Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
There’s more action than you think at auction houses across Western North Carolina.
All those possessions that both enhance and clutter our lives, those objects we never needed but found appealing for some obscure reason, after a few years those objects work their way into the category of Stuff.
Our Stuff becomes more than items to remind us of impetuous moments when the urge for acquisition overcame the caution of “buyer beware.” It eventually becomes part of our identity: “You are the sum of your Stuff.” Or something like that.
Yes, our Stuff is part of our lives, and one effective venue to either acquire more Stuff, or get rid of the Stuff we no longer want is—an auction.
Of course! Auctions offer incredible arrays of artifacts, gadgets, doo-dads, and general-interest Stuff, and to acquire it, all you have to do is raise your hand.
In Western North Carolina we have a rich variety of auction houses to satisfy every appetite for Stuff, from the useless—but unique—widget to the exquisite—and expensive—work of art. They stretch from Weaverville to Hendersonville, from Waynesville to Old Fort, with the superstar of the bunch on Tunnel Road in Asheville.
Their geographic diversity is matched by the variety of items they sell, ranging from a silverplate dish for $2.50 to a 16th Century painting selling for $160,000. Those expensive items—“high end” in auctioneer talk—come up for sale at Brunk Auctions on Tunnel Road, where they become part of what Brunk calls “premier catalog auctions” every two months.
At the other end of the spectrum, Tommy Tuten and Johnny Penland hold an auction every Friday night. Johnny explained how they maintain their weekly schedule. “We take in items starting at 6:30 every Monday morning. Our lot is filled with trucks, and we have five or six people working. We unload it, fill out contracts for the sellers, and set it all up—as many as 325 to 350 items. We have it all set up by 2:30 in the afternoon.”
Setting it up is only the beginning of the job. “We come back Tuesday morning and I start writing down the stuff we’re selling. Tommy comes in and starts photographing—as many as 200 to 250 photographs. And my daughter types all this stuff up and she puts it all online.”
By Friday, about 150 bidders show up. They tend to be middle-aged or older with a scattering of younger adults. At a recent sale, a 30-something mother sat next to her 10-year old son, who was focused on a game on his iPhone with two earplugs keeping out the noise of the auction.
Most of the bidders are at least semi-regulars. At a recent auction, I asked some of them why they are here.
A Barnardsville couple, Gary and Cheryl, said they’ve been coming to auctions for 25 years. “For the fun of it,” he said. “We find good bargains, but just to spend time together.” Cheryl took a more practical approach. “I look for quilts and old stuff,” and Gary interrupted. “She tells us what we want and that’s what we get.” They agreed on their best auction buy: “We got some scrimshaw that we sold for four times as much as we bought it for,” he said, as she nodded happily.
Hilda Keener and her husband, Larry, have been going to auctions for 30 years. They drive from Canton to Swannanoa for the Friday night auctions because, as she explains, “We get some good buys and we have a lot of fun. It’s fun to watch the people bid when they get serious and it’s one going against the other.” Larry had no trouble recalling his best auction buy: “I bought a gun for $450 and it’s worth a thousand.”
Boyd Wampler, of Landrum, South Carolina, was there with his wife as part of their business/hobby. “We like to dabble in antiques. We have a couple of booths at an antique mall in Landrum. We enjoy it.”
Mike Stanton, of Leicester, offered a philosophical rationale for auctions. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” he said. He and his wife find things that they enjoy for a while, and then either sell or donate it when the next auction treasure strikes their fancy. He says a great buy is what you make of it.
Robert and Melinda Champion of Tryon have been coming to auctions for 30 years. “Since we’ve been married,” he says. Why? Melinda is quick with the answer. “To get a bargain.” Their best buy? No contest. “Our dining room table!” they said in unison. He elaborated. “It was valued online at 11 hundred dollars. We bought it for $65. And that included the pads—that made it even more valuable.” They both grinned at the memory.
Between items, Tommy recognizes many of the bidders by name from the podium, kidding back and forth and giving the proceedings more an air of town-wide gabfest than a commercial event. But there is plenty of business going on. They manage to sell those 300 items in a little over three hours, averaging 90 to 100 items an hour.
Whether or not you’re there to make a bid, live auctions can be entertaining. But if you want to get in on some auction action, you don’t even have to leave your house. Hunters of Stuff can find auctions just by logging on to their computers. The website, Auctionzip.com, lists internet auctions, as well as live auctions by geographic area. For live listings, just enter your location and the distance you’re willing to travel. The listings will include links to the auctioneer’s website, which usually contains a description and pictures of items in their next auction.
For anyone interested in internet auctions, AuctionZip is a gateway to a dizzying universe of possibilities. In any given week, the listings may include four or five “live” auctions in the Asheville area and as many as 60 or more online. Those internet auctions present a cornucopia of choices: Jewelry, antiques, rugs, rare books, coins, sports memorabilia, fossils, autographs, toys, and on and on. If you can imagine an object, chances are you can find something like it in an online auction.
For the adventurous, there are auctions of abandoned storage units. The announcements include a short description of the contents and pictures that tend to show a pile of stuff, some of it identifiable and the rest a jumble of garbage bags and cartons.
Many internet auctions provide detailed descriptions and several photographs of their objects, but bidders will not have the opportunity to examine them in person, to touch them, to get a feel for them in the three-dimensional real world.
That personal interaction with an object you plan to bid on is an essential ingredient of the “live” auction. You should take advantage of the auction “preview,” arriving at least an hour early to examine items that have caught your interest. A cursory look is not enough. If it has parts, take it apart, make sure everything is in working order. Check for repairs or replaced elements, and satisfy yourself that the item measures up to your expectations. At an auction, there is no such thing as “wrong size, wrong color.” If you buy it, you own it.
Notice, we didn’t say, “If you WIN it, you own it.” You never “win” an item at an auction; you buy it—or one bid more than anyone else is willing to pay. The distinction is an important reminder that an auction is not a competition. The bidder who allows his competitive instinct to overcome his good sense will inevitably “win” that battle with the other guy by paying too much for the item. Pyrrhic victory. Decide before the auction what you think a piece is worth and don’t let the pressure of the moment push you to bid more. Look at the online pictures, attend the preview to be sure the item is what you’re looking for, and then get ready to bid.
When you arrive at the auction, the first thing to do is sign in. You’ll give the clerk your contact information, and she will hand you a card with your bidding number. This becomes your auction ID. When any item is sold, the auctioneer will announce, “Sold to bidder 72 for $60.” The clerk takes down the information, and when you check out she will add up your purchases, add the buyer’s premium and tax, and once you pay the total, she will hand you a receipt. You’ll gather up your new Stuff and take it home.
As for bidding strategy, some buyers like to start bidding as soon as an item comes up. Others wait until the bidding slows down and only then raise their hand. There is no particular advantage to either approach, so do it whichever way you want.
No matter how you bid, you can come away with some excellent objects at great prices. If you’re furnishing a house, apartment, or a single room, check out the area auction galleries. Many auctions feature both vintage and contemporary furniture, and the pieces often sell for a fraction of retail. The same can be said of many other categories. From books to guns, from kitchen ware to wall art, the items may fetch top dollar or go begging for a bid. It all depends on who’s bidding and what their interests—and budgets—are.
Now, about that buyer’s premium. The auctioneer charges the sellers of items a commission, and also charges the buyer a premium on his or her purchase. Depending on the auction house, premiums generally run from 10 to 15 or 20 percent of the purchase price. So, if you bid $100 on an item, the real price will be $110 or even $120—plus sales tax. To the casual observer, it might appear the auctioneer is making a killing, charging a commission to both the buyer and seller. Johnny Penland demurs, however, and he ran through some of the expenses that cut into the profit.
“You have a lot of overhead, starting with the rent. You gotta have a truck, truck insurance, liability insurance, payroll, heat, lights, water.” He took a breath and went on. “Then there’s supplies. You need bid cards, and contract forms. We write a contract listing the items for every consignor.”
The consignors—people putting items up for auction—comprise a variety of sources. Penland says people bring in items they no longer want or need, or can’t stand to look at. He adds that much of their merchandise also arrives through attorneys settling estates.
Jamie Rhodes, auctioneer and owner of Country Rhodes in Hendersonville, is overwhelmed with the amount that comes in. “Sometimes I have to turn business away, which I hate,” she says. Jamie is relatively new to the auction business, having called her first auction in January of last year. She holds auctions “once or twice a month,” selling what she calls everyday things. “When I decided to start, my biggest fear was, how will I get items to sell? It was like a leap of faith, but before I knew it, I had more people consigning than I had even hoped. It was overwhelming.”
Jamie says, “I’m doing it all by myself,” except on auction nights, when her two daughters and husband are called into duty. Family involvement is a trend that runs throughout the auction industry, with many auction families including multi-generational family members. Johnny Penland, for example, started in his father’s used furniture business back in the 1950s. He and his wife, Ann, began the auction in 1985, and now his son-in-law, Tommy Tuten, has taken over, with Tommy’s wife setting up the website listings. Johnny’s other daughter and her husband also work the auctions along with their son and daughter. It adds up to eight relatives covering three generations.
Brunk Auctions, meanwhile, began as a one-man operation in 1982. Bob Brunk soon employed his young son, Andrew, to hold up items for bidding and handle other chores. Thirty years later, Bob is retired, and Andrew is the president of Brunk Auctions.
And at Broken Arch Auctions in Weaverville, auctioneer Mark Wilson is the uncle of the owner, Travis Wilson. Mark started in his parents’ antique business when he was a child—and soon developed into a colorful young dealer. “By the time I was 12, I was tradin’ on stuff,” he says, in a drawl that marks him as a local native. “When I was 16, 17 years old, I had a trunk full of .22 rifles I traded on. I’d sell ‘em to my friends in school. My assistant principal would buy from me.” By the time he turned 20, Mark had already amassed the knowledge of obscure old objects that is the hallmark of a seasoned auctioneer.
At a recent Broken Arch auction, Mark was all business, selling more than 400 items on a Saturday afternoon and finishing in time for dinner. I spoke to some of his bidders, including Christine Antonelli of Hendersonville, who has been attending auctions at least once a month for 10 years. “I just like to find different things,” she said. She is a dealer who sells “mostly online.” For her, the allure of an auction is simple: “You never know what you’re going to see. So, it’s fun!”
Across the room, Phyllis Blackard of Brevard was clutching a piece of pottery she had just bought and said she has been going to auctions for “five or six years. They’re entertaining, and you find some really unusual things.” She breaks into a wide grin as she announced, “And today I bought a prayer rug. The big one. Because it’s unusual, and I think I have a place where it will look really good in my house.”
Sit at enough auctions and you eventually wonder how the auctioneer can know so much about so many diverse things. Mark Wilson and Andrew Brunk agree on the source of all that knowledge.
“You spend years lookin’ at stuff, touching it, and it eventually sticks,” Mark says. “If I come across something I’m not sure of, I’ll do some research so I can know what I’m talkin’ about.”
Andrew puts the same message a bit differently. “Learning in the field is a process of slow and constant osmosis. You learn by doing, by soaking it up a little bit at a time.”
To some people who have never attended an auction, the prospect seems daunting. Mark and Andrew, both regarded as among our area’s more prominent auctioneers, responded to that reluctance.
Mark, who estimates he has done about 300 auctions over the past 20 years, says, “There’s opportunities for young buyers that they’re not taking advantage of.” Many auctions, he explains, offer everything from kitchen utensils to furniture to wall art, opportunities to furnish a first apartment. “[But] if you go to an auction, you look around, look at the median age, and they’re all retirement age. There’s wonderful opportunity, but the young people are not taking it.”
Andrew, who returned to Asheville to take over the Tunnel Road business from his father nine years ago, had previously been the head of the American Furniture department at Christie’s auction house in New York City. “I think people can be intimidated by the auction process,” he says. “They’re afraid if they twitch, they’re buying something for a thousand dollars.” That’s not true; in fact, he describes the atmosphere at an auction is quite different: “It’s a friendly, informal setting. In the course of an auction, people can come and go. They don’t need a reservation or a ticket; they don’t need to dress up. They don’t need to have been to an auction. It’s a fun place to come and look at great things.”
At Brunk, that “look at great things” statement takes on extra meaning. The Brunk previews, generally held a couple of nights before the auction (check the website), display every item in an upcoming auction. At the preview, there’s no requirement that you be an interested bidder. You’re free to check everything out. In its January auction, “everything” included legendary ice-skater Dick Button’s collection of skating materials, with the items from costumes he wore at various shows to skating paintings and posters, even Delft tiles, and, of course several pairs of early skates.
Also in the auction was the 16th Century painting (shown on facing page) mentioned above that sold for $160,000. Both of the two final bidders were bidding by phone. The scene took on an aspect of suspenseful theater as Andrew would call out the advancing bid — “$100 thousand”—and a staff member would relay the number to his phone bidder and pause for a tense few seconds. Hearing the bidder accept the new price, the staffer would raise his hand, and Andrew would respond: “$120 thousand.” Then it was the other bidder’s turn. So it went, with each phone pause adding a touch of tension until the painting was hammered down at $160,000. With the buyer’s premium, the final price reached $192,000. It drew a round of applause from the people in the room.
Brunk auctions take on the atmosphere of quiet spectacle, with items regularly reaching dramatic prices. But bidders can also make more modest purchases. At the same two-day auction of the pricey painting, a buyer also took home a 19th Century one-drawer table for $100, and other items sold for similar low prices.
Brunk competes with major auction houses in New York and across the country from a small mountain city, which could be perceived as a handicap when working against the big-city, big-name auctions. Not so, says Andrew. In fact, “A lot of times I think we get more [money] than New York on certain things. If we get something great, we’re going to put all the spotlights on it. We give it a lot of marketing focus, make sure all the right people know. There’s a level at which people love buying outside of New York. There’s an idea that maybe they’re sneaking up on something.”
He also points out that Asheville has become a destination city, and some bidders travel a long way to the auction. “We’ve had sales here with a hundred Chinese bidders in the room, passports in hand.”
He leans back and points to a large framed poster on the wall, promoting a past auction. The poster shows a decorative porcelain vase: “We sold for $1.2 million. The underbidder on that never saw it in person. He bid from photographs, he bid from the other side of the world, and bid to a million dollars. He didn’t need to be in the room.”
Auctioneers Andrew Brunk and Mark Wilson agree that fears about buying at an auction are unjustified. And there is another backstop for reluctant bidders: The North Carolina Auction Licensing Board. The five-member board enforces no fewer than 32 pages of state laws and regulations that govern the auction business. Those regulations include a $200,000 recovery fund for buyers or sellers defrauded by an auctioneer.
Licensing Board Executive Director Charles Diehl says, “There are 2035 licensed auctioneers in the state,” selling real estate, industrial, farm, and restaurant equipment, and personal property. The board licenses auctioneers and, notes Diehl, “We do occasionally have disciplinary hearings involving anything from technical transgressions to serious violations. In the most serious cases the board has suspended or revoked a license. Those would be any time an auctioneer breaches his or her fiduciary duty to a client.”
The fiduciary duty is to the seller, not the bidder. Mark Wilson sums it up: “My job is to get you to pay more than it’s worth. Your job is to get it for less than it’s worth. Somewhere we should reach a meeting of the minds.”
The auctioneer’s license test includes questions about state rules and regulations as well as about an applicant’s practical knowledge of the auction business. Diehl provided some sample test questions:
The auctioneer’s contract called for a 15% commission. Auction sale proceeds were $53,750 and the auctioneer’s expenses totaled $1,750. What was the auctioneer’s net profit from the sale?
The Auctioneer Licensing Board may deny, suspend, or revoke a license upon which of the following grounds?
a) violation of any provision of Chapter N.C.G.S. 85B of the General Statutes
b) failure to possess truth, honesty, and integrity
c) violation of any federal or state statute or rule relating to the auctioneering profession
d) any of these grounds
Diehl summarizes the testing and regulatory enforcement: “The licensing board exists to protect the public.”
But there must be a reason that an industry has its own regulatory board—and 36 pages of regulations. There must be something going on, right? In the overwhelming number of auctions, nothing underhanded is happening, but unscrupulous auctioneers have been known to employ tricks to achieve higher prices. For example, the auctioneer points at you to accept your bid. He then points to someone behind you for a higher bid. Back to you and then back to that other guy. But that “other guy” might just be the back wall of the room. The other bidder is a phantom—and you, the victim, have kept bidding. Or the auctioneer is taking phone bids—but the person holding the phone, relaying those bids from the caller, his phone is not switched on, let alone connected to anyone. Another phantom bidder.
Mark Wilson summed it up: “There’s a million ways to play the game. Illegal ways are the hardest ways to play it, but people want to do it anyway. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
An incident a couple of years ago revealed a Weaverville auctioneer who was cheating his consignors rather than the bidders. Paul Blake Terry, who owned Blake Terry Auctions, was charged with two counts of embezzlement, amounting to an estimated $150,000. His case was dismissed after he agreed to make restitution and surrendered his auctioneer’s license.
Auctioneers have their history and reputation to protect, and they face their own frustrations. “Most frustrating?” Johnny Penland leaned forward at his desk. His voice became intense. “Somebody brings 10 items in, and they get way more from nine of them than they were ever dreaming of. One falls short, and that’s all they remember: The one bad one.”
Andrew Brunk faces a different challenge. In evaluating a piece for auction, he sometimes must inform a consignor that an item is not nearly as valuable as he expects.
“It’s a difficult moment, sure,” he says. Referring to a recent downward trend in prices for many categories of antiques, he adds, “Because the market has changed so much, everyone in the industry has to be good at breaking bad news to people.” But he sees a flip side to that coin: “There can be surprises in both directions, and you have to be prepared to make the happy call as well as the unhappy call.”
The allure of an auction goes beyond the attraction of a particular item. It embodies a sense of adventure, not knowing in advance if your bids will be successful or if you will watch someone else take that Stuff you want. Andrew Brunk summed it up from his own perspective, but his words ring true for both auctioneer and bidder:
“The sense of treasure hunt still remains. When I walk into a house [to consign items], you never know what you’re going to find. That is still very much exciting. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and there are still great moments of excitement. When you discover something, it really recharges your batteries.”
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