Hit Show ‘Strange Inheritance’ Brings the Backstory to Family Heirlooms

By Greg Bates

Jamie Colby loves to tell people’s stories.

Fox Business Network’s hit TV show Strange Inheritance has allowed Colby, who is the host, to tell some amazing, down-to-earth, real-life stories about some extraordinary discoveries and hand-me-down items.

The show premiered on Jan. 26, 2015, and twice a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays, the network airs new episodes. Season 1, with its 26 episodes, has featured everything from cousins who find their great-grandfather’s collection of 1910 “E98 series” baseball cards in the attic after his passing, to the great-great-grandson of George Pickett, who inherits the famous Confederate general’s artifacts and then gets swindled out of the valuable family heirlooms.

“These are stories about regular families and something unexpected lands in their lap and it lurches a life in a direction they never anticipated,” said Brian Gaffney, the show’s executive producer.

It’s the latest TV show that has latched onto American viewers’ desire to preserve and collect antiques.

Jamie Colby, right, does extensive interviews with the people involved behind the heirlooms. The show isn’t all about the surprise cash value, but the stories behind the people and the items.

Jamie Colby, right, does extensive interviews with the people involved behind the heirlooms. The show isn’t all about the surprise cash value, but the stories behind the people and the items.

“What makes the show different from an Antiques Roadshow or American Pickers or Storage Wars is there was an incredible history to the item, to the person who collected it. Oftentimes a dilemma with what the heir should do with it,” Colby said. So each episode kind of fell into this incredible ride of twists and turns and surprises. Sometimes it was a very happy ending, sometimes it was, ‘Oh, it’s not worth what we thought it was worth.’ But in any event, we learned with them very often more about (the items) and more about their family than they would have otherwise.”

Fox Business Network’s story development team proactively tracked down the unique stories, reaching out to auction houses and doing a little old-fashioned investigative journalism, and Gaffney and his co-workers sorted through leads to figure out which ideas would make the cut.

When the show’s contents were finalized, Colby and a production crew hit the road for eight months in 2014. The crew visited the homes of the people who acquired the hand-me-down items and also traveled to story-relevant sights, such as Gettysburg National Military Park.

“All of the stories had to have a number of ingredients to really work,” Colby said. “The show is a half an hour episode on one family, so you can’t just have something cool that they inherited and not a really good story to go along with it.”

Behind the scenes
Before heading to each destination, Colby conducted extensive research on the subjects she would be reporting on. Colby sat down with the inheritance recipients and had long, candid conversations. The host found out early on in the season that some people where a little reluctant to share too much information.

The Texas map shown here in a clip from Season 1 of ‘Strange Inheritance’ turned out to be a one of the first maps of Texas. The relic was in a grandparents’ house and often played with growing up. Photos courtesy of Fox Business Channel.

The Texas map shown here in a clip from Season 1 of ‘Strange Inheritance’ turned out to be a one of the first maps of Texas. The relic was in a grandparents’ house and often played with growing up. Photos courtesy of Fox Business Channel.

“When you interview anyone about these really intensely personal stories, it’s kind of in a range of people who would be wary about talking to a stranger about their family stuff,” Gaffney said. “Most of the benefactors who passed on these things were people with some kind of vision, whether it would be the bug museum or the movie theatre he wanted to keep alive. Once we explained what the show was about and showed that we were genuinely interested in their family story, they opened up. We were very pleased.”

Colby really enjoyed sitting down with the family members to unleash their story and make it come alive for the TV viewers.

“I think you truly could not have faked the feelings that myself and my crew grew to have for all of these families,” Colby said. “Sometimes I had to pinch myself that they were as real and as nice and as open as they were. Sitting at someone’s kitchen table when they’ve known you five minutes and having them pour out their heart, which is often what happened, or tell you about two generations ago how a family came here and started a business and hard times. Everyone was so honest with us and we knew so much going in because we had really done our homework as a team that they did trust us enough to share the most interesting and most intimate details. That made the stories fascinating.”

During the first season, Colby and Gaffney were pretty surprised by some of the stories that were uncovered. None of the stories were the same. The variety of the episodes is one of the most gratifying parts during production for Gaffney.

One of the most interesting stories for Gaffney was the find of some valuable cardboard.

“I love, love, love the family that is cleaning out grandpa’s house, and he was a grocer, and they find 700 uncirculated 1910 baseball cards,” Gaffney said. “They turn out to be worth millions and millions of dollars. This sense of throwing stuff out of the house that’s 100 years old. In this corner, there’s this thing that’s been saved for 100 years and no one really paid attention to it and it turns out to be the cards. It was cards that as a grocer had been delivered to him and were supposed to be handed out to the kids who were getting their candy with the little old baseball cards. He had some left over and he just kept them there for 100 years.”

The story garnered national attention when the treasures were discovered in Defiance, Ohio, in 2012. The “E98 series” is a 30-card set that features 17 Hall of Famers, including Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young and Connie Mack. In hobby circles, this was known as the Black Swamp Find.

Colby also raves about the opportunity to tell the story about the baseball cards, which happened to be featured in the premiere episode of Strange Inheritance.
At an auction run by Heritage Auctions in August 2012, 37 of the cards sold for $566,132. A Gem Mint 10 Wagner card from the set sold individually for $239,000.

The Black Swamp Find of E98 baseball cards was featured on one of the first episodes of ‘Strange Inheritance’ and remains one of the favorite stories from the show’s producers.

The Black Swamp Find of E98 baseball cards was featured on one of the first episodes of ‘Strange Inheritance’ and remains one of the favorite stories from the show’s producers.

“That so cool that the cards were in the condition that they were and that there were eight sets of them,” Colby said. “If they would have sold them all at the same time, they would have crashed – the experts at Heritage told us – the whole baseball card market. That’s a pretty significant find.”

Another episode that really sparked Colby’s interest was the ancestor of George Pickett. The ex-Civil War general who is synonymous for his failed charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg had artifacts handed down from generation to generation. Items included Pickett’s kepi he wore during his fateful charge against the Union Army and his personal, handwritten map from the war’s most famous battle.

“If you see that episode, you can really feel the emotion of what went on,” Colby said. “Unfortunately, because Pickett’s Charge was known as a negative, the heir of his belongings, the sleeve, the guns, many of his things that are in the Civil War museum right now, he was embarrassed he was a fourth-generation Pickett. He didn’t even go by the name George Pickett. He used his middle name, Ed.”

Ed Pickett didn’t realize his great-great-grandfather’s relics were worth so much money, and when an appraiser visited his house in 1995 and offered him $87,500 for a number of items that were supposedly going to be displayed in a new Civil War museum in Harrisburg, Pa., Pickett took the cash. A couple years later, Pickett found out the items were sold for 10 times what he was paid and the appraiser he once had in his home, who turned out to be a relic dealer, had stolen some original photographs of his great-great-grandfather.

Pickett ended up suing the appraiser, who had also scammed other people out of Civil War memorabilia. The appraiser, Russ Pritchard III, was sentenced to jail time and ordered to pay restitution. However, Pickett has only seen a small portion of the $800,000 he was awarded in civil and criminal court. The battle for Pickett’s items is still ongoing.

Yet another story that Gaffney found amazing was about a man who as a kid used to play in his grandfather’s house. He would use an old map and play cowboys and Indians. Once his grandfather died, the man, while filing through the attic, found a bunch of maps.

“God knows how it never ended up getting crayon on it or being cut up as a school collage or something,” Gaffney said. “He loved it because it was the state of Texas, but it didn’t look like Texas and the Indian territory and this sort of thing. Years and years later, he rediscovers it when his grandparents die and they sort of split up the boxes from the attic.

“There’s sort of an appraisal fair in town and he brings it in and those guys go, ‘Oh, my God. This is like the first map of Texas.’ It was worth hundreds of thousands. It’s just these great stories of people’s lives.”

The show and its variety of compelling stories has attracted a strong and dedicated viewership.

“There’s a core audience of people who love history; there’s an audience of people who love the auction side, the adrenalin and the excitement and some episodes have that,” Colby said. “From what I understand, it’s also generating a young audience. So there’s probably some people who won’t know first-hand history or have focused their lives or careers on it, but are just getting a kick out of seeing this stuff.

“It’s come out of the gate really strong. It’s the highest-rated premium of any show on the business network, and it’s continued to keep up its audience.”

Season 2 on the way
Strange Inheritance recently got renewed for Season 2. Colby and the production crew will be hitting the road soon to work on new stories.

“My bags are packed and I’m ready to go,” Colby said.

Unlike Season 1, for the second season, Strange Inheritance is encouraging viewer submissions. The producers will file through the stories and pick the best ideas.

Viewers are encouraged to e-mail Colby directly – jamie@strangeinheritance.com – or go to the show’s website at www.strangeinheritance.com to fill out a form.
Colby also asks that people follow her on Twitter and Instagram –
@JamieColbyTV – for updates and photos when she’s out in the field recording the shows.

Greg Bates if a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at gregabates@gmail.com.

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