A crowd of people flows into the Sorrento-Sullivan Recreation Center on a Saturday morning, starting at 8 a.m., each of them stopping first at a table to get an index card with a number written on it with a black permanent marker.
There is no admission charge, but this is their ticket to the show.
Exchanging greetings and smiles (and sometimes, friendly banter) with the women at the table, they then make their way to the back of the building to see what treasures may await them sitting against the wall or packed into cardboard boxes. The items they are looking over have come out of barns, garages and homes, and sometimes haven’t seen the light of day for years or decades.
It’s the calm before the selling storm, a preview session giving customers a chance to look over the items that in a short time will be auctioned off by Bobby Richardson. By the time 10 a.m. rolls around, when the first of two auction sessions starts, there are more than 60 people seated in the room.
Having worked in the auction business for 30 years — his business is called Maine Auction Action, based in Lamoine — Richardson encourages those in attendance to look at anything they want to buy before placing a bid on it because everything is sold as-is.
Pieces are presented by runners, several men Richardson has working for him to bring things up to the front and then carry them out to the winning bidder. Richardson briefly describes each and then sees what the audience has for an appetite.
“Fifty? Twenty-five? Ten? Five? Couple dollars?” he asks, stopping when he gets a bite. Then he’ll work it higher, if more than one person is interested, until only one bidder remains. If multiple items are being auctioned off at the same time, Richardson makes it clear they are going for “one money,” that the price is for the total lot.
Other local auctioneers include Jerry Miller in Mount Desert, Michael Hodgkins of Trenton and Bill Pelletier Jr. of Bernard. Pelletier and Hodgkins hold auctions at the Trenton Grange Hall on Route 3 in Bar Harbor, while Miller usually stages his at Norumbega Moving & Storage in Southwest Harbor.
The sales the auctioneers put on are often estate sales, when an individual has died and the family or an attorney working for them contacts the auctioneer in order to sell off the contents of the estate. Looking through those possessions can be an adventure.
“In some instances, it’s like Christmas every day,” said Richardson, such as going into an attic where no one has been for half a century and seeing what is stored there.
Richardson and Miller said that if a family is looking to have estate contents auctioned off, they should let an auctioneer come in and look at it to determine what has potential to sell and what ought to be taken out with the trash.
“When you drive up to a house and you see a Dumpster out front, you just go, ‘Ahhhh!’” said Selina Lufkin, who helps the Richardsons out with their auctions.
“What they throw out is the stuff that makes the money,” said Dotty Richardson.
Miller recalled going to a family’s property once and seeing a pile of paper being burned. It turned out it included old letters and ship’s papers that had value, both historical and financial — but which the family assumed was worthless.
Other times, however, a Dumpster disaster is avoided. Miller was going through a house when he found a “pretty abstract” painting tucked into a cardboard box. One of the men working with him looked at it and said, “Oh, that’s awful” — the painting was certainly junk, he opined.
Miller was not so sure, and he did some research. It turned out the painting was done by William Henry Johnson, an artist active in the 1920s through 1940s and whose work was later exhibited by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The painting ended up selling for more than $50,000.
“Everybody was very happy,” Miller recalled.
Though the local auctions share some similarities, there are also variations that make each unique. At Richardson’s auctions in Sullivan, for example, there are rows of seats. Miller, meanwhile, conducts his auctions in what is known as the English style. That means everyone stands (there are a few seats for those who may need them) and follows him around the room as he auctions items off.
“I think it keeps them more focused,” he said, of the audience members.
People are encouraged to bring their own food to Miller’s auctions as there is no kitchen at Norumbega Moving and Storage. Homemade sandwiches and other snacks, meanwhile, are for sale at Richardson’s auctions in Sullivan.
The auction business has changed over the many years that the local auctioneers have been part of it. Younger people, especially millennials, have shown less interest in antiques and more interest in cheaper, disposable products. Richardson recalled how an oak, S-curve roll-top desk might have fetched $1,000 to $1,500 two decades ago but only a couple hundred dollars today. That is a good deal for a customer who needs one, however.
Dotty Richardson said she is seeing signs of that trend slowly starting to change, however, as younger customers are beginning to appreciate the quality and durability of older furniture. Tools, her husband said, have been consistently popular and remain so today.
There is also a lot of time spent having fun, too. Those who come to bid and those who run the auctions develop a rapport over time, and the fast-paced nature of the event keeps things lively (Miller said he can auction as many as 130 box lots in an hour).
“People come and they love the camaraderie,” said Dotty Richardson. Thinking back to her early days in the business working for the Lufkins at their auction, she said that has been true all along: “Everybody was kinfolk, so to speak.”
For a list of auctions in the local area and beyond, go to www.auctionzip.com/me.html.