The changing face of auctions

Forget the quaint 'Colonel' auctioneer. Today's auction houses are growing in sophistication and adaptability.

 

Story and photos by Leigh Elmore

Ever since an early human learned that he or she could trade a knapped flint stone for a pretty cowrie shell, say they probably started wondering how to get two cowrie shells instead.

A genuine Tiffany lamp and other collectibles await sale at a recent auction at KC Auction Co. (photo by Jason Roske)


The idea of auctioning an item to the highest bidder eventually lodged in our brains. The Latin root of the word "auction" is "augere," defined as "to increase." So very early in our history we learned a technique for winnowing out the highest price possible for an item.

Good ideas tend to stick around. Historians remind us that auctions have been prevalent in Western civilization since the days of the Babylonians. Of course, the sale of human beings as slaves or concubines was a tragic result, a custom brought to America by 1619, when the first Africans were enslaved in Jamestown, VA.

In Sweden, the Stockholm Auction House was established in 1674 and continues to operate to this day. In England, candles often determined the length of an auction. The person with the highest bid when the candle went out won the item. French auctions in the 18th century were often held in taverns and featured beautiful art, according to information posted on the website, www.auctionmasters.com.

After the Civil War auctions became more prevalent, with military officers auctioning off surplus equipment. That began the tradition of auctioneers taking on the title of "Colonel," a custom that persists in many rural areas today.

Oriental rugs await sale at Andrew Turner Auctions.

Many auction schools popped up in the U.S. in the early 1900s. Auctioneers learned to speak loudly as there were no microphones in those days. Following the Great Depression, many people had to liquidate their farms to make up for debts. Auctioneers became more mobile and adapted to a changing economy.

After World War II, Americans had more money to spend. Auctions boomed and the public took them more seriously. New technology revolutionized auctions in the 1990s. Cell phones, computers and the Internet improved auction efficiency like never before, expanding prospective markets exponentially. Online auctions flourished and provided new markets for buyers and sellers.

Today, both online and in-person auctions are incredibly popular. Online auction platforms provide an efficient way to connect with thousands of buyers and sellers. Certainly eBay.com, simply a vast auction in itself, has transformed how people and merchandise get together. As technology advances, the auction process will continue to evolve. Someday soon you may be submitting bids in a virtual reality auction house.

Jason Roske, owner of KC Auction Co., and curator Amy Abshier, discuss items coming up for auction, some of which are displayed behind them.


Targeting a market

In the Kansas City region, the leading auctioneers have embraced the changes that technology affords and haven't looked back. Jason Roske, for example, owner of KC Auction Co., has been in the business for more than a dozen years, and currently holds auctions online exclusively, specializing in fine art, jewelry and other high-end items. The switch from in-person to on-line auctions has helped him focus on the buyers he wants and to offer only the best items for sale.

"On-line works really well for us," Roske said. "Our buyers have a different sensibility than typical bargain hunters. "They are looking for better items, things that aren't in mass production. And the more unique things we can present will attract more bidders."

Which is not to say that Roske is a stranger to the in-person auction business. As a former owner of an antique shop in Kansas City's Waldo neighborhood for 27 years, he dutifully participated in antique shows around the country.

"I started out doing flea markets and eventually grew from there, getting my inspiration from my mother who was an 'accumulator'," he said.

As his business grew, he needed more space and found a succession of buildings in Kansas City's West Bottom to accommodate his burgeoning live auction business. But about five and a half years ago he made the decision to target high-end customers and went to the on-line auction concept exclusively.

A drawing by Thomas Hart Benton will be sold at Soulis Auctions.

He purchased an 1877 mansion in Kansas City at 1070 Washington St., one of the first downtown neighborhoods to undergo restoration and renovation in the 1980s.
Roske uses the downstairs rooms to display the artworks and other items that will be sold at auction. Everything for sale is pictured on his website, www.kcauctioncompany.com.

Prospective bidders are always welcome to inspect the merchandise in person at an open house held the day before a scheduled auction. Amy Abshier, who holds a Master of Fine Art degree from the Kansas City Art Institute, works with Roske as a curator, researching and cataloging every item that will be presented for sale.

They said that in 2018 KC Auction Company sold more than 943 paintings. They say that fine artworks act as a signal flag of better things in the rest of a collection, such as jewelry and other valuables.

"Business has been good and allows us to focus on certain objects," Roske said. "We say 'no' to 90 percent of what is presented to us. We just don't have the buyers who would be interested. We can't make money selling $20 items. We are not high-volume, but we are high-quality."
Roske emphasizes that there are collecting communities available for almost everything.

"The world is both bigger and smaller at the same time," he said. In that respect KC Auction Co. uses social media extensively to reach its desired buyers. "We have a presence on Facebook and Instagram, and we seek out younger buyers on Snapchat."

He said that America has now experienced two generations that have or will be downsizing their possessions.

"Families have changed. There are fewer kids to pass things down to…. But the number of people who want certain things is the same, they are just not necessarily in the family," he said, but spread all over the country.

"The collectors' markets are not driven by single individuals anymore, such as a Martha Stewart, for example. There are communities on-line for virtually every collectible, so we are actively seeking buyers through social media," he said, while conceding, "we still get a lot of business through word of mouth."

Business must be good because Roske is again looking for bigger space in which to expand.

Auctioneer Andrew Turner winds up the bidding on a colorful quilt at his auction house in Kansas City's East Bottoms.

 

Going live

Some people just need to get out and about and enjoy mingling with others who share their curiosity about auction-able merchandise. And every Thursday night they get together at Andrew Turner Auctions at 1801 Guinotte in Kansas City's East Bottoms for Turner's weekly auction, live and in person.

At a recent auction in early December, Turner was just getting warmed up selling boxes of watches and other small items, giving bidders the opportunity for "choice," that is selecting a few items at a fixed price per item or bidding one price for "all of 'em." There were active bidders for both methods.

Turner is very straightforward and unaffected as an auctioneer. No phony "Colonel" moniker for him. He's just quickly working through the night's loot, lot-by-lot, no more than two minutes per lot.

The auctioneer goes about his business in front of a large American flag on the wall behind him. What could be more American than the buying and selling of goods?

Turner employs a camera focused on each item for sale, the image projected on a large screen so the assembled crowd of more than 100 can get a good view, if they haven't examined the goods in person in the hours before the sale or the day prior.

It's obvious that many of the buyers in the crowd are "regulars" to Turner's auctions; knots of people sit together and chat or enjoy the hot refreshments that are available.

"l come here for the social aspect," one gentleman explains to me. "In fact, I just came here from Jason's (KC Auction Co.). There is some overlap in audiences between the two (auction houses), but not a lot."

Which just supports the premise that there is a market for everything somewhere. Finding out who and where they are is the auctioneer's bread and butter. And while Turner specializes in live auctions he also relies on the Internet for getting the word out to prospective buyers. Check out Andrew Turner Auctions at www.andrewturnerauctions.com.

Auctioneer Dirk Soulis and some of the fine art that will be sold the following day.

 

Going to the country

About 30 miles east of Kansas City in the little town of Lone Jack, Dirk Soulis has carved out his own sturdy niche in the auction business. On this day, Soulis Auctions is open so the public can inspect about 100 paintings and prints that will be sold at auction the next day.

The works include a drawing by Thomas Hart Benton, a painting by Daniel MacMorris, and several black and white prints by Charles Banks Wilson. A painting of sailboats by Albert M. Hatch is particularly fetching along with two small landscapes by regional favorite Lisa Grossman. The items come from multiple consigners, not just from one collection, Soulis explained.

Soulis is a generalist when it comes to picking what to auction off. On this day it will be exclusively fine art. The next sale could be items from a family's estate.

"You have to be flexible to stay busy, especially in the Midwest," Soulis said. "We try to encapsulate all the themes here."

Soulis hails from a small town and grew up in Warrensburg. He has a great respect for rural America and it reflects in that he is headquartered in Lone Jack rather than a larger city.

"In Lone Jack I was able to build to the size that I wanted and provide plenty of parking, he said. "I think that for an auction, driving out to the country is just part of the process, it makes for a memorable excursion."

Automotive signs at Andrew Turner Auctions are sure to bring top dollar.

Growing up, Soulis recalled that many rural residents were distrustful of people in the "big city" of trying to take advantage of them. "They feel more comfortable in their own element."
Soulis classifies people who bid at auctions in three categories: Hunters, that is dealers or serious collectors. Then there are those looking for specific items. And finally there are people who will bid on something if it is convenient. He tries to have merchandise that will appeal to each group.

He likes to debunk the canard going around the antique and collectibles industry that "No one wants your parents' stuff."

"That is not true," Soulis said. "They're out there and we know who they are. We know what they think. We know what they want. We know how much they will pay."

So on auction day at Soulis, you may bid in person, over the phone or on-line. In fact, Soulis was a pioneer in first streaming an auction live in 1999.

"On auction day, we say blow it up, open it up. Get those bids however and from where ever the buyers want to give them. Make it happen even if it makes more headaches for the auctioneer."

That's why Soulis bills his auction as "The world's first click and mortar auction gallery." Find him at 529 W. Lone Jack Lee's Summit Rd., Lone Jack, MO, or website: www.dirksoulisauctions.com.

 

A landscape painting by Lisa Grossman awaits sale at Soulis Auctions.

 

 

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com

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