie plunderer Jarrod Schulz and his nagging wife, Brandi, who chastises her untested husband in the first episode for buying a car that turns out to be a lemon.

David Halle, a sociology professor at UCLA and author of "Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home," thinks such buy-sell-trade TV shows, which have become solid performers for cable networks, are a sign of the times. He believes the allure is in rooting for the buyers to find treasure but also feeling a connection to the never-seen owners.

"It's like a lottery," says Halle. "It's a gamble. That's part of the attraction. There's also a voyeuristic element. You don't know what's inside these lockers. These latest shows have a new twist that resonate with the hard times we're in right now. Everyone has some junk in their home. It's nice to think you might have something that's worth money, too."

Back inside the storage unit, which went for $450, a hungry and tired Jones wants Haff to cease his quest. The duo barely scratched the surface and have already uncovered a few pieces of signed pottery, a set of antique china and several polished stones. They'll come back to load up their truck the next day, but a reluctant Haff doesn't want to stop looking.

"Logically, I know it's not going anywhere," says Haff, the son of a car salesman and an antique dealer. "I know that, but we could have an 'Antiques Roadshow' moment in there, and here I am driving home in traffic with just a couple of interesting things to look up. We probably already have a few hundred dollars' worth of stuff, but it's that unknown factor for me. I need to keep scratching the itch."



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