During the 2009 recession, History Channel found an unlikely hit in Pawn Stars, the unscripted series in which everyday people found life-changing treasures in their attic and turned them into cash at a time when money was tight.
The series has since gone on to become a massive hit. More than 700 episodes have been commissioned, with repeats airing across History, Lifetime, A&E and Netflix. Several others in the so-called transactional TV genre launched around the same time, series like Shark Tank, American Pickers, Storage Wars, American Restoration and others. A spinoff of the successful franchise that started it all, Pawn Stars Do America, will launch Nov. 9 on History.
Now, Brent Montgomery — who gave birth to transactional TV with the creation of Pawn Stars — is the driving force behind a rebirth in the genre as the U.S. economy finds itself in familiar territory as when the Las Vegas-set show originally bowed. Montgomery, via his groundbreaking incubator at Wheelhouse, has seen interest in the genre blossom again and has set up a number of new shows in the space.
First up in the wave of “Hidden Treasures 2.0” programming is King of Collectibles, a series featuring industry leader Ken Goldin showcasing some of pop culture’s most coveted items including a high-grade Mickey Mantle rookie card, a game-used Jackie Robinson bat, game-worn jerseys from Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan and even Prince’s actual outfit from Purple Rain. The series counts Peyton Manning as an exec producer and features Goldin investor and noted collector Logan Paul, among others.
History Channel is also leaning hard into the space with the order for Secret Restoration, a series set in New England where the nation’s master craftsmen and women restore America’s treasures, working in secret for clients who wish to surprise loved ones with like-new cherished items. The cabler is also developing Restore This, a show based on a U.K. format in which tradesmen vie for jobs restoring vintage items that can be worth a fortune.
Montgomery is also in the process of shopping a series built around Rally, a platform that affords everyday people the opportunity to own a percentage of the most prized collectibles including a first edition of Harry Potter, vintage cars, the ultra-rare Honus Wagner baseball card and a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man No. 1.
“It’s a feeling of déjà vu compared with 2009 when the economy was going down the toilet. Pawn Stars launched a genre,” Montgomery tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re fortunate because of Pawn Stars and the other shows we’ve done to get the first call from networks, streamers or talent or partners like Connor Schell on Goldin’s show. There’s been more inbound interest for our development team, and we’ve brought on a casting team to help us focus on this genre.”
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The quarantine period of the COVID-19 pandemic saw interest in collecting everything from watches, toys, sneakers, rare whiskey, wines, art and sports cards explode. For the first five months of 2020, auction house Sotheby’s saw online sales top the $100 million mark for the first time. Online art sales at the three leading auction houses — Phillips, Sotheby’s and Christie’s — rose 474.8 percent in the first half of 2020 versus the same period a year prior. An October 2020 Credit Suisse report found that the estimated value of collectibles owned by private individuals globally was a whopping $1.2 trillion. And, thanks to professional grading and authenticating companies like PSA, new markets have emerged as interest in, for instance, unopened copies of VHS cassettes and original Nintendo games explodes. A Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps rookie card, considered one of the holy grails of the hobby and examples of which will be featured on both the Goldin and Rally shows, sold in August for a record $12.6 million.
“My first real business was a baseball card business when I was in the eighth grade and through high school. I was 13 and competing against 40-year-olds at baseball card shows. That’s where my hunger to be an entrepreneur stemmed from,” Montgomery says. “I didn’t realize how comparable it was to the stock market. This time around, though, it’s professionalized. It’s a real business; there are people making real livings selling sports cards and people want to see that.”
One of Montgomery’s Wheelhouse investors found Rally, and the next thing the veteran unscripted exec knew, he was holding a Babe Ruth bat and later listening to Goldin recall the time when he bought a similar bat from the Yankee great’s estate. “I said, ‘These are both shows.’ Ken is made for TV,” says Montgomery, who is an investor in both Goldin and Rally.
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Rally co-founder Rob Petrozzo has been a regular at Montgomery’s Wheelhouse events. The company has supplied such one-of-a-kind items as the former Staples Center basketball floor on which Bryant last played for the L.A. Lakers that have been known to attract everyone from Wheelhouse partner Jimmy Kimmel to Alex Rodriguez and John Stamos. The invitation-only events connect investors like Petrozzo, athletes and celebrities to executives with greenlight power. It helps that Montgomery — who made more than $360 million when he sold his baseball-inspired production company Leftfield Entertainment to ITV in 2015 — is there to light the path.
“Stocks don’t have a heartbeat. The pitch for our business is that it’s a stock market for collectibles; we’ve got museum quality stuff that we split into shares,” Petrozzo says. “We saw it as a bigger opportunity to tell stories and Brent saw that.”
In success, the untitled Rally show will tell the story behind assets like the house featured in The Godfather, rare baseball and basketball cards, early manuscripts for The Lord of the Rings and more as the New York-based company finds experts to verify and validate them and ultimately turn them into stock with an IPO.
“Wheelhouse took what Pawn Stars set up and brought it to the next level. You see these items, get the stories, the quest to find it, find experts in those areas, and then you can now leave with a piece of it in your portfolio,” Petrozzo says.
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History Channel head of programming Eli Lehrer has known Montgomery since the early aughts, when he was an exec at Bravo buying female-leaning docuseries. The duo has remained in contact over the years, and Montgomery turned to Lehrer — who was behind the Pawn Stars touring spinoff — with the idea for a restoration show with a twist that would eventually become Secret Restoration. The series, which builds on History and Montgomery’s own American Restoration, will be paired on the schedule with Pawn Stars Do America, as Lehrer feels the shows share the same DNA.
“American Restoration was a great format and satisfying show, and we hadn’t been in the restoration space for a number of years,” says Lehrer, who grew up collecting baseball cards and enjoys viewing watch collectible videos on YouTube. “When Brent brought us the idea for Secret Restoration, it felt like a fresh and interesting way to get back into a space we already knew was resonating for our audience.”
After airing nearly 600 episodes over 20 seasons, Pawn Stars remains a hugely important show for History, where it’s been among the cabler’s highest-rated shows for more than a decade. Repeats, it’s worth noting, have launched the series into Netflix’s top 10 acquired programs.
“There is a committed audience there week after week, year after year,” Lehrer says. “There is a renewed interest in collectibles and after two years of COVID, Rick Harrison wanted to hit the road and see what kind of stuff people, after two years stuck in their houses, had found in their attics.”
Montgomery, for his part, still values the lessons he learned from Pawn Stars and has utilized that knowledge to help build Wheelhouse. When Pawn Stars launched in 2009, for example, History relied on Montgomery and his Leftfield banner to cast the show and discover the items featured on it. Now, Montgomery has created Wheelhouse’s own casting department. Of those six staffers, half focus specifically on sports cards, sneakers and restoration. For a network like History, the Wheelhouse casting department will look for items related to the cable network’s IP. “It’s all brand-friendly,” Montgomery enthuses. “As more streamers have to do advertising, these are ad-friendly programs.”
Looking forward, Montgomery cites Goldin’s company as the first example of what he calls the “Wheelhouse effect,” in which the production company serves as not only an investor but a partner in its growth as new revenue streams can be found in original programming.
“I’m excited! A lot of people don’t get the difference between baseball cards and art and how one card can be worth that much money,” Montgomery says. “We want to tell stories that explain it and broaden out interests that are thought of as subcultures. Nobody questions the stock market and publicly held companies, but this is more fun!”