HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. – Leland Little, founder and president of his eponymous auction house Leland Little Auctions, specializes in selling the past but is forward-facing. His auction house delivers high-end items in a wide range of categories. While much of the selling takes place online, five years ago, Little envisioned a gallery-like space that would embody a 21st-century model for bringing collectors, buyers and sellers together under one roof to learn as well as buy and sell. The expansion was designed by architect Richard Gurlitz. This is all part of Little’s vision to build his business and anticipate future needs while tackling the day-to-day business of running an auction house.
Many auction houses are multigenerational, yet you built Leland Little Auctions up yourself. How did you get started?
A lot of auction houses and regional auctioneers come from second, third and fourth generation auction families. I was in a different place in that I went to college and started working with a local auction house and fell in love with the on-site barn auctions they would do in the front yard or a tent. I then fell in love with antique furniture, so after college, I stayed in the auction profession and I have never left.
Why does it make sense for you to invest in a physical space for your auction house in 2022?
Internet bidding is very important. We have a robust software system and online bidding platform and bidding systems that we use in conjunction with LiveAuctioneers. This new building was built with this in mind. As a gallery space, it showcases and houses the best of our brands, whether is Mid-century Modern, high-end fashion, Chanel jewelry or fine wine or whiskey. We are showcasing that material in this gallery setting format, which is something that has been done by art and antique dealers and auction houses for decades — we have just placed that into the regional format, allowing that to occur here in North Carolina.
It is a smaller, intimate live-auction room, but the whole space was designed for receptions, parties, lectures, gatherings and exhibitions. For hundreds of years, thousands of years, people have always gathered. That’s not something that’s going to ever go out of style, so we have created a place that embraces community and gatherings of like-minded people.
Could you talk about how you are using technology to grow your business?
The auction business is about people – people being able to access what you’re selling. I think it was in 2016 we stopped printing those beautiful color catalogs that auction houses used to do. We moved all of our focus to online bidding. The value of the online catalog is multi-tiered: one, instead of a printed catalog, you can get multiple photographs for that lot, and two, it allows a person to bid immediately. They don’t have to fill out a bid form and fax it in. It’s an on-demand response. You can zoom in on photographs and email the director if you have a question or an interest. All these are things you can’t do with printed catalogs. An auction house has to have a vital online presence and software system, a solid bench of directors that know their product regardless of the category, a deep portfolio of sales that prove their capability with their buyers and an auction house has to have a building that provides energy.
How do you balance the many different parts of your job?
On a detail level, I still enjoy cataloging our signature-level furniture, so that’s something that I do in terms of hands-on [tasks]. The other work I do is reviewing potential incoming consignors and consignments for what is appropriate material to come to our house and what should help elevate and move our business forward. And there is vision work – what are we doing next quarter, what are we doing next year, what are we doing five years from now and what groundwork needs to be laid to get there.
What market growth trends are you seeing?
We are still seeing a huge increase in growth in our Mid-century Modern sales, regardless of whether it’s pottery or glass or furniture or art or works on paper. There is just huge demand and growth in that. We are still seeing a strong appetite for fine jewelry and watches, particularly name brand — your David Webb or Tiffany & Co. or Van Cleef & Arpels — those are really resonating with the collector and dealer market.
We are still seeing a huge demand for rare whiskeys and fine wines, when you have the right vintages and labels and barrels. And lastly, I think the mainstay is fine art. We sell a lot of art. We always have, and we always will.
Would you please discuss a particularly interesting item that you have handled?
We worked with a good client that I have known for many, many years who had been chasing down a very important corner cupboard for 30 years. He finally acquired it several years ago and had it properly restored. It was the Powell family North Carolina Chippendale Masonic walnut corner cupboard [which appeared in a December 2021 Leland Little auction] and we set a record for North Carolina that day for a Southern corner cupboard, reaching $225,000. This gentleman worked with the family to allow time to acquire it, and took the time and the money to get it restored properly. Then, when we came to market, the top dozen to half dozen collectors recognized its rarity and importance.
What does the future for the auction market look like?
The overall future of the auction house in the American marketplace is bright and strong. There is going to be a great deal of material trading in the next 20 to 30 years as we move out of the baby boomers and into the next generations. Those sellers are going to be looking for auction houses that have a competent relationship with product and a competent relationship with their buyers and sellers. We built this beautiful new building so we could lean into that 21st-century model and lean into the opportunities that are going to be coming in the next three decades.
To contact Leland Little or to discuss a future consignment to Leland Little Auctions, call 919-644-1243. Click to visit Leland Little Auctions online.