Reminiscences - Part XXVII
by Michael Rogers
Starting Our Public Auctions
The construction trade has a motto that I remember well: "Measure twice, cut once." Best to think it through to avoid doing the task over.
Thirty years ago when I entered the China field as a specialist dealer, the auction company that knew China & Asia best was George Alevizos of California. As I handed George a splendid postal history consignment in 1983, I remember assuring him that I never contemplated doing my own auctions for I was far too shy. I was right, but I was shortsighted.
When I was 16, I saved my summer earnings cutting grass—almost $1,000. A New York City auction company offered an almost complete set of Japanese official commemorative picture postcards for the Russo-Japanese War of 1905-6. Beautiful beyond belief, a perfect complement to my collection. Exceeding the estimate of $600, I bid by mail the $1,000 that I’d saved. I congratulated myself for bidding so much when I found out the lot was awarded to me for $950.
A couple of years later when I went to college, I had to sell my Japanese collection. I had met a fine specialist dealer who coincidentally had been in attendance at the same auction where my set of Russo Japanese cards came up for sale. A moment after his eyes alighted on the prize, he told me the auction house had taken advantage of my mail bid, for no one in their right mind would pay what I had for this beautiful set of postcards. No way could there have been an underbid to support what I’d paid. It was painful at the time, but I’d owned them awhile and was happy to have done so. In order to sell them, I lost half my cost. Experienced as I am in this field now, I know the dealer was telling me the truth.
What had happened to me so many years ago is called "massaging the bid." The way to encourage bidders to trust the company with big mail bids is not taking advantage of a bidder’s trust. I’ll bet you there’s not one of the auction companies you know that would do it today. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation; just one malfeasance to wreck it.
Though the company bears my name, its most valuable asset would be the employees, for with them, it is so much easier to turn ideas into accomplishments. Towards the end of 1983, a multitalented fellow named Joe Cartafalsa came to work at my company. He could write postal history with great style.
Because the company had so much specialized material on hand, we started China/Asia & Airpost mail sales in 1984. (A mail sale operates as a clerical event, accepting bids as a public auction would, excepting in a mail sale no one shows up in person to bid.) In those days, there wasn’t the access to China literature that we enjoy today. Mail sales were good practice for the public auctions that were on the horizon.
James Kerr came to work with us in mid 1986. He was the strong hand to guide us along, highly intelligent, absolute integrity, intuitive, dry wit. Because Jim knew Norman Townsend, the Townsend collection of China would become the content of our first public auction, whenever we were ready to do it. (We called it the Dragon Auction in January 1988.)
I had attended a public auction where each lot was to be sold without reserve. In the catalogue, each lot had an estimated cash value, which was the company’s opinion of what that lot should sell for. It could sell higher or lower. On the day of the sale, the auctioneer opened one lot at $15 which was estimated at $250-$350. No one offered a bid so I raised my hand and won it for the opening bid of just $15! Later that evening, I pondered how unhappy the consignor must have been.
Florida is one of the few states which allows a public auction to place a reserve on public auction lots. So that everyone would be on board, we state the reserve of 50% of the estimated cash value (ECV) at the bottom of each page in the auction catalogue. That’s called transparency.
We needed a consignor contract. I phoned a friend of mine who owned another auction house, asking for a sample of theirs so I could modify it. Now, I like to read but darned if I didn’t have the toughest time just getting past the first page, and their document was 35 tightly spaced pages altogether. Upon hearing my frustrations, my friend said I was missing the point; the intention wasn’t comprehension. Buried in those pages was wording to the effect that protected his company for gross negligence!
Uh oh. That approach didn’t work for me. I wanted a contract that protected both sides. It had to be concise and fair.
So when I gathered my thoughts, I went to our attorney, saying I wanted a one page contract, without any confusing words lay people don’t know. Keep it simple. Almost got there with a page and a half.
I broke the equation down into three components: seller, buyer and the auction house. It seemed to me that the same conversation I would have with the seller should be plain to the buyer: no unpublished reserves.
Because we started writing China/Asia public auctions, we got into the habit of writing more text and providing more photos than a traditional public auction house. A stateside auction house would write a fine description, keying it to a Scott number to fall back on. Writing China/Asia lots tends to be more difficult because of the complexity of the material.
Unexpected events changed the direction of our company. Julius Gerlach, a noted airpost collector stopped in on his way to the east coast of Florida, scouting for a retirement condo. A brilliant guy – a noted physician – yet kind and genial, Jake was receptive to my off the cuff suggestion that he consider writing our Airpost auctions. Winter Park would make a fine semi-retirement location.
Worldwide content auctions came about in 1995.
I’d say to the staff "There’s no tax on words!" encouraging them to plow on. The more work we did, the better the realization. Often enough, the buyer would clip out the description from our auction catalogue and mount it under the winning lot in his album. I like that!
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