November 23, 2014

Scoring deals and treasures at local auction houses

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Art of the auction a
family tradition for Merrills 

By Rachel Gill

Observer correspondent 

August 15th, 2013

Vintage Vermont baseball bats, 1960s base guitars and 57 pieces of French Quimper dishware all sold in under a minute during an estate auction in Williston. These collectables now have a new lease on life, thanks to a family of auction experts who consider selling an art.

Duane Merrill and his son Ethan Merrill were auctioneers at the July 28 event at Duane Merrill & Company, featuring items from the estates of a former UVM professor, a Norwich University Quartermaster, a Newport conductor and a music teacher. Pieces ranged from furniture and paintings to clocks and jewelry.

The father and son duo fielded bids from auction-goers at warp speed to sell everything, and fast. Bids that started at $100 shot up to over $600 in seconds.

“There are many auctioneers who can take bids, but there’s damn few that can actually sell,” Duane Merrill said. “There is a great deal of psychology in selling, so the art of selling is extremely important.”

Part of the psychology of selling is knowing your product.

“If an auctioneer doesn’t know his products or is not enthusiastic about them, he is probably not going to be a great seller,” Duane Merrill said. “You have to bring out the qualities of a piece and be able to talk about it.”

The Merrills have a long family history of knowing the ins and outs of the antique business. Duane Merrill’s parents, Nathan and Margaret Merrill, started Ethan Allen Antique Shop, Inc. in 1938 in South Burlington and founded the Vermont Antique Dealers Association. Merrill’s Auction Gallery was founded in 1967. Duane Merrill’s son Todd owns Todd Merrill Antiques in New York City and was the director of public relations at Christie’s New York as well as a founding executive of auctions.com.

Part of the family’s continued success comes from utilizing its staff to research auction items, helping to add value to spark bids. Joseph Perron has worked for the Merrills for nine years. Perron researches items to find useful facts for the auctioneers.

“I’m really into the stories behind all these pieces,” Perron said. “It just makes a piece that much more interesting and it becomes something to talk about.”

At the recent auction, Perron, busy getting auction items to the stage, made time to retrieve his bidding paddle from his back pocket in hopes of snagging a small ceramic statue of Mary.

“I wanted this piece because after speaking to one of the family members of the estate, I learned that it was found in the 1930s in the garbage in Brooklyn,” Perron said.

Perron’s passion started when he attended auctions with his grandmother in his youth.

“You never know how an auction is going to turn out,” Perron said. “Some of the mid-range pieces being sold today are going slowly, but the higher-priced items are going fast, so it’s difficult to predict—that’s what makes it interesting.”

The July 28 auction was a first for Christie White of St. Albans.

“I am really glad I came,” White said. “There are some really great deals.”

White came away with a painting by an unknown artist titled “Tea” for $45, featuring a woman dressed in bold colors sitting at a small café table sipping tea.

“I just love the vibrant colors,” White said.

Sheri Moore, a Vermont antiques dealer, won the bid on an antique lamp with intricate multicolored flowers.

“I come to these auctions every time they have one,” Moore said. “They always do a great job, they are very organized and they auction wonderful pieces.”

Moore said she has noticed some growing trends in the auction scene.

“They are becoming very popular with young couples just starting out,” Moore said. “They end up saving thousands of dollars by furnishing their new homes with what they buy at auctions and get higher quality items that will last.”

Another auction trend is narrowing the buyer audience.

“Sometimes we are dealing with highly specialized pieces that only a handful of collectors are interested in, so to do that we have live online auctions,” Duane Merrill said. “Otherwise, we would not reach those buyers.”

In other cases, auction items have a hefty price tag.

“We come across pieces regularly that have a starting bid in the thousands of dollars, so having bidding online lets us reach buyers in places like New York City who want to invest, and selling those items locally would be very difficult,” Duane Merrill said.

With a lifetime of experience, Duane Merrill said he and his family plan to continue the family enterprise.

“We like what we do and we are very good at it,” Duane Merrill said. “We could just as well be doing cars, real estate or bankruptcies, but we are not enthusiastic about those so we have always believed in selling what we like and doing what we like to do.”

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