For most people, the sure signs of spring are returning birds, warming temperatures, crocuses, daffodils, tulips, and even dandelions dotting the yard. But for folks interested in antiques, collectibles, or finding unique items for the home, spring is the season when small tents filled with the contents of a household begin dotting the landscape. Or larger tents full of farm equipment, all arranged for sale to the highest bidder. For spring heralds the traditional beginning of the auction season.
Like so many other traditional businesses, auctions have been transformed by the worldwide marketplace that is the Internet. Weathering the storm of change and plotting how to modify and grow a business in such a time is tricky. But local auctioneers are finding their own ways of meeting the needs of buyers and sellers.
The biggest change, according to those local auctioneers, is the price of “the regular stuff.” In the case of an estate sale, that would be regular (as opposed to antique) used furniture, dishes, and household goods. For a farm auction, that would be the more common machinery. In every case, auctioneers talked about the decline in price for the goods that they used to sell and were able to make money on for both themselves and the seller. Ron Roan from Roan, Inc. in Cogan Station, Pennsylvania, agreed that this was the biggest change the Internet has made on their business. Sometimes they will have a good estate auction, but now it’s sporadic, not consistent.
“There are too many people who are “downsizers,” and the number of people interested in buying general estate, antique, and collectible stock is less than a third of the number of folks ten years ago,” says Ron. David Pantle, from Bostwick Auctions in Candor, New York, agreed, and Virginia Fraley from Fraley Auctions in Muncy, Pennsylvania, said that their business was not doing as many household auctions.
Another big change is what people like, what’s “in.” Tastes evolve, and the pottery and primitives so popular and expensive a decade ago have been replaced by new favorites. Oh, there is still an interest in guns and Indian artifacts. But people in their twenties and thirties like a retro look from the 1970s—or an industrial/steampunk look to home decor. People also are interested in having fewer things—the Tiny House movement is testament to that—and so are more selective in what they buy.
But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the value of items designated as “most desired” or “rare.” Ron Roan gives an antique example.
“Take a pine, one piece, corner cupboard—like your grandma had. That used to sell at auction for about $1,000. Today, we’re probably going to get $300 to $500. But, if it is a 1820s to 1850s corner cupboard, with the original surface/paint, that cupboard will sell for $30,000 to $50,000. Rare is still rare.”
For coins, antiques, machinery, livestock, or real estate in this most desired category, prices are stable or increasing.
Methods of reaching the buying audience are changing for many auctioneers as well. Bostwick Auctions, who conduct many sales at their auction hall and west as far as the Elmira/Horseheads area, are now considering online auctions to boost sales. Roan, Inc. has done a hybrid of online/live sales for years, especially for better collections and for specialty auctions. This spring, one online auction in late March will feature a high-end collection of reproduction antique furniture and accessories, and later in the spring they will have a specialty auction of Indian artifacts. Even Fraley’s uses online auctioneering with their big consignment auction of farm machinery, held twice a year.
But the biggest proponent of online auctioneering is Jelliff’s Auction Group in Tioga, Pennsylvania. Randy Jelliff and his staff do approximately 80 percent of their auctions online, and many are online only. While there are still a few live-only auctions at Jelliff’s, they have a Wednesday online only auction.
“We have streamlined the cataloging process so that we can do online auctions at about the same cost as on-site,” Randy explains. For all auctioneers, the reason to use the new technology and auction on the Internet is simple. In an increasingly picky market, online auctions increase the audience. More people watching usually means more people bidding. More bidding means that items will sell for more money, making auctions work for both the consigner and auctioneer.
Nor are online auctions immune from auction fever. Randy Jelliff shares a great story about a small estate sale in Cherry Flats, a tiny Tioga County community between Wellsboro and Covington, where a customer bought a twenty-two-inch flat screen television for about fifteen dollars less than new—and then drove three hours one way to pick it up. That customer would not have driven to attend the auction.
Changes have rocked the auction world, but, like so many other businesses, the auctioneers of our area are both adapting to new realities and methods, and still providing an often very personal service. Whether wandering the gallery, the Internet, or inside the auction tent, it’s a place to purchase things we want and be part of a social event. Going once, twice, SOLD!