There is no question the antique auction business has changed. The increasing use of internet bidding has left many auction galleries with empty seats yet more bidders. We miss the camaraderie of the “regulars” at local auctions that often attracted standing-room-only crowds. We miss the psychology of deciding when and how much to bid and “reading” the competition in the room.
Today the “preview” might attract local bidders who look at items in person but bid through the internet. On occasion there are sales that don’t include any gallery bidding. When possible we still like to be in the gallery, but sometimes it’s hard to spend most of a day waiting for an item or two when it is possible to set a bid on the internet or “drop in” the on-line auction from time-to-time.
For auctioneers the business now involves a great deal more of pre and post-auction work. Photographing every lot to be sold and providing at least a minimal description replaces the old system of a “runner” holding up an item and the auctioneer providing a verbal description. Following up on payments, packing and shipping (or partnering with a shipping company) then follows. In the “good old days” once the auction ended most of the sold items were on their way out the door with the buyer. Now the gallery is likely to have a the majority of sold items still in-house awaiting shipping.
The good news for sellers is the internet auction is likely to attract far more bidders than in the past and, of course, a likely higher hammer price. For buyers we may end up paying a little more than we may have at a gallery, but we also have many more opportunities to find that elusive item for our collections.
Personally, auctions of the old days are especially nostalgic. Those on-site, un-curated household auctions were part treasure hunt, part bad coffee and good doughnuts at the food tent, and the differing “chant” of various auctioneers. In my early teen years, I was a runner at a weekly sale at a local auction barn –it really was a barn – and I typically spent my 75 cents an hour cash pay (no deductions, of course) on boxes of books. A few years ago at the Schultz Auction gallery, I was able to buy an auction poster featuring the auctioneer who held the sales at the barn. I paid a bit too much, but it did come with a straw hat!