The piece was nothing less than colossal. An ornate giltwood mirror, it stood more than 11 feet high, weighed some 200 pounds and was topped by a large, carved eagle. Seven people were required to move the piece into the two-story showroom of Nye & Co., a Bloomfield auction house.
The massive oval mirror was among the furnishings in the White House beginning around 1840, during the administration of Martin Van Buren. Transported from a Virginia museum, it sold as part of Nye’s January auction for $12,600 to a New Jersey man who plans to hang it in his home.
Not every piece that goes on the auction block has a presidential pedigree. Far from it. Auctioneers pound the gavel for everything from bags of cheese curls to perfectly preserved Chippendale furniture—at prices ranging from easy on the pocket to eyepopping.
Even if you never buy anything at an auction, you’ll enjoy the show. While much of the bidding now is done online, all auctions still feature an old-fashioned, fast-talking auctioneer urging on bidders with tongue-twisting zeal.
Some auction houses offer merchandise exclusively from estates; some allow individual consignments; most traffic in both. Others buy closeouts of new merchandise and put that up for sale.
New Jersey’s auction houses in are potential gold mines for bargain hunters. Here are seven that hold auctions at intervals throughout the year:
Nye & Co., Bloomfield
You will not find cheese curls on the block at Nye & Co., which holds auctions every six to eight weeks. But that doesn’t mean Nye doesn’t offer affordable merchandise on which to bid.
Yes, the 20,000-square-foot showroom was the temporary home to Van Buren’s audacious mirror, but nearby were lots—auction-speak for items being offered—that commanded $60 or less at the January sale. Among those less-expensive items: a silver-plate chafing dish set that sold for $50.
“Silver plate is one of those things that’s hot right now,” says Nye & Co. co-owner Kathy Nye. “A couple of decades ago it made high money, but then it fell out of favor. Now, all the home magazines and catalogs like Restoration Hardware are showing it.”
Nye owns the auction and appraisal house with her husband, John Nye, formerly a senior VP at Sothebys in New York and a veteran of the PBS series Antiques Roadshow, which regularly features his expertise in furniture appraisal. The couple lives in South Orange.
Nye & Co. specializes in finding estates that are offering the kinds of objects that dealers, decorators and discriminating customers, drool over. A preview period—days set aside before each auction when shoppers can browse online or in the showroom before the bidding—precedes every sale. Winning bids at Nye & Co. auctions range from $25 to $250,000.
“We had a beautiful double-handled wine bucket that went for $40 at our last auction,” says Nye. “It was in great shape and it would look incredible on the buffet.”
A regional auction house, Nye & Co. handles merchandise from estates in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and other nearby states—though the Nyes sometimes travel as far as Seattle to investigate referrals.
Considering all of the gilt-edged items, Nye & Co. has a somewhat surprising specialty: “Our unofficial niche is rock ‘n’ roll,” says Nye.
It might be more accurate to say Nye specializes in auctioning celebrity items. Nye has sold the property of music icons, including Dizzy Gillespie and Luther Vandross, as well as film stars. Last year, Nye had a single-seller auction comprised entirely of Dustin Hoffman’s cast-offs.
“We’re out there looking for those kinds of estates,” says Nye.
Rago Arts, Lambertville
Rago is a regional auction house specializing in 20th-century design objects, including furniture and jewelry. Some of the merchandise can be prohibitively expensive, but you can win real deals at one of Rago’s unreserved auctions, held thrice yearly in January, April and September.
Unreserved means that no minimum price (or reserve) has been set for a particular item. These auctions can provide tremendous bargains. “We sell probably around 3,500 to 4,000 lots a year this way,” says Delaware Township resident Michael Ingham, COO and director of Rago’s unreserved auctions.
Rago has been in business almost 30 years; its regular auctions take place monthly from September through June, and its annual sales scrape the $30 million mark.
But the unreserved auctions are when the company cuts loose, gathering up everything in its two warehouses that hasn’t sold at regular auction—in all, more than 20,000 square feet of stuff, plus objects specifically designated to be sold unreserved. The categories are broad; count on seeing everything from vintage glass eyeballs to period sofas and 20-century-modern silver jewelry.
The freewheeling atmosphere makes the unreserved auctions especially enticing. “We have a party the Saturday before the unreserved sales that we call the ‘new collectors’ party,’” says Ingham. There’s a live band and Rago reps are on hand to answer questions about the merchandise. Rago remains open each weekday after the Saturday preview party before the unreserved sale gets underway. That gives potential bidders a chance to come back again and look before they leap at auction. Unreserved sales run Friday through Sunday. You can also enter a bid online during any of Rago’s auctions.
“The fun lies in not knowing what’s going to happen,” Ingham says. Before an unreserved sale, he surveys the offerings and asks himself, “Is this cool, or is it cheesy?.” Sometimes he’s surprised by how the bidders answer. For example, the January sale included a pair of 1940s-era palm trees lamps, one 84 inches tall.
“We estimated them at $700 to $900 and had a raging debate about them,” says Ingham, who thought they were cheesy. “In the long run, the buyers voted with the people here who thought they were cool.” The palm tree lamps sold at the January unreserved auction for $8,750.
Don’t be put off by the hefty price tag for a pair of light-up trees p. Some stuff really does end up going cheap. Last September, Ingham parted ways with a 19-century pine gentleman’s chest with four drawers and French feet that was estimated for sale around $400 to $600. It went for $88. “I should have kept that one myself,” says Ingham.
Waterford’s Art & Antiques Auctioneers, Berlin
One of New Jersey’s newest auction houses, Waterford’s took up residence in Berlin in 2012. It specializes in Asian art, particularly Chinese, as well as European and American art and antiques. Desirable Chinese pieces can go for tens of thousands of dollars, but there’s more to Waterford’s than pricey woodblock prints and painted scrolls.
Waterford’s holds regular sales every six weeks and unreserved sales twice a year. The unreserved sales—one is coming up this summer—feature previously unsold merchandise, from furniture to lamps to vases and snuff boxes.
“It’s just a smart way to spend money,” says Robert W. Torchia, the company’s director of business development. Say, for example, you buy a rug at Macy’s. “It’s not worth a nickel when you get it home. It’s just like buying a car: the minute you drive it off the lot you’re losing X number of dollars,” says Torchia. “But with us, it has a certain market value. It’s not going to lose that value.”
You could land a Waterford crystal vase at a Waterford’s unreserved sale—“a thick, beautiful vase that’s heavy when you hold it,” says Torchia—for $50. “Or you could find some cool piece of Icelandic art”—at a bargain price you can warm up to. You never know.
All auctions allow online bidding and are preceded by a preview period of several days, during which potential bidders flock to the 1,000-square-foot showroom about 15 miles southeast of Camden to survey the goods. “It’s a very convenient location,” says Torchia. “People make a day of it.”
Bodnar’s Auction, Edison
Hardly anything sells for more than $500 at the monthly live auctions orchestrated by Joe Bodnar. The Somerset resident, who has been in the business 20 years and serves as one of his own auctioneers, has sold items for as much as $100,000. But he says its realistic to “come with $25 to $500 to spend.” (Bodnar recently relocated his auctions from Somerset to Edison.)
Among the goods you will find at a Bodnar sale: furniture, jewelry, women’s clothing and toys. The best bargains are to be had in the furnishings ring, says Bodnar. But it’s not necessarily furniture with a pedigree.
Most of the merchandise comes from estates that haven’t aged all that well. This is the place to come if you don’t mind reproductions—“the kind of stuff you might buy at retail at places like Ethan Allen or Ashley Furniture,” says Bodnar.
“You could get a traditional Chippendale-style dining room set from Ethan Allen—the table, eight chairs, a China cabinet and a sideboard—for $575 here. It would have sold for $15,000 in the store 10 years ago. And it’s not in horrible shape,” says Bodnar, who also does a brisk business in chandeliers and Oriental rugs. Merchandise can be previewed the Wednesday before each Thursday sale.
The thing to keep in mind, says Bodnar, is that “pretty much everything you’re going to buy here is 80 to 90 percent less than what you’d pay at retail.”
Which is why it moves. Bodnar’s relocated to Edison because it needed more room. The Edison space is 50,000 square feet, more than double the previous. Bodnar sells about 6,500 lots with each sale. “I guess people want what I’m selling, and they want to save money,” says Bodnar. “Who doesn’t love a bargain?”
Dave’s Family Auction, Asbury
Every Friday and Saturday night, Dave’s Family Auction opens the doors of its barnlike space to bargain hunters, who come to bid on cases of Snapple, lawn chairs, padded headphones, engagement rings—and yes, bags of cheese curls. Auctioneer Ben Greenstein will pound his gavel for pretty much anything he can get his hands on through closeouts, bankruptcies and individual consignors. Designer jewelry is a specialty.
Dave’s, which has been around since 1957, represents the low end of the auction-house spectrum in New Jersey. The enterprise mostly traffics in new merchandise—a concept that even Greenstein admits has gotten old.
“Shopping habits have changed drastically since I started here 37 years ago,” he says. “Now auctions are more concerned with the contents of people’s houses, like Aunt-Ethel-died-and-here’s-the-valuable-stuff-she-had-in-the-attic kind of things.”
Sadly, Greenstein is pondering retirement and may close Dave’s by the end of this year. Until he does, it will continue to hold auctions at 7:15 every Friday and Saturday night; doors open at 4 pm for previews.
Berman’s Auction Gallery, Dover
Berman’s has been around since 1973; it’s an every-other-week auction that Steve Glaubman, one of four siblings who own the business, says “is very general. We run the gamut.”
That means you’ll find antiques and mid-century-modern furniture as well as paintings, jewelry, silver and toys. Almost nothing—less than 5 percent of lots “and probably more like 2 percent,” says Glaubman—has a reserve price. That’s because “we’re here to sell. We’re not playing games,” he says.
Business is brisk: Berman’s sells 1,500 lots a month. Prices range from around $50 to more than $15,000.
Phone bidding is allowed, but online bidding is not. That’s mostly a result of the pace. The Glaubman siblings are too busy fielding leads on estate liquidations and closeouts, as well as launching their next auction, to exhibit all their merchandise online.
Still, they manage to post about 400 pictures on their website before each auction, and they offer a preview the day before sales in their 10,000-square-foot gallery. People flock, says Glaubman, of Sparta: “Salability is our main criteria, and we have a good core of buyers who know it and come every time.”
Old Feed Mill Auction Center, Boonton
“We are one of the last of the Mohicans—a real country auction,” says Jack Wootton, the auctioneer and owner of Old Feed Mill Auction Center. Old Feed Mill, whose headquarters are an actual old feed mill that belonged to Wootton’s grandparents, is the place to come if you’re an auction-goer who also happens to be a history buff. On the second Monday of each month, one of two barns-cum-galleries on the property, both about 3,000 square feet, are given over to an auction of historical documents and antiquarian books.
In 2011, Wootton, who turned the feed mill into an auction business 40 years ago, sold a promissory note dated October 29, 1781, and signed by Benjamin Franklin. It fetched $65,000. Two letters from Alexander Hamilton each went for more than $14,000. Wootton got the documents from a Montville estate; the family had found them in the attic.
Old Feed Mill also offers a weekly Friday night auction where artwork, furniture and jewelry are the attraction. “It’s an absolute auction,” says Wootton, of Boonton, meaning that there are no reserves. That’s because “we’re here to sell, not to negotiate a higher price for a dealer.” About 375 lots an hour sell at the Friday-night auctions, which typically attract 350 to 500 people.
“Things sell for one dollar to $65,000, but if I were to guess I’d say the average lot price is $25 to $50,” says Wootton. Recent lots included a set of 30s-era Lionel trains, a mermaid-shaped coffee table, a pair of leather loveseats and a Bosch dishwasher.
Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.