RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES: Is It Still Possible To Do Business the Old Fashioned Way?
On Saturday, July 7, 2018, I conducted a day-long appraisal clinic as part of The 2018 Heritage Weekend Lehighton [PA]. It was a fundraising event with the proceeds going to benefit the Lehighton Borough Parks & Recreation Events.
[Author’s Aside: I accepted the engagement because it allowed me to revisit an earlier time (1966 to 1976) when I was actively researching and studying the American canal system. Lehighton is just north of the Lehigh Water Gap and on the route of the Lehigh Navigation System, referred to as the Lehigh Canal. At least 20 years had passed since I visited the upper reaches of the Lehigh River. As I traveled through the Lehigh Water Gap, I was astonished to see how nature had reclaimed the denuded mountainsides that resulted from the emissions from the zinc works in Palmerton. Mother Nature is a fascinating creature.]
As usual, I saw some great pieces at the appraisal clinic. Even in 2018, the best stuff is not all in the hands of collectors, dealers, or museums. American homes still are loaded. The objects may not be worth as much as they once were, but their beauty and importance still remain. I continue to dream about the first object that crossed the table—an early 20th century lemonade (beverage) set consisting of a pitcher and six matching glasses. The glass was a blue transparent color, the color so clear it was possible to see one’s finger prints through the glass. The top of the pitcher was ruffled. The pitcher and glasses were decorated with enameled, multi-colored, multi-petal flowers in near perfect condition. The pièce de résistance was an etched Renaissance motif diagonal band that would have been proudly worn as a sash by a Cavalier of the period. If there ever was a “WOW” lemonade (beverage) set, this was it. I was in love.
The appraisal clinic was held in the auditorium of the former Lehighton High School (later Junior High School) that had been saved from demolition by the Borough. The sponsoring group invited three local auctioneers to set up booths. Only one accepted – Houser Auctioneers.
In tracking the antiques and collectibles trade, I need to remember to avoid drawing general conclusions based upon the markets I visit. Most of my trade contacts are urban and suburban. What happens in these markets is not always what is happening in the countryside.
Country and porch auctions were an important part of my antiques and collectibles education. An auctioneer or team of auctioneers sold on site. The household goods were sold from a podium on the porch or in the yard. On some occasions, the auctioneer sold goods as he/she went from room to room. If there was a garage or barn, a second or third auctioneer sold at these sites simultaneously with the sale of the household goods.
A few auctioneers owned a small building where weekly auctions were conducted. In some instances, goods were lined up outside as they arrived for sale. The auctioneer walked the line selling individual items or lots while a clerk kept track of the consigners. When the auctioneer had the opportunity to acquire a house “loaded with antiques,” he/she rented a local fire hall and moved the items there.
Inspection on the fly, every buyer for him/herself, the strong sense of competition, the arrival and departure of the pickers, the curiosity seekers, and homemade food, especially the pies, are memories I will never forget. Those were the good old days.
To my surprise, not as old as I thought.
In an age when “work ethic” is becoming a dirty word, the Houser family’s commitment to its work ethic roots is commendable.
During the appraisal clinic’s lunch break, I asked the gentleman representing Houser Auctioneers to come and talk with me. Jason Houser, grandson of the founders Curtis and Gwendolyn Houser, accepted my invitation. Never stop learning is one of the keys to being successful in the antiques and collectibles trade.
Jason is the son of Doug, who with his brother Tim, continued his parents’ business. Jason attended the United States Air Force Academy and spent 20 years flying jets and other aircraft before retiring. He is a Southwest Airlines pilot flying out of Baltimore and living in the Lehigh Valley. The other four days each week he works with his family members at Houser Auctioneers.
When asked for advice by individuals wishing to become part of the antiques and collectibles business, my first comment is do not give up your day job. Houser Auctioneers is a part-time business for most of its members. Jason’s father Doug retired as a teacher. Tim’s son Nathan currently heads the electrical engineering and design branch of Mack/Volvo trucks.
For the past five years, Houser Auctioneers has held more than 100 sales per year, an average of almost two a week. Although the majority of these sales are real estate, Houser Auctioneers still does country and porch sales. The country “gavel banger” tradition is more alive and well than I ever imagined.
Houser Auctioneers does not have an auction gallery. Jason informed me that the family twice looked at the possibility and came to the conclusion that the overhead cost outweighed the potential gain. With no place to take or store unsold material, everything sells no matter what the bid.
I asked Jason why after a distinguished career in the Air Force, he returned to the family business. His answer was a simple one—family. He enjoys being around and working with family. The Houser philosophy of “ALWAYS REMEMBER YOUR ROOTS” applies to business as well as family.
Historically, auctioneering has been a family business. Sons and daughters grew up in the business. A person was never too young to do something. The financial rewards and independence enticed a second generation. Keeping a firm in the family for a third generation was much more difficult. If asked to name a two-generation auction house, I could rattle off more names than I have fingers in a matter of minutes. If asked to name a three-generation house, I would need far more time.
Jason’s and my conversation intensified when he mentioned that Houser Auctioneers does not charge a buyer’s penalty (politely referred to as a premium by some). There was a momentary silence on my part. Could this be true? Were there still auctioneers who followed this practice and could still make a living?
Jason explained that his grandfather, father, and his father’s brother strongly believed the seller should bear the full cost of the sale. Buyers should not have to pay for the right to buy an item. Years ago, I had concluded that the buyer’s penalty was a foregone conclusion at auctions. I have my fingers crossed it does not work its way down to the estate sale marketplace.
“What sales percentage do you charge to make up for the lack of the buyer’s penalty?” I asked. “Houser charges a flat rate,” Jason replied. “By flat rate do you mean a percentage of sales with no add-ons?” I queried. “Absolutely,” Jason stated.
My readers can probably guess my next question: “What percentage do you charge?” I am not going to reveal the answer. I still am shell-shocked by how low the percentage is. At first, I thought Jason was kidding me. He assured me he was not.
It is not every day one meets a person let alone a family that is in the antiques and collectibles business for love and service as opposed to getting rich. Do not get the wrong impression. Houser Auctioneers is not a hobby. It is a business, one that requires a great deal of work. Again, in an age when “work ethic” is becoming a dirty word, the Houser family’s commitment to its work ethic roots is commendable.
There are other American auctioneer firms that operate like Houser Auctioneers. Like their counterparts, they are out in the countryside and out of the limelight. The fact that they carry on a century-old tradition is comforting.
As my conversation with Jason Houser neared its end, I asked if there were fourth generation family members interested in continuing Houser Auctioneers. Jason has a daughter who wants to be a doctor, which he is encouraging her do. If she is a chip off the Houser block, she will move back to the Lehigh River Valley and work on the weekends keeping the family business alive.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.
You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AMEastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.
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