Saturday, July 25, 2009

Aiming for Failure

There are a handful of active local auctioneers, but for some reason one has crossed my mind who is now inactive. We'll call him Mel.

Auction houses are a good source for resellers, more reliable than garage sales, for example, and in a climate like Chicago's quite important during the colder months.

Very early in my eBay selling I tripped over Mel's auction house and paid it a visit. Such places range from low end up through medium and still further up to houses such as Sotheby's. Some specialize in certain fields - art, militaria, etc. - but most do not.

Mel's was at the lower end of the spectrum. He had many individual consignors who would present him with a lot or two for future auctions, but I think he got most of his goods from home owners (or their survivors) when houses needed to be emptied.

Mel was not a very good auctioneer, and my own opinion is that it was all due to his ego. He wasn't actually hostile, but many times it seemed as if "resentment" would describe his attitude. At least once an auction he would gripe about the fact that no one bid at whatever starting price he had set, but at some point would bid more than that. "You know the bidding is going to go higher than that, so why are you wasting time?"

But the fact is that some items didn't go as high as his proposed starting bid, and people saved money, getting the items for less. Then he'd whine about people saving fifty cents or whatever. But they weren't trying any harder to save that fifty cents than he was to get it, and if you can get an item for $4.50 instead of $5.00, then you've saved ten percent.

I noted that he consistently got less for items than other auction houses got. In fact, at least one of his regular customers was a woman who worked for another auction house. She would bid on items at Mel's, and when successful she would consign them to the auction house at which she worked. It wasn't unusual for her to pay three or four dollars, say, for a painting or other object, then sell it a week later for twenty-five or thirty dollars.

Although we were cordial, occasionally even friendly, we were not each other's favorite people. Beginning with a couple of conversations, he developed an attitude about me. Can you imagine? Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha.

The first was a conversation we had about unsold items. I offered to reach an arrangement with him. I would go through his unsold items after each auction, select some, then try to sell them on eBay. We would agree on some percentage split of the sales.

"What makes you think you can sell them if I can't?"

"Well, you have forty or fifty people in a room for an hour or two, and perhaps someone who would buy it isn't there. I'll have twenty million potential buyers for a week."

But I think that the thought that I might sell something he failed to sell rankled, and instead he threw the unsold items into a dumpster each week. Is that insane or what? For *no* work he would have received *some* money, but he trashed the goods instead.

The second conversation was over a cup of coffee during the preview period before an auction. He was boasting of having acquired several decades of art work by a now deceased Chicago newspaper staff member, and saying that he was trying to decide whether to sell it all at once or break it up into smaller lots.

"I think you should consider taking it to a place like Sotheby's or Christie's."

"Oh, I guess I can't play with the BIG boys, huh?"

"No, of course not. Those houses are generations old, and they can fill rooms with people who wouldn't blink at bidding millions of dollars. They might get you something in five figures for that material."

He got up and left the table. In the end he broke the stuff up into smaller lots. At a guess he got between eight hundred and a thousand dollars for all of it. Aim low. It always works.

Well, eventually his business folded. I miss it, as it was a good source of stuff for resale.