By Robert Pucci
Now that spring is upon us, antique seekers and collectors will be out in force searching for treasures at flea markets and local antique centers. But there is another route to finding those treasures, one that is well suited to winter days and foul weather, in any season. It is also the place where most dealers find the items that you might purchase at the flea market or the local Antique Center. It is at auction.
While online services such as eBay provide a 24/7 opportunity to purchase most kinds of items, and while there are some auction houses that only hold all online events, most prospective bidders like to examine the goods in person for those subtle details of condition that greatly affect value. That being said the best auctions are those that are local and live. In our area Hudson Valley Auctioneers in Beacon, Hyde Park Country Auctions in Poughkeepsie and George Cole Auctions in Red Hook hold auctions year round where collectors and those seeking to furnish a household find treasures and often bargains. It is a business that is also facing the challenges of the online markets and the apathy of millennials.
It is New Year’s Day and there is a lively group of bidders making their way through the varied offerings at Hudson Valley Auctioneers on Main Street in the hipster haven city of Beacon. Owner Neil Vaughn and his auction manager Theo de Hass are answering questions and preparing for the bidding. In the meantime prospective buyers examine formal and country furniture, jewelry, paintings (both classical and abstract) and a couple of Steinway pianos. This eclectic mix is often found at local auctions, where several estates plus additions of individual pieces make up the items up for bid, almost all without reserves. While the crowd on this day seems of a good size, owner Vaughan points out, compared to previous years the crowds are shrinking as older collectors stop collecting, dealers retire, and a new generation of potential buyers seem to be indifferent to most items.
I noticed a parent with a group of children pointing out the features of a large abstract painting / assemblage from the sixties. But they were not there necessarily to bid. Auctions are a great place to get an education. The alarm may sound at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when you get too close to something, but at an auction you can take things apart. Most of the bidders on this day were older and also dealers, meaning that as much as eighty percent of the sales will go to them for resale. One great benefit of bidding at an auction is that a dealer will only bid so high. Most of the items are purchased with winning bids that reflect wholesale prices. At Hudson Valley Auctioneers the most desirable pieces, according to Vaughn, are furnishings that are Mid-Century Modern, designer jewelry, couture and watches.
Echoing Vaughn’s appraisal of what is hot George Cole, of George Cole Auctions in Red Hook, cites Mid-Century Modern and the decorative arts associated with the period as they most sought after. Cole says classic antique furniture of the 17th, 18th and 19th century, especially Victorian furnishings, tend to be bargains. One might be able to furnish an entire house with handmade furniture for a fraction of the cost of their IKEA counterparts. Dom Navarro, of Hyde Park Country Auction located in Poughkeepsie, specializes in Americana and Country, Primitives, decorative arts and ephemera. He says country furniture in original paint is still very hot. But those fine antiques of the colonial and even early Federal period, never mind the Victorian pieces classified as brown furniture by their use of natural wood, often go begging for bids. Recently an entire custom dining room set with six chairs in excellent condition could be had for as little as $100. Of course a bargain is relative, Vaughn points out, as declining prices in many areas suggest that market adjustments are making creating estimates for sale items difficult.
Vaughn says he was once able to give a catalog estimate within ten to twenty percent of the hammer price, today he says it is anybody’s guess. He does not like having to tell consigners that items they purchased, say 20 years ago, may now only bring a fraction of what they once did. He further cautions those who might think their purchase is an investment. While he noted that items bought and sold before 2000 may have seen increases in value since then, many items, from furniture to Staffordshire pottery, have seen their prices diminish. Dom Navarro agrees but says that many consigners don’t care about hammer prices. They are older and they feel it is just time to let the items go.
The odd bits of ephemera and collectibles that evoked the childhood nostalgia of one generation have become irrelevant to another. Gone are markets for collectible figures such as Hummels and many types of figurative ceramics. Those who yearned for certain objects as children purchased them as adults. But, as a recent article suggested, millennials do not want their parents’ stuff. There are, of course, exceptions as Navarro points out “weekenders who buy period houses still want period furnishings to fill them.” At one of his Americana auctions one could find enough furniture, rugs, china and accessories to do just that.
Chinese vases and jade are on the upswing, and primitives always bring good prices. While formal pieces struggle to get bids there is often lively competition for primitive painted furniture, especially if it has the right form, good paint and patina. Bucking the “all period look” there is an eclectic school that mixes and matches styles and time periods. This is seen in house make over television shows, magazines and online sites like Pinterest and Instagram. A primitive cupboard in mustard paint might be flanked by Mid-Century Ames chairs and share wall space with an abstract painting from the 70’s.
Art can be a tough sell in an era where most living spaces are dominated by a 65 inch screen that displays millions of moving images in an hour. Vaughn says sometimes it is easiest to sell a bad abstract painting because the buyer saw something like it in a magazine. The buyers want to copy the look by placing a similar one over the couch. It may not have the quality, but the painting may make up for it in size, color and outrageous gesture.
Navarro has the most success with Hudson River landscapes, Folk Art portraits and well done Impressionist landscapes. While on a house call in Sharon, Connecticut to see a toy collection, Navarro spied a small Jasper Cropsey Hudson River School painting. Inquiring about selling it, the lady of the house was agreeable if it would go for the $20,000 she paid for it on a splurge after her divorce. Navarro did his research, and an interested buyer sent an expert to authenticate the work. The expert was pleased, and the buyer’s agent won the painting with a bid of $75,000. While it is customary to pick up or have items mailed, Navarro took no chances and drove the painting to its new owner in Boston.
At a Cole auction one might find a lot of unsigned art or an etching by a print master like Piranesi or Reginald Marsh. Sometimes art is purchased, as the saying goes, for the frame alone. Lots of frames often attract artists and restorers who need to have a period look. Art frames of the late 19th and early 20th century can sometimes fetch prices in the thousands, the art held therein superfluous.
Navarro concedes that there are changing tastes in buyers as well as the shrinking cadre of true collectors. Contrary to what one might think, rather than try to attract a younger crowd, he wants to attract older buyers who still appreciate finely crafted furniture and excellent original art. A love of history leads them to purchase daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, 19th century letters or a Lincoln life mask that was offered recently at Hyde Park Country Americana auction.
Still, at a recent auction an oak roll top desk, once a thousand dollar item in Westchester antique shops, sold for one hundred dollars. An 18th century chest of drawers went for $275 at another auction. The buyer in the later example died before picking up his treasure. Vaughn says there is no generation of collectors taking the place of those that pass on. “Millennials do not feel the need to acquire artifacts or objects. They seem content with the experience of seeing them and taking a picture of them with their phone. So a picture posted on Instagram instead of a purchase will suffice and that does not bode well for the future of the business.”
While audiences in the auction halls may be down, technology, to some degree, has come to the rescue. Live Auctioneers is an online service used by many auction houses to open up their auctions to a national and international audience. The local auctioneers use the service to varying degrees. Neil Vaughn puts 200 items up for bid both in the hall and online but reserves 300 items for the bidders who are in the hall or bidding by telephone. At Hyde Park Auctions the items in a catalog auction are available to bidders in the hall and also online, where an increasing number of sales are made. The percentage of online sales may easily exceed 50 percent at some auctions with the unseen winning bidder sitting at home sipping wine while wearing pajamas.
Navarro sees the expansion of potential buyers from sometimes distant states and sometime distant lands (he has had phone bidders from London and New Delhi) as a good thing. In the hall most of the bidders may be dealers. While some dealers bid from home there are many more retail buyers when the auction is on line. It is important to remember that auctioneers are agents for their consigners trying to get as much as they can for the sale lots.
Vaughn calls the online component a necessary evil as he and the other auctioneers prefer the occasionally electric atmosphere created by spirited bidding in the hall. Those prospective buyers who are truly motivated feel the need to be there to ensure their success. How else might auctioneers achieve the kind of prices that get the hall to erupt in spontaneous applause? A windup toy sold for $22,000 at Hudson Valley Auctioneers. A vase sold for $40,000 at Hyde Park Country Auctions and a 94 foot yacht sold for $95,000 at George Cole Auctions. While these numbers do not compare with the sticker shock prices often achieved at Sotheby’s and Christie’s they represent good prices and good commissions. Even if you do not win your treasure, or even if you do not place a bid, you may find the competition, energy and occasional touches of humor good theater, and the show is always free.
The three auctioneers interviewed in this article have been in business for combined total of over 100 years. While they may see the business as increasingly challenging, they are still excited by making great finds, and helping out family members who do not realize the value of a loved one’s collections, and look on the faces of winning bidders. With the opportunity to preserve historic artifacts for the next generations, both Navarro and Vaughn sometimes describe their efforts as rescues. All have the same advice for prospective bidder; inspect the goods and stay within your budget on any item. It is also good to remember, that in addition to the hammer price, a buyer’s premium of between 15 and 20 percent will be added to the invoice. Sometimes, with tax, this can add up and prove surprising to the buyer.
Contrary to the way auctions are portrayed on television and film (and the old adage that there are no friends at an auction) these periodic opportunities to bid and buy fine art, furniture, and decorative arts are always friendly. They are sometimes exciting environments to collect bits of the past to furnish your present. Overcome the Amazon effect of buying everything online and get thee to an auction.