TORONTO — Don Colling is preparing to bang the gavel on a nearly half-century career as an auctioneer in the face of stiff competition from online sales.
“This year might be my last,” says the 82-year-old, who is recovering from a stroke.
He’s seen the live auction business dwindle with more and more colleagues retiring as younger buyers scoff at antiques.
“Estate sales and antique sales they were a big thing in the past but now you can hardly give an antique away,” Colling said in an interview. “The younger generation, they couldn’t care less about if it was grandma’s dishes.”
In the golden years of auctioning, Colling’s antique company used to conduct two sales per week, including summer sales in Ontario’s cottage country that attracted Hollywood stars including Goldie Hawn and Matt Damon.
Sales were so lucrative that he could make twice as much in a week as he did while also working in automobile assembly at Chrysler. But now he can only muster up enough quality goods and buyer demand for one sale per month.
Kilshaw’s Auctioneers closed last year after more than two centuries in Victoria as more and more sellers hawked their belongings on eBay, Kijiji, Craigslist and online dealers without the help of a middleman, says owner Alison Ross.
The company tried to join the trend by offering concurrent online sales once per month that expanded the buying audience beyond the city.
“That certainly helped in some regard but the cost of doing business in a downtown core like Victoria is prohibitive,” she said in an interview.
On top of the rise of digital auction companies, the market has been flooded with traditional home decor over the last 15 years as baby boomers and their parents downsized at the same time. That’s left furniture fetching a fraction of the original purchase price.
In addition, younger buyers want modern, clean-line furniture, preferring mid-century modern to Victorian. Royal Doulton pieces and collectible plates are no longer in fashion.
To combat online sales, many auction houses have been forced to specialize or move into high-priced goods that continue to have an audience. In turn, it’s become more difficult to find auction houses willing to liquidate an entire estate.
“People think their stuff is worth a fortune,” said Stacy Martin, a Hamilton-area auctioneer who took over his dad’s business nearly 40 years ago.
Television shows that focus on people getting lots of money for their belongings doesn’t help, he said. It’s left some sellers demanding excessive prices for their possessions.
Martin said he’s old-school and has no plans to transition to online sales that take more work to photograph and catalogue lots for sale. But he understands why online auctions would be attractive to buyers who can bid from the comfort of their homes.
Auctioneer Steve Pritchard of Mount Hope, Ont., says online auctions have been “pretty rough” on live auctioneers who conduct business the traditional way.
“It has really taken over,” he said, referring to countless online auctions that regularly spring up.
Even local Ontario police forces have moved away from auctions outside stations to their own website that also includes goods from transit agencies and universities.
The veteran auctioneer foresees live auctions “kind of dwindling out” in 15 to 20 years as auction sites like MaxSold expand.
Online auctions have taken off because they are far more accessible to busy professionals who don’t want to spend hours at live events, said Sushee Perumal, who co-founded MaxSold a decade ago with Barry Gordon.
They are a lot more lucrative than live events because they are “scalable,” attracting hundreds of participants, including younger buyers new to auctions, at each of the 400 events it conducts per month, compared to just hundreds at far fewer live events.
“What we set out to create is the McDonald’s of the auction industry,” he said.
MaxSold has been named one of the fastest growing companies in Canada, achieving more than $20 million in annual sales and is in the midst of seeking venture capital.
Perumal expects live auctions will continue to dwindle in number as older auction house owners close their doors because their children don’t want to take over the business.
Gordon isn’t ready to predict the death of live auctions. He said some still have currency, including benefit auctions, farm auctions with equipment relevant to local residents and auctions of an antique collector well-known in a region.
“I think there’s a place for live auctions. It’s just much less relevant in most people’s lives.”
A reduction in the number of live auctions is unfortunate but unavoidable given the higher costs, especially in urban centres like Toronto, said Jamie Jamieson, president of 403 Auction Inc. of Brampton, Ont.
Live auctions are an entirely different experience and more of a social event with regular attendees.
“We did thousands of live sales in our 14 or 15 years of business and they are unique among themselves but it certainly is a dying breed.”
Like so many others, the firm switched to entirely online sales last fall.
“I bet you it would go to 20 per cent of what it was in 2010 and it’s already decreased say by half.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2020.
Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press