American Pickers' Mike Wolfe and vintage bicycles

Mike Wolfe of the History Channel's "American Pickers" is a junk archeologist even during his free time. Mostly, he feeds his jones for vintage bicycles. Over at Collectors Weekly, Ben Marks talked to Wolfe about old bikes, from Victorian high weelers to balloon-tire Schwinns:
 Articles Wp-Content Uploads 2010 11 Wolfeonhighwheelercropped1 The late ’80s, early ’90s, was the heyday of balloon-tire bike collecting. That’s when Schwinn went crazy. This was before the bankruptcy and everything, and they were trying to create a museum in Chicago. Schwinn had warehouses full of its turn-of-the-century bikes, but they had failed to keep any of their balloon-tire stuff. So they hired James Hurd as a curator for their museum, and he started selling off all these turn-of-the-century bikes to enable for them to acquire balloon-tire ones.

I’d find a bike for $50, sell it for $500, take that $500 and do it again.

Guys like me were out there looking for balloon-tire stuff to feed that flame. In return, we were getting early turn-of-the-century bikes from the Schwinn collection. They had a big sale in downtown Chicago. Wood-rim bikes were stacked like cordwood in these warehouses.

Around that time I restored a bike called a Sterling. It was a turn-of-the-century, shaft-drive, wood-rim bike with rear suspension–there was a shock absorber up by the seat stays. I found the bike in pretty rough shape, but I just went full on with it and redid all the nickel and disassembled the bike and found a pair of new-old-stock wood rims. That was my prized possession for many years.

"Mike Wolfe On His Love Affair With Vintage Bikes"


  1. “The late ’80s, early ’90s, was the heyday of balloon-tire bike collecting” — What century?

  2. While I can appreciate his love of bikes, after watching the show last night for the first time, I feel like I’m watching another Flip This House scenario. I have a hard time with the get rich quick ideology that fuels this type of behavior. The world was so much nicer when we could find things for ourselves before these 4th-parties started getting involved. Watching dickheads show up at a hospital or library book fair with boxes, notebooks, and dollies for hauling their treasure away only to sell it on later on eBay (or worse in their own stores), infuriates me.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made a farthing or two on eBay myself; selling shit I didn’t know the real value of to people who didn’t care (best was a Paul Westerberg print for $550) what they spent. But to make a lifestyle out scavenging and reselling is just ugly. And to make a tv show out of that lifestyle is even more repugnant. I’ll be watching it closely in the hopes of finding something else I can rail against.

    Watching Mike Wolfe work these old farmers is like watching a cigar chomping city slicker outwit a naive landowner only to rake in billions of their land. He’s good at it though.

    1. “Repugnant”? I think you need a reality check if this is the sort of thing you get all heated up about, or do you just go around in a rage all day?

      1. thank you anon, you called me out on my shit. Well done. What gave you the insight in to my condition? Was it the cursing? I’m sorry.

        I stand by my statement. This type of show is repellent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m interested, just a bit disgusted, with a touch of sadness and disappointment. Oh, and rage!

    2. I see what you’re saying there, and there have been a few episodes where I have felt sorry for the seller and felt like the show was mean spirited.

      On the other hand there are the greedy hoarders who let rare or valuable items get destroyed out in the elements rather than allow someone to rescue them just in the nick of time.

      1. it’s true. I hate to see good stuff like they’ve got go to ruin, and I’m truly envious of the pickers jobs. I just hate to see the cha-ching bit at the end implying the rooking they just gave the poor country rubes. And all to turn around and sell it to a hipster ad agency or something. Kind of disappointing.

  3. agreed – he’s a bit of a nut.
    anyone that is this focused on ANYthing has issues. he sells his way of life like an old time preacher

  4. It’s very generous to call him a “junk archeologist,” especially when every time he buys something they display what he paid and how much he sold it for. Is that common for archeologists? To restore and sell everything they find?

    I like to see what kinds of crap he can dig up but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s just slumming, looking for people he can rip off.

    1. As an archaeologist, I feel reasonably qualified to say that they are misusing the term in so many ways and it drives me nuts. They arent really aiming to learn about the past in a consistently methodical and ethical manner to the benefit of the public but rather to turn a buck. Using the term archaeologist to describe what they do just undermines what the discipline is now–they are more akin to 19th century antiquarians. I cant really begrudge them their business but it often seems like they are playing off the ignorance of these people who have a fortune in junk resting in their yards.

      1. If the seller (who knows what he paid for an item) is satisfied, there’s no problem. You have to know the right people to get top dollar for anything, and I haven’t seen an episode that made me cringe over the offers they make.

        Those old guys they buy from aren’t stupid. They’re making a profit, too. They also know that they’re going to be selling for a wholesale price. Just because something would be worth $3500 to the right person doesn’t mean they’ll ever get it. If they turn their $500 or whatever into $1500 they’re doing just fine, even if there’s $2000 more to squeeze out of an item from the right collector.

        The guys on the show get told no an awful lot. Sometimes no price would make you sell something you like owning.

        1. Ever see an Indiana Jones movie? The guy carries a whip and a gun into some ancient ruins and destroys absolutely EVERYTHING, save the most valuable item (which is handled with all the loving care of a football). Valuable in terms of dollars: if it isn’t golden and jewel-encrusted, it can archeologify its own damn self, even if it’s nothing but boring old text or a dusty skeleton with a crown of thorns or something stupid and worthless like that.

          Would that be justified? It’s not like anyone OWNED the thing, or the ruins.

          There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. It’s better to do nothing than do it wrong.

  5. More in line with makers than pickers is the History Channel’s new show American Restoration, brought to you by the same people who make Pawn Stars. American Restoration is less about finding junk and selling it for huge sums of money, but about restoring junk.

    1. Earlier this year there was a whole lot of bashing the “SyFy” channel for the wretched hive of scum and villainy it has become.

      In much the same way, I used to watch the History Channel a lot, back when it covered, you know, history.

  6. That’s a $10,500 USD bike. It was recently for sale from their shop on (can’t remember the name of it and am on a different computer). I’ve been in the business for a while. Never EVER trust a picker.

  7. i like when they picked up a japanese helmet and acted like they didnt know what it was got it for 20.00 or less put it in with other items and made a offer and it alone was worth about 300.00 or more that happen a couple times on there when they acted like they were dumb about the item and got it for less just a bunch of cross country guys looking for items to make a lot of money on and remember history cannel are paying them !

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