At first glance this may seem like a rather generalized and somewhat sweeping statement, but upon closer inspection, it becomes patently clear that this vanishing act has been happening now in almost every corner of mainstream North America for a number of years now, and can no longer be attributable merely to online listings taking the place of local Saturday morning auctions. Most in the decorative arts business freely acknowledge the turn-of-the-century dip that occurred in seasonal outdoor auctions, as buyers moved into the newly created world of online bidding, but that initial Internet euphoria eventually settled, as local auctioneers soon returned to the business of offering in-person sales of goods and chattels to the highest bidder. However, within a few short years this same decline had begun once again.
So what's caused this change over the past few years?
In reality, it may not be that anything has changed as much as it's simply moved sideways and been replaced by what some perceive as a higher performing revenue model - the estate sale.
The correlation between the arrival and almost instant popularity of the estate sale, and the corresponding simultaneous decline of the country estate auction cannot be overstated. Local newspapers that once bristled with ads for upcoming auctions are virtually empty now; replaced instead by listings for estate and large multi-family garage sales. Small estate companies that began offering clients what appeared to be a better opportunity for selling their goods at a higher price over a longer period, made the choice obvious for most who were liquidating their estates or relocating. These considerations (along with others), eventually forced many to ask the question of whether or not there was still a need for local estate style auctions?"
For many the answer was yes. Kent Holloway, an antiques dealer from Ohio, said that there were times he could pick up a half year's inventory at an auction sale. "It was a huge time saver because I could buy everything in one go." Now he says he spends more time trolling from one estate sale to the next, often having to wait till the end of the weekend to see if his bids have been accepted.
Similarly, other dealers, including Juan Gomez from Nashville, were found echoing the same sentiment, and often pointed to the fact that picking at auctions was not only a great and fast source for building stock, but there was also the camaraderie of those in the business who would gather and share information in between bidding. "If an item came up and someone was unsure about it's history or value," said Gomez, "...there was always another dealer or picker there to offer advice."
Aside from those in the trade, many of the buying public have also lamented the dwindling number of estate auctions, as it was often the go-to event to participate in - especially if it happened to occur on a rainy day.
However, despite the apparent demise of such auctions, it is clearly not just a matter of one format being more fiscally viable than another, as Sotheby's and Christie's, along with most other major auction houses have demonstrated by posting record profits in recent years. As one auction spokesperson noted, "It's still one of the most profitable methods for selling used items ever to be invented!"
For those interested in reading further on this topic, Cary Hooper of Magna Trada
has written an interesting article that delves further into some of these issues and why he thinks there's a good reason to bring back the local auction.
- A.I.A. Writing Staff
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