Going, going, not quite gone: How pandemic changed auctions

auctions during pandemic

From left: Anita Souder, Vernon Martin, and H. Brent Souder of Alderfer Auction Co., who was inducted into the Pennsylvania Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame on January 10, 2020. Alderfer Auction image

ALLENTOWN, Pa. – A moment of silence, please, for the good old auction.

Oh, they’re still around. But the in-person auction, with its traditional patter and gavel-banging and crowd buzz, has been giving way in recent years to online business — a change accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, which, according to one study, has advanced the pace of online commerce by two years.

In the “before times,” as the pre-pandemic era is sometimes known, auction houses hosted in-person events at their headquarters and at properties being liquidated in estate sales, and carried the auctions online, too.

Gathering restrictions put a crimp in the model. But, just as religious services and business meetings could migrate fully online, so could auctions. For buyers, it’s as easy to bid on a grandfather clock or a Babe Ruth baseball card online as in person — easier, really. And, for auction houses, the virtual world provides an immeasurably larger pool of potential bidders.

Local auctioneers say they established an online presence years ago — propelled, in part, by the success of eBay — and foresaw the day it would become the dominant model. All the pandemic did was nudge the timetable.

“We’re meeting people on their personal devices and on their own time,” said Brent Souder of Alderfer Auction in Hatfield, Montgomery County, Pa., noting how the change to virtual bidding has lured in that ever-so-desired demographic: the young, or at least the relatively young.

“The demographic of 25 to 45 has grown fivefold” in recent years, Souder said, adding that the change is reflected not only in the methods of bidding — Alderfer has a popular phone app, for instance — but in the items being sought.

“Last month we had an auction of game consoles,” Souder said. “Commodores, Ataris. A gentleman had collected these over the years and we sold more than $20,000 in games and consoles. Some of the antiques are aging out, so to speak. There’s less call for grandfather clocks or a Chippendale set of drawers. People are buying luxury watches, cars and firearms.”

Houses hold two kinds of auctions. One is live — essentially an in-person auction held virtually — and the other is the eBay model of submitting bids over a given time period.

For the highest of high-end auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the necessity of moving online during the pandemic spoiled their biggest attractions — formal gatherings of well-heeled bidders who can offer hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for rare paintings by the masters or one-of-a-kind automobiles.

auctions during pandemic

You never know what will turn up in a Tom Hall auction, like this 1967 Morgan Plus 4 with only 17,333 original miles. It was bought new by a gentleman in Bethlehem, Pa. It sold for $24,000 plus buyer’s premium on January 28, 2020. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Tom Hall Auctions Inc.

Nobody’s doing that in, say, North Whitehall Township, where Bill Hall and his sister, Cathy Keyes, run the family business Tom Hall Auctions. You’re not likely to find any Van Goghs among the lots that come through the old red-brick building in the township’s Schnecksville section, and the in-person auctions weren’t soirees but distinctly casual affairs.

That’s not to say they don’t take bids on expensive items — jewels, antiques, rare collectible cards. And since people aren’t spending money on restaurants, night clubs or ball games, they have more to spend on auctions.

“We anticipate getting $10,000 for a Pokemon collection next week,” Bill Hall said, offering a glimpse into the part of human nature that can turn someone’s nostalgia for a childhood diversion into someone’s else’s payday.

Alderfer just shipped a 1953 Porsche to a collector in Norway who paid $118,000 for it. Souder said the company also holds the record for the highest price – $93,000 — paid for a painting by Walter Baum, the Bucks County-born painter who helped found the Allentown Art Museum and the Baum School of Art.

Auctions also draw people looking for practical items. Souder said his newly married daughter and her husband furnished her house through online auctions.

“They were able to set a budget that was good for them and met their needs,” he said.

auctions during pandemic

Always a step ahead of the game, in February 2019, Alderfer Auction introduced its Transition Team, which helps customers who are moving to new residences and need to sell their furnishings and collections. Alderfer Auction image

Alderfer has been online for 15 years and Tom Hall Auctions for about a decade. When the pandemic hit, that experience proved invaluable as virtual demand skyrocketed. Both companies use LiveAuctioneers‘ online-bidding platform.

Souder said Alderfer’s website had more than 2 million views in 2020. And Hall said one recent auction demonstrated how the buyer base has expanded in a way unimaginable before the Internet.

“We had 20 countries registered to bid on this auction in Schnecksville,” he said.

That said, Hall would like to see in-person auctions survive. Browsing auction lots online isn’t quite the same as getting a close-up look, especially at some of the oddball items that come up for bid. Hall auctioned off a couple of real human skeletons for nearly $1,000 apiece a few years ago.

“I certainly hope (the in-person auction) doesn’t go away completely. I don’t think it will,” he said. “But for some companies it won’t be the standard thing. The live auctions have been terrific over the years. The people you meet at auctions are a different breed, especially the old-timers.”


By DANIEL PATRICK SHEEHAN, The (Allentown) Morning Call

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