I watched a rerun of History’s (cable’s newest reality television network) Pawn Stars the other night. (Season 2; Episode 5). In this episode a man named Rod brought in — what he “believed” to be — his 1960 Les Paul Custom guitar. Rod claimed to have gotten the guitar during the 1980s while touring with bands Toto and Triumph.
I got curious as to just who he was in relation to those two bands, so I hit the internet to investigate. What I found was not exactly a surprise, even if it was a disappointment.
The segment was completely staged. The guitar used in the show belonged to local Las Vegas vintage guitar store, Cowtown Guitars. The “customer” was played by an employee of that same store. And the “expert” brought in to appraise it was yet another Cowtown Guitar employee/manager. (Exposé credit goes to the guitarphiles in the Les Paul Forums.)
The customer named Rod in the Pawn Stars episode is actually Rod Miller of Cowtown Guitars in Las Vegas, where he is employed at as a luthier. How long he has worked there, I do not know. But I found evidence of his employment there fourteen months before the first episode of Pawn Stars ever aired. (See Exhibit A below.)
Jesse, the guitar expert in the episode that identified the guitar as being from 1972, can be found on Cowtown Guitar’s website as one of the store’s principal contacts.
With respect to the guitar, as of March 2011, it was still listed (as sold) on Cowtown Guitar’s website. Note the same identical buckle rash in the website photo as in the episode clip below. (See Exhibit B above.)
But it does not end there. I found another episode that used more Cowtown inventory to stage a segment. In season 2, episode 14, a “customer” trades an 18th century French double-barreled shotgun for a 1978 Gibson Les Paul. Although Rick’s expert appraises the shotgun for $10,000, the owner settles for “$4,000 worth of guitar.” The customer had previously stated he was looking for a high end guitar — and it just so happened Rick had one in the back, which he admitted to never putting on display.
So, if the guitar was a setup, that means the transaction was a setup. And by way of the transitive property, it means the gun and customer must also be setups. In other words, the entire segment was duplicitous and a complete fabrication. (My guess is that the gun was brought in by the gun expert, himself.)
Still do not believe the show is completely fake? If the misrepresentations of these two segments involving three mundane pieces were not enough to cast aspersions over the entire series for you, you are in luck; because there is more.
There is proof of fraud as early as season one, episode eight, entitled Time Machines.
Rick Harrison buys a 1950s Coca-Cola machine to refurbish. Rick Dale of Rick’s Restorations is enlisted to restore the machine. (You might also know Rick Dale from History’s American Restoration.) The finished result is beautiful, indeed. However, there is one small problem. It is not the same machine.
In fact, it is not even the same model. The machine on the left is identified as a Vendo 39. But the restored machine on the right is a Cavalier 79. The dimensions of the two machines are not even the same.
This was noticed by a Gulf Oil memorabilia collector who also claimed to recognize another piece on the show. Rick’s Big Bet (Season 1; Episode 10) had a Wayne gas pump that, again, was taken to Rick’s Restorations after purchase from the “customer.”
From a letter written to Rick Dale of Rick’s Restorations:
One more thing – that gas pump you restored for the Pawn Stars…funny, the man that sold that pump to you years ago is a friend of mine! (Small world, right?) Anyway, he was watching the show with his wife, and – in his words – he almost fell out of his chair when he saw that pump. His wife actually recognized it! I mean, what are the odds that a pump you bought got sold unrestored to someone, who just happened to bring it into that Pawn Shop – only for them to buy it and return it to you for restoration? They’d have to be astronomical!
[Updated Aug. 15, 2011]
I received an email a while back, which brought my attention to another likely fabricated segment: The 18th-Century flintlock from (again) the first season’s Time Machines episode (S01:E08). The customer–named simply Jim–is actually Jim Waters, a local Las Vegas comedian and actor, and “one of the founders of a Las Vegas Group called Film and Television artists of Las Vegas.” I was told Jim was hired for the scene, and that the acting agency he is with often receives submissions for actors to work on the show.
Here is the clip from the show. How is his acting?
In the episode entitled Aw Shucks! (S03:E05), a customer brings in a Native American flax bow to pawn. (Watch the clip.) During the pawn and appraisal, the flax bow has a blue beaded string with orange and pinks balls. However, when the customer comes back to pick up the flax bow, it has a red beaded string with yellow, white, purple, and orange balls.
Why they could not be consistent in the use of flax bows for the segment, I have no idea. Whatever the case, the flax bow is recognizably a prop and not part of a real transaction with an actual customer.
I also found reports that the autographed Lou Gehrig jersey from episode Flight of the Chum (Season 2; Episode 25) was actually owned by Xtreme Collectibles of Las Vegas. Previously, the jersey was listed on their website for $7,999; however, at the time this was written, the website was no longer there. (There are several internet archives of the jersey’s sale page (04/2008 – 04/2010). But unfortunately, due to some weird Yahoo image storage, the actual picture of the jersey was not archived as well.)
And it does not stop there. My perusing turned up at least circumstantial evidence of staged, scripted, and misrepresented segments involving the goods below:
- 1965 Shelby Cobra bodyframe (Season 2; episode 2)
- Hot air balloon (Season 2; episode 5)
- AYT XP 2200 speedboat (Season 2; episode 13)
- Collection of 1960s Pez dispensers (Season 2; episode 15)
- Schweizer 300 helicopter (Season 2; episode 19)
- 1930s Coca-Cola salesman cooler (Season 2; episode 26)
- Miami Heat 2006 NBA Championship ring (Season 2; episode 27)
Now many will defend the scripting and staging of reality shows, arguing that their principal purpose is to provide entertainment to an audience. And only a naive individual, who is familiar with the evolution of reality of television, would be shocked or vexed to learn that elements of a show are not real. It is all buyer beware. And while I agree with the generality of that notion, one must also consider a show’s topic and source.
This show airs on History — a channel that used to be known for high calibre documentaries. It had earned a veritable ethos over the years, and I had come to expect a certain level of integrity from the network. If the network wishes to air a show about a pawn shop in Las Vegas that spends most of its time buying sensational items that have little or nothing to do with real history, I would at least expect it to display a moderate amount of authenticity. Instead, we are presented with conspicuous deception under the pretense of fidelity.
Shame on you A&E. A disclaimer needs to be put at the beginning of these shows similar to Operation Repo’s since the level of “reality” is the same.