At a time when so much merchandise is being moved lower down the food chain, the result of rising minimum lot thresholds and the scaling-back in traditional sale categories, some sense opportunity. Expansion and investment is one route to a larger market share. The other is through acquisition.
The news that Freeman’s in Philadelphia is moving to new downtown premises follows a string of significant developments in the US ‘regional’ auction scene across the past 12 months.
Rago in Lambertville New Jersey and Wright in Chicago and New York announced a merger in June. Art, jewellery and ceramics firm Rago was founded in 1984 and design specialist Wright in 2000. Both houses will continue to operate under their individual names while sharing technology, expertise, marketing efforts and Richard Wright as the CEO of the combined company.
Chicago-headquartered Hindman, formerly Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, has an ambitious agenda that goes beyond a recent rebrand. A year ago, the firm sold a stake to a private equity group to help fund expansion and accelerate its digital strategy quickly followed by the purchase of Cowans, the Cincinnati auction house that began as specialist in historic Americana but branched out into vibrant disciplines such as Chinese and contemporary art.
Former Paddle8 managing director Thomas Galbraith has been chief executive at Hindman since June 2018, tasked with leading “the premier mid-market auction house in America”. He spoke at the recent Art Business Conference in London about his desire to blend the best of new technology with traditional customer service values.
He said the firm uses a number of aggregator platforms to push around 80% of its business online but believes the physical presence is still crucial. “We have 10 offices across the US and have more salerooms than any other auction house there. If you are going to serve the community then you need to be in the community.” Running more than 100 sales year, Hindman now has offices in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Milwaukee, Naples, Palm Beach, Scottsdale, St Louis as well as Chicago.
Diversity is key
In a market where the collecting Zeitgeist has shifted (the market for American brown furniture is as soft as its Old World equivalent), it has paid not to put all the eggs in one basket.
Once a mid-ranking player in the toys and advertising memorabilia market, Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pennsylvania has assumed control of a number of niche operations in fields such as mechanical music, gaming machines, antique firearms and jewellery. Morphy acquired the business of the Maine antique arms and armour specialist auction house James D Julia in 2017 and this year took a controlling stake in the world’s biggest vintage arms and armour fair in Las Vegas.
Dallas auction house Heritage now offers sales across the collecting board. The firm - currently styling itself as ‘the largest auction house founded in the United States’ - has recently expanded its offerings of fine and decorative art with monthly timed online sales of art and antiques (the first of 200 lots was in July).
The auctions, closing on the second Thursday of each month, include material from estates and downsizing collections plus a section titled The Gentleman Collector. They complement Heritage’s Signature Live Auctions and other online auctions of photographs, prints and multiples.