Going, going, gone at auction

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Barbara Ruben

In 1963, Enid Liess was on the hunt for a piece of artwork to punch up her new apartment. At a fundraising auction at her temple, the bidding went past her budget for a modern art painting that caught her eye.

But a friend stepped in to make the winning bid of $27.50 for the painting called “The Statesman” — which resembled a Cubist George Washington wearing a sideways baseball cap — and presented it to Liess as a gift.

It wasn’t until several weeks later that Liess read about up and coming modernist Roy Lichtenstein in Time magazine and pulled out a magnifying glass to discover his signature on her recently purchased painting.

Fast forward nearly half a century when Liess, undergoing treatment for breast cancer, decided to retire from a career in education and sell the painting.

Liess, who is 74 and lives in Annadale, Va., brought the Lichtenstein to Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, where owner Paul Quinn told her it would likely fetch $40,000 to $60,000 in today’s market.

“Bidding opened at $20,000,” Quinn recalled. “It rose rather slowly but steadily to $40,000, which is where she set her minimum price. Then it kind of paused and then it went up,” he recalled.

“A member of the family was sitting next to me. When it crossed $60,000 he smiled. When it crossed $72,000 I knew we had set a record for the period [of Lichtenstein’s artwork]….Tears were coming down from his eyes when it crossed $100,000.”

The painting ultimately fetched $128,700.

That’s just one of the stories of a meteoric rise in value that have some people scrambling through their attics and basements in case they are housing similar riches.

Virginia Weschler, of Weschler’s auction house in downtown Washington, likes to recount the story of a find in a local home.  Auctioneer Tom Weschler was going through the house for pieces to sell at auction when he eyed a table all but obscured by the television sitting on it. During auction, the de facto TV stand — an 18th century piece — sold for $50,000.

Auction houses also sometimes make literally priceless discoveries. In November, Daniel Sanders, President of Four Sales in Alexandria, Va., found a Civil War grave maker in a home in Clinton, Md. After a little research into its origins, he returned it to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Military Cemetery in Washington, D.C. After all, he noted, selling grave stones is not only unethical, it’s illegal.

Reasons to sell at auction

Sellers come to auction houses for a variety of reasons: They may be downsizing to a retirement community and want to sell a lifetime of possessions. Or they may have inherited old pieces of furniture and artwork that aren’t to their tastes. Some part with their goods because they need the cash.

“I tell people that all of the things are emotionally valuable, but not all are monetarily valuable,” Quinn said. That’s his way of not getting people’s hopes up for a windfall.

“Sometimes it’s not always good news,” said Stephanie Kenyon, with Bethesda-based Sloans and Kenyon. “Families bring in jewelry that’s been treasured for years and years…only to discover they didn’t have a fabulous diamond, but a very nice piece of glass.

“On the other hand, there are other people who have something that their grandmother always wore on Christmas and Easter, and she loved it because she had gotten it from her mother, and it turns out to be a very valuable piece of jewelry,” she said.

Most local auction houses separate out the most valuable items to sell at a higher-end auction or, like Four Sales, work with a New York-based behemoth like Sotheby’s. They auction off less valuable pieces at lower-end auctions, where bidding might start out at $5.

Auctioneers often start the bidding at about half the price of what the auction house feels an item is worth. The seller can place a “reserve” on an item, meaning that if bidding doesn’t reach a set minimum price, the item will not be sold.

By the way, all auctions aren’t necessarily called by nearly unintelligible, fast-talking auctioneers, where an errant scratch of the nose or pat of the hair might mistakenly signal a bid, as happened on an episode of “I Love Lucy.”

Auctions are fast-paced, though. On average, Quinn’s sells an item during an auction every 28 seconds.

Auction houses charge a commission on what they sell. Quinn’s, for instance, has a 10 to 30 percent sliding scale commission on each piece sold. And those who purchase an item at auction pay a surcharge called a buyer’s premium, which can be 15 percent or more.

A changing climate

Interest in live auctions has skyrocketed due to the popularity of online auction sites such as eBay, and TV shows like PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow,” where items are appraised, and the cable show “Storage Wars,” where entire contents of storage units are auctioned off to the high bidder practically sight unseen.

Matthew Quinn, Paul Quinn’s son, who appears on the PBS program, said that the economic downturn has played a role in how auctions function today.

More young people are discovering auctions as a way to pick up inexpensive furnishings for a first home, he noted. At the same time, more people are divesting themselves of years of accumulated possessions for needed cash to pay the bills.

But that doesn’t mean everything people want to sell is going to be snatched up.

“There appears to be almost a sea change in taste,” said Virginia Weschler, whose company has sold pieces from the estates of such local luminaries as Katharine Graham. “The furniture that was desirable for so many years, the beautiful Federal furniture, the lovely Georgian furniture, doesn’t meet current tastes the way it used to.

“The curse in the antique world is brown furniture. Everyone is looking at nice light-colored mid-century pieces. It has affected values enormously,” she said.

A trend toward smaller houses also means that people don’t want as many items of furniture cluttering up their homes.

“Things that were very easy to sell 25 years ago, rocking chairs or tea carts, aren’t selling. People in their 20s or 30s don’t want something that looks ‘grandmotherly,’” said Kenyon, whose auction house has sold the estates of the late astrologist Jeanne Dixon and Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.

“They don’t want something that looks fussy, like cut crystal. When I started out, collectors were bidding madly for it,” she recalled.

But some pieces will sell no matter the economic climate. “Certain art will always maintain its value. I think there’s something that’s part of our human nature to be attracted to things that are beautiful and decorative,” said Weschler, whose company recently sold a painting of a Venetian canal scene for $700,000 when it was expected to bring only $10,000 to $20,000.

Estate sale or auction?

Many companies offer both estate sales and auction services. In estate sales, the entire contents of a house are priced and sold.

“The estate sale provides for the sale of a broader range of items,” said Four Sales’ Sanders. “Where the auctions fit into our business model is where you don’t have either enough volume or enough value.”

For example, Sanders said he needs a minimum of 700 to 900 items worth a total of at least $10,000 to hold an estate sale. If a home has fewer, more valuable pieces, an auction would be the way to go, he recommended.

“Is there a threshold of what we’ll take to auction? There sure is. I’m not going to take a box of Tupperware to auction,” he quipped.

Quinn’s will also sell an entire estate, often combining an estate sale and auction. “I tell people all the time, ‘I cannot  promise you how much I will make you. But I can promise you I can find a home for all of your things, and I will get as much money as I can. We will not leave it on the street.’ People find that comforting,” Quinn said.

Part of the process involves some hand-holding.

“I just want people to be aware that in some ways downsizing is giving up a part of your life. It’s a very wrenching experience. It’s something that is hard to do, and people shouldn’t rush through it too quickly,” Weschler said.

“On the other hand, you can’t hold onto the past forever, and sometimes moving into new furnishings, meeting new people, a new location, that can rejuvenate people as well.” She noted this was the case for her mother, who recently moved to Riderwood, a retirement community in Silver Spring, Md.

Tips from the pros

While the majority of auction and estate sales companies are on the up and up, there are a few bad apples in the bunch.

“I’ve heard horror stories about estate sales where people were promised certain things, that the house was going to be left clean and empty, and all that happened is someone came in and sold the very best stuff for a pittance, and they’re left with a house full of junk,” Sanders said.

Sanders recommends working with companies with a long history of auctions or estate sales, rather than what he calls “90-day wonders” that spring up to make a quick buck and then go out of business.

Check for complaints on the Better Business Bureau’s website at www.bbb.org. And get a contract with every detail about commissions and fees put in writing.

If you’re selling items you haven’t had appraised, Paul Quinn recommends being careful in dealing with potential buyers. “If someone walks into your house and says, ‘That’s a funny painting. What do you want for that?’ And then he pulls out cash to negotiate a deal, I tell people you probably want another opinion.”

Matthew Quinn added, “They know it’s a $10,000 painting. They ask the client what they want for it, and the client says $200, and they say OK. There’s a belief there’s nothing unethical about that. ‘I asked what they wanted and I gave it to them.’”

Weschler agreed that sellers need to take responsibility for researching the potential value of their goods.

“I think they need to talk to several people to ensure the values they’re hearing are realistic. People can’t hold onto the values of things that they recall from the good old days,” she said.

But overall, auctions can be good for both buyers and sellers, Quinn said.

“I’m finding there are young people who come along who are touched by finding things that were in grandma’s house. There is some connection with the young with that which went on before,” he said.

“So you do have sort of that interconnectedness of generations. Working here is a kind of graduate level course in the anthropology of living.”