Iowan and “American Pickers” star Mike Wolfe says he’s starting 2023 by “sharing the love” — his love of vintage motorcycles, that is.
Wolfe, a premiere collector of historic bikes, is selling more than 60 pieces, nearly half of his private collection, during the world’s largest motorcycle auction scheduled for Jan. 24-28 in Las Vegas.
“All of these bikes have had a special place in my heart and a lot of incredible moments finding them that I will never forget,” Wolfe wrote on Instagram announcing the sale.
“But I understand that their journey doesn’t end with me. I’m excited about the next chapter for these motorcycles and the new journey they will be going on.”
Wolfe, who will appear at the auction, has sold bikes on and off over the years, but never at this scale. “It’s just time,” he said during a phone interview from his motorcycle warehouse in Tennessee, adding that reducing his collection will allow him to focus on acquiring his favorite pieces: motorcycles built before 1920.
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“Sometimes I feel like I’m in the moving business. I’m moving this over here, so I can put that over there,” he said. “I’m going to be 60 in a few years, and I’m starting to think about: What do I want my collection to be?
“What I’m going through right now is kind of what a lot of people that I film with are going through,” he added. “We get a call like, ‘Hey, I need to start downsizing. I need to start focusing. I need to start really appreciating the things that I truly, truly love.’ And that’s what I’m doing.”
Amassed over decades of “picking” — what fans of his mega-hit reality show call Wolfe’s trademark backroads antique hunting — this collection features “some of the world’s rarest and most highly sought-after motorcycles,” including models of Harley-Davidsons and Indians that are “legends” within the collecting community, according to Mecum Auctions, the firm handling the sale.
Wolfe is “a knowledgeable collector. For the most part, I think he’s a nuts-and-bolts guy; he wants to know what makes a machine tick,” Greg Arnold, director of the motorcycle division at Mecum, said in a video previewing the sale. “But he’s also intensely interested in its history, who owned it, when and why.”
“Every motorcycle in his collection, he picked on purpose. It wasn’t just a random acquisition. He seeks these motorcycles out.”
‘The alleys were safe places’: How a difficult childhood led to ‘picking’
The history of objects — motorcycles and otherwise — has fascinated Wolfe since he was a thin, lanky, poor kid in Bettendorf, Iowa.
Mercilessly picked on most of his childhood, Wolfe previously told the Register he started cutting through yards and alleys on his way to and from school to avoid being jumped by bullies.
“The alleys were safe places for me, and that’s where the garbage was, too,” Wolfe said. “And so the garbage became my toys and they became part of my imagination and they became part of who I was.”
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Along the way, he made friends with the old men whose garages overflowed with rusty junk, spending hours chatting with them about bygone days. One day, he stumbled onto a discarded bicycle — a luxury his mother could never afford — and his love for anything on two wheels was born.
In his early 20s, he worked in a warehouse building bikes before being promoted to the sales floor. His garbage collecting officially became “picking,” and he kept it up because, he said, “It’s hard to sell a bicycle in January in Iowa.” Antique motorcycles soon became one of his main collecting focuses.
Before the internet, Wolfe picked in the only way he knew how — by knocking on farm doors. Once again, he found himself spending hours talking to old men about their lives and the stuff they’d gathered along the way.
Sometimes, all that reminiscing yielded nothing.
But sometimes, he found a gem.
Motorcycles will be sold ‘as found’
As a practice, Wolfe never cleans or restores his bikes, save for a bit of rewiring and mechanics to get engines road-ready again. He’s even been known to leave cobwebs on spokes or a bit of animal poop on rims.
So, appropriately, Wolfe’s lot is being sold “as found,” meaning the bikes will bear the rust, dirt and scrapes of whatever farm, corn crib, attic or cellar he sifted through to find them.
“I’ve always celebrated the fact of something being ‘as found’ because I’ve wanted to continue its journey with me the same way I found it,” he said. “I feel connected to it, if I leave it ‘as found.’”
An “as found” bike is “telling you its story as you’re looking at it,” he added. “Now, if I was to clean this thing, or take it apart and restore it, it would immediately mean not much to me at all because then you start looking at the restoration and you stop looking at the history of the bike.”
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Outside of the auction, Wolfe’s plate remains full. The newest 30-episode season of “American Pickers” has just premiered on the History Channel and he’s already started filming next season. In fact, he’ll be driving to Vegas directly from a shoot in California.
Schedule permitting, he tries to get back to Iowa one week a month, he said. Recently, he purchased two more buildings in LeClaire — home to his original Antique Archaeology store — and plans to rent them out under his Two Lanes Guest House bed-and-breakfasts brand.
But don’t worry, Wolfe has no plans to slow down — on TV, in life or with motorcycles.
“I just bought three bikes last week,” he said with a laugh.
Mike Wolfe motorcycle sale highlights:
- Multiple 1930s-’40s Indian Fours
- 1936-’37 Harley-Davidson Knuckleheads
- 1909 Yale Single
- 1919 Indian Military Twin in historic olive drab
- 1921 Harley-Davidson JD with sidecar
- 1914 Harley Davidson racing twin with intact racing engine
- 1937 Harley Davidson UL, the first year for the U series
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How to join the sale
32nd Annual Mecum Las Vegas Vintage & Antique Motorcycle AuctionSouth Point Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, Jan. 24-28. Motorcycle auctions beginning at 10 a.m.
Admission is $20 in advance or $30 at the door, per person, per day.Options for in-person, telephone and internet bidding start at $100. Learn more at mecum.com.