Auction Business Still Bidding High

Not only do people hope to buy something at a bargain price at auction — in this recession, people are also using those sales to turn some of their possessions into cash. To check out how that's working — we visited an auction house in Washington, D.C., just down the street from NPR.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Not only do people hope to buy something at a bargain price at auction, in this recession, people are also using those sales to turn some of their possessions into cash. To check out how that's working, we visited an auction house in Washington, D.C., just down the street from NPR.

Mr. DAVID WESCHLER (Auctioneer): My name is David Weschler, auctioneer.

Mr. LEONARD WESCHLER (Auctioneer): My name is Leonard Weschler, and I'm also an auctioneer.

Mr. MIKE WESCHLER (Auctioneer): My name is Mike Weschler, auctioneer.

WERTHEIMER: They're family, obviously, in a family business that started selling goods in 1890. Weschler's Auctioneers and Appraisers has two floors of auction rooms, offices over that and long deep dusty rooms at the top of the building crammed with goods that are headed for the hammer.

Mr. TOM WESCHLER (Auctioneer; Senior Vice President, Weschler's Auctioneers and Appraisers): Hi, I'm Tom Weschler, the senior vice president and auctioneer and appraiser.

WERTHEIMER: Not everybody in this house is named Weschler, but there sure seemed to be a lot of them.

Mr. T. WESCHLER: Right now we have eight Weschlers. We've got six from the fourth generation and two from the fifth generation. My great grandfather, Adam, founded the company. Adam had a son, Ralph. Ralph had three boys and the three boys had 29 children. And there's six of us in the business from there -good Catholic family.

WERTHEIMER: The Weschlers have seen this country through good economies and bad. They mostly deal in furniture, art, jewelry, carpets and silver. And they're still getting top prices for unusual or valuable pieces, according to Tom Weschler.

Mr. T. WESCHLER: It looks like that the market is still strong on good pieces. The items that may be in the medium range to low range, that market has dropped, but good pieces are always going to sell.

WERTHEIMER: What about consigning? Are you seeing any kind of a change in the amount of, not necessarily the really good stuff, but in the amount of stuff that's coming through?

Mr. T. WESCHLER: We're not seeing a rush like you may hear about the pawnbrokers or different venues for selling secondhand. We do a lot of estate work. We do do some people who are downsizing, or changing taste, décor, whatever, but it's been pretty steady, thank goodness.

WERTHEIMER: But, Tom Weschler says, when he's called out to appraise items in this area, he does run into people who seem to need the money, who seem anxious to sell.

Mr. T. WESCHLER: I've been doing this for almost 30 years now, so you sort of get a feel as some of the questions that they may start to ask. You know, how soon can I sell it? When can I get the proceeds? When can we start this process? And then usually over a couple questions you get the idea that they're in need of selling and liquidating as soon as possible.

WERTHEIMER: Weschler's has weekly auctions of household goods in that medium to low range, Tom Weschler mentioned. That would be nice stuff that's not quite antique, furniture that's not in perfect condition and quite a bit of just plain junk - the stuff from the bottom drawer in somebody's kitchen. And that's where Weschler's does see a recession effect. Executive Vice President Virginia Weschler did not put a number on it, but gave us an example.

Ms. VIRGINIA WESCHLER (Executive Vice President, Weschler's Auctioneers and Appraisers): We have items in this week's auction, for example, that came out of a storage unit. A man's been paying storage fees for probably about five to seven years, it appears. And who's just said, "You know what? I can't afford it anymore." And so he's let go of all these things that he's carefully stored. He's letting go of, you know, a lot of the memory pieces of his life and selling it because he can't afford to support the storage fees anymore. And he might as well get some money out it.

WERTHEIMER: Those weekly auctions are also where people come to buy.

Ms. WESCHLER: People come to auction for one of two reasons. They come to auction to get something special, something unique, something they can't find anywhere else, or to get something cheap. But I do think that we're seeing more people who are turning to auction as a way of stretching their dollar.

WERTHEIMER: Virginia Weschler says the frozen real estate market that is affecting the economy has also affected the auction house. When real estate was hot, Weschler's would sell whatever people did not take to their new homes when they moved. But right now no one is buying new homes. So the volume of merchandise is down.

Unidentified Man: Buyer number 42…

WERTHEIMER: In this recession, people appear to be scaling back at all levels, not spending or making budget-conscious decisions when they do spend. That's true of buyers who come to Weschler's looking for dining room chairs instead of shopping at a furniture store. And dealers who come to auctions to find the kind of stock their customers will buy in this economy.

Ms. ANNE DONAHUE(ph): My name is Anne Donahue and I have a small shop in Virginia - Alexandria.

WERTHEIMER: Now, can you see an effect of the recession on your business, both in terms of buying and selling?

Ms. DONAHUE: Well, our numbers are down, so the answer is definitely yes. People continue to come in, they enjoy looking, it's a good outing, but they're buying smaller items. They're not buying the higher ticket items like they used to.

WERTHEIMER: So does that affect what you do when you come to an auction sale like this?

Ms. DONAHUE: Yes, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DONAHUE: But I also can't sell what I don't have. And if they come in and see that, you know, that there isn't a full house, they don't like that. So I keep buying and I keep showing. But the numbers are down.

WERTHEIMER: Collectors will always buy if they possibly can. But they, too, are searching for well-priced goods. Albert Barudi(ph) is from Florence, South Carolina. He bid on and got a precision balance, a specialized scale with its own wooden box, and he was pleased with his find.

Mr. ALBERT BARUDI (Collector): We like interesting things. This is a fine American piece probably made in the '30s. It's unusual in that I've never seen a precision balance like this with the original literature, as well as the original case.

WERTHEIMER: Are you happy with the prize that you paid for this?

Mr. BARUDI: Indeed, yes, I am.

WERTHEIMER: Can we ask you what you paid?

Mr. BARUDI: I think it was 55 or $60. So even if it just simply sits at the house and I look at it once a month, it's enjoyment.

WERTHEIMER: Virginia Weschler works with customers. And she says just what Mr. Barudi said: even when times are hard, people look for something, something they need for a good price, or maybe something that will brighten their lives.

Ms. WESCHLER: Pretty items, decorative items always do well. Things that people have never seen before and are really intrigued by will always do well. There's something about people, they really like novelty. They like change in their life. And so if they can put in a new lamp in their room and make it look different, they'll love to do that. If they can buy a piece of art, they'll do that. But they won't spend a lot of money right now.

WERTHEIMER: Virginia Weschler at Weschler's Auctions and Appraisals. Thanks to the bidders at this week's sale and to all the Weschlers for letting us go to the auction.

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