Miscellany — From the May 2014 issue

Found Money

Televised auctions and the Great Recession

Every day, all across the country, people travel near and far to assess exteriors — of homes and luggage and corrugated-iron cubes — and fantasize about what might be, but probably isn’t, inside. Then they bid at auction so that maybe, just maybe, they’ll get more than their money’s worth. There are television shows that purport to document this suspense — of the cautious turned lucky and the confident crushed. Sorry characters compete against one another for the privilege of owning abandoned property they know nothing about: houses with nonexistent plumbing, suitcases more likely to contain spilled toiletries than precious jewels, storage units stuffed with junk.

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

Storage Wars (A&E), Auction Hunters (Spike), Baggage Battles (Travel Channel), and Property Wars (Discovery Channel), all of which have premiered in the past four years, use the competition of the auction as a plot device for exaggerating their characters’ eccentricities and activating the audience’s schadenfreude. Dubious windfalls keep things from becoming monotonous. Bags forgotten at airports turn out to hold not just cotton sportswear and travel-size bottles of facial cleanser but also pocket watches and rare coins. We learn that vintage electroshock-therapy machines and nineteenth-century replicas of Czechoslovakian mechanical toy banks are “worth a lot.” Dinky fixer-uppers are fitted with Sub-Zero refrigerators. McMansions, still stinking of new vinyl siding, can be pristine — Italian marble, Jacuzzis, stainless-steel appliances — but at least as often they are empty: plastic shells abandoned in the desert.

These auction reality shows — a genre referred to by TV producers as “found money” — make no pedagogical promises; we are in the presence not of specialists but of autodidactic dreamers. The swagger of the cast betrays a kind of scrambling naïveté. Episodic catharsis relies on the expertise of appraisers, brought in to affirm or snuff out unfounded hopes. It takes two people to set a price, and auctions are where one sees firsthand the cruel, stark truth of the world — that an unwanted thing is literally worthless.

To enjoy such shows, one must ignore the likely backstories — the bankruptcies, divorces, foreclosures, and deaths that thrust these lots onto the auction block — and attend instead to the petty exuberance of the plot, to the bidding and yelling and triumphant cries of victory. “Shock & Awe,” the fourteenth episode of the second season of Baggage Battles, is set in Benton, Louisiana, a town that our protagonist, Billy Leroy, claims, falsely, is “not on Google Maps.” Billy, along with the show’s other regulars, has traveled here to attend an auction being held in a barn. He arrives in a vest adorned with watch chains and rummages through some dusty piles of rusted miscellany while smoking a cigar. Finally, he zeroes in on two desirable items: a “very interesting, beautiful” wooden box and a military trunk. The latter, he wagers, could be full of swords, guns, helmets, and uniforms. Billy “just has a feeling” about the box, and inside the trunk he hopes to find a piece that will allow him to retire early.

Mark, the show’s youngest regular, confirms Billy’s logic: “If it’s a well-crafted box, it generally contains something great.” Mark and Billy bid against each other, and Billy eventually wins the thing for $200. It turns out to be an antiquated polygraph machine. Both men are dismayed to learn that the other auction attendees are most excited about bidding on some unopened bags of manure.

Billy totes his haul to the car and finally peeks inside the military trunk. At first, it appears to be filled entirely with magazines, but under a few layers of decaying paper is another box — a box within a box! Nested inside this box is an antique optometry kit used by traveling eye doctors who went farm to farm administering exams. Unexpected? Yes. Interesting? Reasonably. Valuable? No. But Billy seems thrilled, and brags to the camera that it’s worth $350. As is usual with this kind of show, we never get to see whether Billy is able to resell the item for that price.

Despite the repugnant personalities and dismal quality of the goods in question, the found-money shows, with their blustering titles and cheap production values, can tell us something about the American economy. Television producers have taken a staple of no-nonsense markets — put a thing on a stage, allow people to view it with their own eyes, and force them to price it among themselves — and made it about surprise and obfuscation. The price that Billy pays for the optometry kit is a function not of the thing’s value (clearly — who would want one of those?) but of his confidence in his own luck. The auction, in this light, becomes a venue for blind speculation. What was once an occasion for pragmatic decision-making is now a lottery played by hopeful fools.

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is a writer living in New York.

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