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Auction houses look forward to promising fall, winter seasons

| Monday, July 4, 2011

With the first half of 2011 in the record books, local auctioneers reflect on the opening six months of the year -- and offer a forecast or two for the fall and winter selling seasons.

Dargate Auction Galleries

Nearly eight months after bidding farewell to its longtime East End location, Dargate Auction Galleries christened its new McKees Rocks home in the former St. Mark Slavish Roman Catholic Church with a three-day May event to officially open its 2011 auction season. As Dargate faced numerous challenges in transforming the house of worship, the company hosted sales at an offsite location. Now, as consignment manager David Arnold explains, Dargate is "finally settling in" at its Rocks Bottoms digs.

"We're pretty much back to business as normal," Arnold says. "We had a very positive response to our first sale in the building. The in-house attendance was on par with what we experienced in our old location. You usually expect some problems the first time you hold a sale in a new building, but everything went smoothly."

With two more scheduled sales this year, in July and October, Arnold expects strong results -- even though sluggish summers are part of "business as usual" for the auction industry. As he and the rest of the Dargate staff prepare for the upcoming events, Arnold points out that customers will notice further improvements in the building's interior lighting, the company's website and other upgrades.

"It's an ongoing process," he says. "But, from this point on, we're here to stay."

Constantine & Pletcher

Based on the overall results for the opening half of 2011, the numbers are on par with what Constantine & Pletcher co-owners, Jeff Constantine and Dan Pletcher, might expect -- with a slight twist.

"So far, it's been a typical year as far as our sales numbers," Pletcher says. "The only surprise has been that this spring was a bit slow for us, and summer is busier than normal. Generally, it's the other way around."

That positive reversal of fortune seems likely to continue as future consignors are keeping the heat on Constantine & Pletcher, in a good way.

"We've had 15 sales so far this year," Pletcher says. "That's a good amount. And, from the number of inquiries we've had lately, plus the volume of pick-up calls we've made in the past few weeks, the rest of this year is looking very good."

A big part of the company's first-half success can be pinned on a "two-in-one" sales approach that's a regular part of Constantine & Pletcher auctions. In the past, the company tended to conduct cataloged and non-cataloged sales on different days. In a smart marketing move, the two types of sales now occur on the same day, with the non-cataloged portion preceding the cataloged sale. The result is a 30-percent jump in non-cataloged sales and significant increases in the cataloged totals as bidders stay in their seats for the second part of the auction. Still, Pletcher sees a bit of buyer hesitancy because of the economy.

"Everyone is still penny-conscious," he says. "We're getting a bit of a reprieve with lower gas prices lately. But people are still cautious."

Still, with new merchandise coming in every week, Constantine & Pletcher increased its staff of late to keep pace for an active fall forecast.

"Everything that's coming through our doors now," Pletcher says, "will end in sales for August and beyond. In fact, we're already booked for October. That's a great start on ending the year on a strong note."

Three Rivers Auction Co.

Tripp Kline will tell you that it's all about the economy -- and that's the good and bad news. While the slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 continues to depress buyer enthusiasm, the Marcellus Shale industry is fueling a mini-bidding boom in the Washington County showroom of Three Rivers Auction County.

"Obviously, the struggling economy is affecting most businesses, including ours," says Kline, the owner of Three Rivers. "When times are bad, people tend to buy more of what they need. And auctioneers are in the business of selling non-necessary items. However, while people might be buying less furniture, art, pottery or other household or decorative items at auctions like they have in the past, the economy has created a stronger demand for precious metals such as gold and silver. And jewelry sales are up, too."

Another precious resource is pumping up sales at Three Rivers -- natural gas.

"One big bright spot here in Washington County is the Marcellus Shale industry," Kline says. "There's an influx of people from the energy sector relocating to the area. Recently, a family that had previously been living in Qatar moved here and attended one of our auctions to buy furniture and other items to furnish their home. We should see more of that in the future. We expect to see more of that."

With a stronger showing this past winter and spring than the similar period in 2010, Kline believes that "people feel a bit more encouraged by the recovery to buy at auctions than they would have in the previous 12 to 15 months."

A switch to Tuesday evening sales also boosted Three Rivers first-half showing.

"The change from Sunday afternoons to Tuesday evenings was a good move," Kline says. "The weekday sales seem to fit people's schedules better. Weekends can be busy for most people. Sometimes, we all seem to have more free time during a weekday night than on a Saturday or Sunday. Our attendance is stronger with standing-room-only crowds."

As is the case with other local auction houses, summer generally tends to be slow at Three Rivers. This year, however, the company seems to be reversing that trend -- an indicator that bodes well for the back half of 2011.

"Generally, what happens during the warm weather months reflects on what will happen in the fall and winter, our bread-and-butter time of the year," he says. "If that holds true, then it's a good omen for us, since we've added a couple sales to our summer schedule to handle a recent increase of consignments."

BHD Auctions

Brian Detch knows all about the summertime blues in the auction business. As a longtime employee of J.S. Dill Auctions, the owner of BHD Auctions realizes that sales totals fluctuate as the temperatures rise and fall.

"Of all the years I worked at J.S. Dill, I remember one strong summer," Detch says. "If you've been in this business long enough, you know not to expect blockbuster sales during this time of the year."

Billed as the "next generation in auctions," Detch is tapping into the market of the J.S. Dill faithful. While he's not quite up to the twice-a-month pace of his former employer, Detch is hosting monthly sales at the American Legion Hall in Zelienople with a modest amount of success.

"Right now, the market is tough for smaller items at the lower end of the price range," he says. "But it's still a seller's market for top-end goods. No matter what shape the economy might be in, the big-ticket items always sell."

As for the future of his company and the industry in general, Detch is cautiously optimistic.

"I think we'll continue here at a pretty good pace throughout the fall and winter," he says. "But I do wonder if online competition from Craigslist and eBay will hurt everyone down the line."

Upcoming Sales

Dargate Auction Galleries : A three-day event, July 22-24, featuring fine art, furniture, lighting and more. Details: 412-771-8700.

Three Rivers Auction Co. : Mark your calendars for July 19, as Three Rivers returns with Tuesday-night sale of antiques and collectibles. Details: 724-222-8020.

Constantine & Pletcher : The Cheswick-based auctioneer goes back to the block on July 24. Details: 724-275-7190.

Royal York Auction Gallery : The art of Virgil Cantini takes center stage as the Royal York opens the doors for business on July 23. Details: 412-661-1171.

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