Seven Questions for Mark Hall-Patton, ‘Pawn Stars’ Expert

Photo by Anthony Mair

Photo by Anthony Mair

A life-size cardboard cutout of Mark Hall-Patton greets visitors in the lobby of the Clark County Museum on Boulder Highway in Henderson—a vigilant stand-in for photos when Hall-Patton is not there and an ever-present symbol of celebrity rarely achieved by a museum administrator. History Channel?s Pawn Stars, seen in more than 150 countries and dubbed into more than 30 languages, has made a star of Hall-Patton, something he could not have envisioned when he was first asked by Downtown?s Gold & Silver Pawn Shop to evaluate an item in February 2009. Since then he has appeared in more than 100 episodes, and the 35-year museum administrator, a Valley resident since 1993, can?t go many places without being recognized.

How has Pawn Stars affected your life?

It?s turned it upside down. A museum director is about the most anonymous job you can have. Your face isn?t out there; you?re the guy in the back room. You run into this oddity of celebrity. It?s increased museum attendance 66 percent in less than three years—it?s wonderful, it?s doing exactly what we want. But on a personal basis, it means that I can?t speak to people?s IQ on the freeway if somebody cuts me off. ? I was in the Sacramento airport and a TSA agent pulled me around the metal detector and gave me a pat-down because he wanted to talk about the show. I?ll talk to you—you don?t have to touch me there, you know, that?s OK! You don?t understand how much you like anonymity until you don?t have it anymore.

Do you have a standard line you use when you?re recognized?

?Have you been to the Clark County Museum? If not, you?ve got to come see us.? We?ve got 30 acres, 20 restored buildings, a ghost town, walking trails and nature areas. At two bucks a head, it?s the best bargain in the Valley. The nicest thing about it, we don?t have any functioning slot machines here, so you actually save money when you come out and see us.

You?re Pawn Stars? go-to guy for artifacts. How do you seem to know everything?

You can?t know all these things. You have to research. They?ll send me a picture. I?ve got 20,000 books at home; I have 30,000-40,000 books here at the museum. Yes, I use Google and online resources. I?ve been in the field long enough to have friends in museums all over the U.S. I?ll call them up and ask what they know about this.

Any item that has come close to stumping you?

When I did the Soviet ICBN launch keys: There are only five pairs of those in the U.S., and the Soviets weren?t really big on telling us how they were going to destroy the U.S. This didn?t make the front page of Pravda. I was able to track down an image of the city flag for the town of Leninsk, which is now Baikonur. And the city flag for Leninsk used the image of the launch key as a central device on the flag. OK, now I can tie that back in with the rocketry. I understand enough about their electronics to know why they?d be using titanium and not steel. So I was then able to start putting pieces together.

What?s a public collection?s role in the life of the community?

We are the memory. We are the place you can find out why you exist. If you want to understand why we put 2 million people in the middle of the desert, you come here and you can learn that. … I love collectors; I am a collector; I?m not saying anything bad about them, but they will eventually go away. We will not. We are the one spot where this information is going to be held in perpetuity.

Second, we are the place that gives people coming into the area some sense of the area. What is it about this place that makes it a community? ? You take in what it is that you personally want. You look at one of the houses and you see something that your grandmother had, and you make a connection with that, but your 8-year-old daughter who?s walking through with you sees something else, and she makes a connection. And then you can make a connection across those generations, but you?re also making a connection throughout the culture of the community.

What item came into the museum that caused your pulse to quicken?

It was a scrapbook from the Kit Kat Club, a gay club in North Las Vegas dating from 1942. There are no photographs from the Kit Kat Club, and this guy comes in with a scrapbook from it with photographs of some of the entertainers and a couple of the interiors. These don?t exist anywhere; it was a wonderful find.

What do you personally collect?

I collect anything to do with bridges and bridge engineering—7,000 books, photographs, 10,000 postcards, bridge plans, postmarks from towns named for bridges, stamps with bridges on them and nameplates off of bridges, much to my wife?s dismay. I also have about 97 fraternal swords and 20-30 military swords. Law-enforcement badges and badges for weird reasons—does the parcel room need a badge? Does the ticket-taker need a badge?

What?s the production schedule like for Pawn Stars?

I get a call or email about once a week, when they decide they?re interested in an item, and we schedule it with everybody involved. I?m sort of the cleanup historian—I do everything for them. So far they haven?t stumped me. I do it on camera for the first time. They don?t know what I?m going to say. They don?t know whether I?m going to say it?s real or not. What I say is based on my own research. They want that spontaneity.

Viewers may have noticed you don?t provide values for the items you authenticate. Why not?

I don?t do numbers. I don?t sell this stuff, so I don?t keep up with what it?s selling for on the open market. I don?t care. In the history museum field, we deal with donations. The value comes in whether it can tell the story that it needs to tell and whether it?s part of the story that your institution is in business to tell.

Any items whose authenticity you debunked?

One of the most interesting fakes was one Rick [Harrison] bought before I came in. It was [purportedly a turn-of-the-century] Sioux Indian beaded infant?s vest, and it looked good. The colors were right, the types of beads were right. You start looking at the details, though, and the aging wasn?t consistent, the beading was with nylon and not cotton or sinew. There were a number of little things, but it really took understanding the piece. You start with a strong dose of skepticism. I want to check everything that could make this not what it appears to be. Were it turn of the century, it?s worth easily in the four figures. But it was a modern piece, probably made in the last 20 years.

Was there anything you wanted to take for the museum as a donation?

The shop bought it, but it?s on loan to us—it?s the Senator Pat McCarran senatorial chair. There are a number of things that make this chair unique. The only way you can get a U.S. senator?s chair is if the senator him or herself buys it from the Senate when they go out of office. McCarran died in office, so it shouldn?t be out. The guy who had it got it as a retirement gift from the private company he worked for; his employees had gone to an estate sale and bought it. Whose estate sale? Eva Adams?. Adams was a local woman, a high school librarian, who was picked by McCarran to come to Washington and manage his office. She became so efficient in managing senatorial offices that she trained senatorial staffs on both sides of the aisle.

When McCarran died, she stayed on, went to the next senator and then went to [former Nevada) Senator Alan Bible. She and Bible didn?t get along, but she was too well-known, so Bible went to President Kennedy and asked he find another job for her. He made her the first female director of the U.S. Mint. She ended up completely transforming the Mint. ? Because the chair came from her estate, that?s the only person I could imagine who would have had the position for them to bend the rules and say, ?Fine, you can have the chair.?

How do you get locals to return to the museum?

It?s a very real problem for museums everywhere. Part of what we do is we try to have special events of some sort every month or two. It may be a special lecture, a special demonstration. It could be our Christmas event. We get those out into the media. I do a lot of public speaking and appearances and constantly try to funnel people here. ? Every time you come out, it changes. We change the houses to different seasons; we change the wedding chapel to different outfits. We?ll give them something new to learn about.

What are you looking for to add to the museum?

Somebody had to have taken the photograph when they moved the stone pillars at the airport from what is now Nellis Air Force Base all the way across the Valley to what is now McCarran International Airport [where Hall-Patton administers the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum]. I?ve never seen a photograph of the move. ? Somebody?s got to have a picture of Queho?s bones [Queho was an infamous early 20th-century Native American] when they were on display in Helldorado Village. For 10 years, as you walked in, what you saw was a re-creation of the cave [where his bones were found in 1940]. They even took that whole re-creation, put it on a trailer and ran it in the parade a few times. Somebody?s got to have a picture of this. ? There are just times when there are images that you know should be out there and they haven?t shown up yet.

What kind of museum does the Valley need now?

We need a good generalized art museum. We?ve got the Barrick at UNLV that?s taken up some of the remnants of the [former] art museum here. We have some of the art on display at The Smith Center, which is good. But we don?t have a good generalized art museum here.

What technological advances have affected curating?

One of the things that we can find now, by checking Flickr and sites like that, is, what are they photographing and what are they saying? What are they saying about your institution; is it working? Are they getting the information that they as the visitors need from you—not that you as the museum necessary want to give. At times what you want to give might not be what they need. ? You want to talk about Boulder City history but you don?t want to mention segregation. Well, it?s going to come up. They?re going to know. And you say, OK, fine, we need to add this in and deal with it in the story.

Read more Seven Questions interviews.

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