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Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Conversation With the "Auction Hunters"

Today’s “Stay Tuned” column is all about my newest TV addiction, “Auction Hunters.”

If you’ve never seen it, it’s a cool show where two guys—Allen Haff and Ton Jones—travel the country bidding on abandoned storage units. But they don’t get to scrounge around and see what’s inside. They can only stand outside and peer in with a flashlight for just a few minutes before the bidding starts. It’s only after they win a unit that we get to find out what’s inside AND how much they’ll get for it.

Tuesday, Spike TV continues the second season of the series, while the guys are currently in production on the third season. That third season will take them all over the country, including to Alaska. And there will also be a special live episode in 2012.

Recently, I had the chance to talk to Allen and Ton about the show. I got to hear how the two got started and just how competitive the business is. Plus, I got a very special invitation. Here’s a transcript of our conversation…

How did you all get started in the whole auction hunting business?

Allen: Well, this is sort of the end of the road for me. I started getting dragged around—my mom was an antique dealer, collector, still is—and used to drag me around to estate sales and yard sales in the summer time in Michigan. So I kind of got into it that way. I always knew the value of old stuff. And I watched a lot of “The Price Is Right.” And I studied the Sunday paper and I just really was kind of like a waste of brain power. But I’m really good at numbers and what things are worth. So in our business, when you resell, things are basically a third of what they go for new. I’ve just about sold everything you can sell. I’ve been an antique dealer, I owned an estate sale company and finally, I manned up and got into this business. And I’m telling you this is like digging on steroids. It’s way more fun than picking up one item at an estate sale and going and tripling your money or quadrupling your money. We pick up entire households and entire businesses and so, it’s hard work, but obviously, it’s gratifying. If you’ve seen the show, you know about that.

Ton: I started out doing vehicle auctions and repossession auctions and after about four years, five years, the auctioneer asked me why I never showed up to his storage auctions. And I told him I really had no interest and he said well you could make some money in it. So I followed him over to a storage auction and he wasn’t lying. I started making some really good money in it. And I kind of got hooked right away. It was a nice way to make a secondary income to help fund my wildlife rescue.

How is it that you guys ended up working together?

Allen: In our business basically, it’s, people kind of move around in packs. I’m a San Fernando Valley guy and Ton is an Antelope Valley guy. There’s a difference in mentality. It’s a different crowd. I was battling on my own and once in a while our paths would cross. I noticed early on we were just costing each other money. And then after getting to know Ton a little bit, I admit I judged him harshly. I judged a book by its cover. Then he opened his mouth and I realized wait a minute. This guy’s really smart, well-informed and I could tell he was a hard worker because he was buying a lot of the units I didn’t have the energy to do. So, I was like, if I work with this guy and we split a room, we’re saving our financial resources and we’re clearing them out in twice the time. And he knew more of the people to sell some of the tools and sporting goods equipment, and I knew more of the people in the antique world, so it was kind of cool. We each had our very clear line of responsibility and after you do it that way it’s really not fun to be in a storage unit by yourself uncovering something awesome and trying to give yourself a high five. And I told him, he used to send me cell phone pictures of hey, look what I just found. I would reply back, Stick it. No, I’d reply back, Why are you trying to rub my face in it? So, hey, basically it just got to the point where we had so much business together that it’s just cleaner to go 50-50 on everything—expenses, the whole deal. So it’s really cool that these shows started happening and ole Ton and I were pulled in and offered other opportunities and we just decided, hey, let’s do this one together.

One of the things that hooked me on the show is there’s this thrill of seeing what you guys are going to find in there. Is that what it’s about for you guys? The thrill? The adrenaline rush?

Allen: It’s addictive. It’s absolutely addictive. I can’t even tell you. We spend a lot of money to buy units and because Ton and I buy in volume, large amounts of units, and we’re lucky to have made money early on so we’re able to just put that right back into the units. It’s addictive, it’s compulsive, it’s a drug. And I have to tell you the look in my eye is probably not that different than someone who’s jonesing for a chemical. And Ton has to calm me down. He’s very logical about his approach to this business. And there’s probably no hiding the fact that for me it’s emotional. I find some items that maybe I’ve sold them before and I tell you, it just feels like I’m seeing an old friend I haven’t seen in a while and I know how to sell it because I’ve done it before, And those are the moments that get me excited. And you’ll see that with Ton once in a while with firearms. You’ll see a little boy on Christmas morning who got exactly what he dreamed of. And sometimes more than he dreamed of.

The episode I got to see last week was about Quadzilla [a suped up ATV], so I saw some eyes light up.

Allen: I’m going to tell you about Quadzilla. Thankfully, this is not on camera. I had this great idea I was going to fire it up and ride it in the storage unit. You didn’t see that on the show, did you? Some stupid idiot that had never operated the Quadzilla realized that if he pulled the gas and then kicked it into gear just the wrong way, that thing would flip and then the stupid idiot in question would fall and hurt himself. That happened. That happened. You didn’t catch me on that Quadzilla after that. I had had my Quadzilla fun. After that point I let Ton tear it up with it.

Ton, what’s the hook for you?

Ton: For me, it is the everyday treasure hunt. I cannot sit behind a desk on a 9-5 and I applaud those who can. If I stay stagnant too long, I get an itch to travel. An itch for a road trip. I want to go do something. I cannot be in one place for too long. I always have to be doing something. And if it’s chasing down storage units and treasure hunting, that’s two things I have a lot of fun doing. And having a partner in Allen on the road, it’s always fun. So when you actually get up in the morning and you’ve got to chase down these storage units as a treasure hunt and you’ve got a buddy to do it with and you have a lot of fun, I’m never going back to a regular job. I want to sit here, dig these units, go treasure hunting, have as much fun, goof off as much as possible and make a living doing it.

Ton, what would you say is the coolest thing you’ve ever found?

Ton: Texas, the Texas episode where we found a large amount of firearms was probably really cool. That’s a really tough question for me. Every time there’s a safe in a room, I get giddy—whether it’s full of something or not—just the fact that I get to break into it makes me happy. And that’s really cool for me. Every time we see a gun case, opening up is a really cool moment for me. And everybody says in this business they had this one great huge find that changed their life. I’ve had a lot of them that changed my life, but the one big one I’m still on the hunt for. That’s what keeps me going every day. So it’s really hard to say which one’s the best. They’re all pretty cool.

Allen, what are the cool things that really light your eyes up?

Allen: That is always a hard question and I even had a second to think about it. But the Texas situation was really amazing. Again, this is the thing about the limits of television. We bought a lot of those pods, like 11 containers. But what’s really cool is we had a really good feeling about the ones early on. And in those units, we had every single thing Ton and I ever wanted to find. And I’m not exaggerating. They didn’t go into it on the show, because probably people on Spike don’t care, but the fact is we probably had a couple thousand dollars of Hummel figurines that I got excited about because I made money on those. We had lead crystal, which they did show a little bit of, but they didn’t show our research that we did on the Internet finding that the minimum those glasses go for is $75, can be $125 a piece. We had antique furniture that we really didn’t focus too much on with the cameras rolling, but we made beautiful money on. So sometimes it looks like we made 20, 25 grand in these situations. But the fact is, I think Ton and I made a lot more than that. We still haven’t sold everything, and there’s a point in that show where I’m on my knees, and we open this box, and the sweet release is not only do we have the guns, we have more guns than we would’ve imagined. The guy was a gun collector and we had a, I can remember them very closely. We had the Colt Python, which is such a bad gun. That’s a gun a guy like me should never have in his hand in the first place, and would never have had in his hand. But it is never going to leave our arsenal. We basically were laughing uncontrollably and I couldn’t even believe how good those units were. It’s days like that that really make the rest of those days which are generably miserable, worth it. So that’s kind of the cool thing. When you see us having that moment, the reason why we’re celebrating on the show all the time is because we’re showing you guys those great exciting moments. But we’re not showing you the time when we don’t have anything to high five about. And I have to say there’s a lot of those. 80 percent of the units we buy are just okay. We don’t lose money because we’re good at this but we don’t get rich. We usually double our money or sell. And that’s not very good TV, so you’re going to see the stuff that stands out. We shoot 20 units to have one show.

So what can you guys tell me about this upcoming season? I know you guys are going to some really cool places.

Allen: I can’t believe that they’re paying us to do this. I can’t believe it. I mean, to go to Alaska, that’s the finest thing in the world. I’ve been to Alaska a few times. I have bought and sold antiques in Alaska before but it was sort of like a tourist thing. Not actually going in there with a mission like this. I can’t wait. What’s cooler than going to a place like Alaska, which really is its own country. We’re so lucky that we’ve got the American flag flying over there. The resources are incredible. The people are completely different. Obviously a lot of the people actually come from all over. But even still you feel like to me, it looks like something that should be in a George Lucas film up there. The clear streams where you can see the salmon just swimming there. You literally see the American bald eagle in the trees. And a lot of the folks that went chasing gold or oil in Alaska, they’re cowboys like us. So really this is going west, young man. It’s really going northwest up to Alaska. That’s kind of our final frontier in America, isn’t it? So we’re excited. We’ve got that pioneer spirit. We want to go up there and tear it up. And I can promise you this. I’m going to find the coolest souvenir in the world and bring it home from Alaska. And it’s probably going to be—I don’t know, Ton, what are we going to find up there?—maybe some cool knives or some kind of whaling thing or maybe like an Eskimo, old—I don’t even care man. Just give me something to remember my time because that’s what it’s all about. We don’t go to souvenir stands. We go to storage units.

Is this really as cutthroat and competitive as it appears on TV?

Allen: It’s worse. I’m not kidding. It’s worse because you’re seeing PG-13. I’ve been to auctions against some of the same old guys and it gets very personal. If I take a room, or outbid you on a room, I’m taking money out of your mouth. And if I do that six times in a row, six days in a row, six weeks in a row, you really have enemies in this business. Ton and I, the great thing about this show is that we’re floating around to a lot of new different locations. So we really don’t have time to aggravate people and have them on our tails. By the time they realize how serious we are and that they need to run us out of the business or cost us money, the auction’s over. So that’s what’s great. We have a reset button. Just because people see the show, they don’t really know what we’re going to do to them because we mix it up in real life. I’m not exaggerating that this is a really cutthroat business and it’s bigger than money for a lot of people that we know. There are some nasty, nasty people in the San Fernando Valley who if they just go out and cost you money—hundreds of thousands of dollars all day long—and they don’t even get a unit, they feel like they’ve done something. And it is one of those businesses where literally, I’m not kidding, there are gangs of bidders who will be out to get you. And I came up and still made money with that kind of temperament and that kind of atmosphere. And so did Ton out there in the Antelope Valley. I think real life can be much nicer but also a lot nastier depending on where you are. But the more money people make, the meaner they get because the more serious this business is to them. The guys coming out just for fun or to try it out or this is their first auction, or they’ve been at it for a couple of months, those guys are lovely. They’re never going to be a problem. But it’s the pros. Ton and I go to an auction in the San Fernando Valley, which is Mecca, because you’ve got the Hollywood studios, the rich movie stars, a lot of affluence, and a lot of people coming and going. Everybody’s from somewhere and they’re on there way somewhere in the Valley, so there’s a lot of units. It is, I’m telling you, it’s a bloodbath. What can I compare that to, Ton? The DMZ? What about those provinces overseas? I don’t want to get carried away. It is really, really…

Ton: It’s a brutal battle.

Allen: It really is. You know what? There are nice towns where everybody’s lovely to each other. But when it’s time to start bidding, and it’s me or you and only one guy gets to put his lock on it? It is that serious. And if you know how much money’s in this business, you would understand why it’s so serious. There’s a lot at stake. So that’s going to bring out a lot of competitive nature in people. I like people who are nice. I am nice at auctions. I’m probably nicer in real life than the way they cut it up on the show. But the only person I care about is riding along in that truck right next to me. Those guys, I don’t care how nice they are and how nice I am to them, those guys honestly just want what I want and only one person gets to put their lock on it. Ton actually says, hey, take it down a notch, because I’m cutthroat when that auction starts. It’s actually kind of funny. You’d think it would go the other way, but no. When that auction starts the bids, it’s very, like I said, the stakes are high. And I don’t have friends. The only friend I’ve got is that big guy right next to me. And as long as he likes me at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve done my job and I’ve got us the best stuff we can get.

Sometimes, Allen, it’s nice to have some muscle next to you.

Allen: It’s better to have a little muscle and not need it than to need a little muscle and not have it, I find. But I would just like to point out once and for all that I myself am 6’3”, 205 pounds, of some muscle. And even though you might think that Ton would attract a double team, I think I probably catch more punches in the face than he does. I just want to point that out that the little guy with the big mouth in real life is actually bigger than 90 percent of the bidders out there. Standing next to Ton is very slimming. I love it. Seriously, though, he attracts the attention and we know that so he’s going to be the lightning rod or the shield. And so while they’re worried about Ton, I’m sneaking around and swiping the room on them. And that’s our bit. That’s our thing. Do we get in fights in real life? We try to avoid it. Have I had to stand up for myself in situations that got physical? Of course, absolutely. And thank God we don’t put that on the show because that’s not the happy part of the business. That’s the ugly part of the business. And our show is about two guys who are buddies, who want to do well and who really like old stuff. And that’s why I think we’ve gotten the fans that we’ve gotten and we’re attracting a different crowd. And some of those other reality shows that want to concentrate on the negative and ugly aspects of this business. For us, those aren’t there. I don’t whitewash those. But I’m happy that the producers decided not to focus on that as much.

This upcoming live episode is going to be fun guys. I can’t wait.

Ton: [?]

Allen: Yeah, why don’t you come out to LA and you can watch us do it live?

Yeah, I’ll just see if I can get the newspaper to swing the budget for that one. I’ve got some time to work on it.

Allen: I tell you what. You get the newspaper to play ball and we’ll get you a ride in the big white truck. How about that?


Allen: Yeah, and I’ll even share my flashlight with you.


Allen: [Laughing]

Ton, Allen did most of the talking so I’m going to let you have the last word. Say whatever you want.

Ton: Good morning. [Laughs] No, this is a lot of fun and this upcoming season’s going to be awesome. The road trip alone is what I live for. Any day you can get up and have another road trip is another day you’re having fun. I mean, the more of this world I can see, the happier I’m going to be when I die. So I’ve got a lot of stuff to see.

You guys are awesome. I’ll let you get back to it. Thank you so much for your time. These episodes are new to me, but I can’t wait for the new season to start to see what else you guys uncover.

New episodes of "Auction Hunters" begin airing Tuesday, July 19th at 10 p.m. on Spike TV.

Photo Credit: Spike TV