In the suburbs of Atlanta there is a place where you can purchase a Norman Rockwell painting, a barbeque sandwich, and a tour bus suitable for a rock star all under one roof. Red Baron's Antiques hosts several weekend-long auctions each year which attract over a thousand interested buyers and antique enthusiasts from all over the world.
During a recent auction weekend, HowStuffWorks was given a behind-the-scenes tour of Red Baron's Antiques auction house. Read on to learn more about the world of high-end auction houses.
An Odd Start
Red Baron's Antiques grew out of a very different sort of business. Bob and Linda Brown, Red Baron's owners, opened a dress shop in 1976 and decorated the boutique with antiques Bob Brown had purchased at auctions. But before they had received their first dress they had sold every antique in the store.
They decided to try their hand at the antique business. When their store became over-crowded with antiques, the Browns decided to hold their first auction. They gathered the names of everyone they knew who could afford to spend at least $500 and sent them invitations to the first Red Baron's Antiques Auction. Thirty years later each Red Baron auction weekend generates approximately $20 million in sales.
Finding the Goods
According to Paul Brown, Red Baron's Publisher and antiques guru, the trick to finding antiques is a combination of participating in the word-of-mouth antiques network and "beating the bush." Red Baron rarely has difficulty locating and obtaining pieces; they have antiques and art experts stationed in different regions all over the world scouring estate sales and other antique markets for pieces to ship back to Atlanta.
The buyers and experts working with Red Baron are all highly trained in the fields of art, antiques and architecture. Most of their experts have a special area of expertise: furniture, tapestries, art, automobiles etc. They can distinguish the authenticity of an item just by looking at it.
For example, during its most recent auction, Red Baron sold the Norman Rockwell painting "The New Sprinkler." Buyers knew that this was an authentic Rockwell by noting that the painting reflected Rockwell's signature style and brush stroke. The subject's facial expression in the painting is also characteristic of Rockwell's painting style. When a buyer has any questions related to a particular piece's history or significance the buyer or Red Baron will work with art history and architecture scholars or universities in Atlanta and abroad.
Shipping and Receiving
Red Baron packages and ships its newly purchased items back to the U.S. Shipping pieces which vary in size from a Neoclassical mantel clock to a vintage Chevy Corvette is a logistical nightmare. Red Baron has someone on staff whose sole responsibility is the coordination of shipping and customs clearance for the antiques. Each auction typically involves shipping 70 to 80 containers filled with antiques from Europe, 20 to 30 from South America and hundreds of domestic deliveries via semi-truck.
On top of that, Red Baron deals with the logistical nightmare of insurance. Red Baron sells one of a kind items worth thousands of dollars. The insurance deductible on pieces is so high that, the cost of filing the claim is prohibitive. Instead, insurance covers a total loss of merchandise in the case of fire or other disaster. Fortunately, Red Baron has a crew of more than 30 people all over the world who work to guarantee that pieces are shipped and sold without damaging them.
Once a piece has safely arrived in Atlanta, Red Baron photographs, documents and catalogues each piece. Paul Brown, Red Baron's publisher, is responsible for gathering information related to each piece and compiling a catalogue.
A typical catalogue is loaded with pictures of marble fountains, Tiffany lamps and armoires, each accompanied with a catalogue number, measurements, history, and a brief description.
The variety of eclectic pieces at Red Baron begs the question, "who's buying this stuff?" Paul Brown explains:
Our customers are the neatest people in the world. These are people who "made it" a thousand different ways…[and] now they're building their house, furnishing their house and spending the money they worked so hard [to earn]. Almost all [the people at our auctions] are self-made folks.
Interested buyers must register beforehand for Red Barons auctions. Registration is as simple as completing a short form and paying a $100 fee. Everyone from the yard sale enthusiast to the dot com billionaire has an opportunity to attend and bid on Red Baron's auction pieces. But the high price of the majority of the pieces does attract a wealthy clientele. Before their last auction, the nearby private airport called the Red Baron to warn them that they could not accept any more planes. Nearly 21 private jets had crowded the small Atlanta airport, all belonging to people attending Red Baron's auction.
The night before the first day of the auction, (usually a Friday) Red Baron throws a preview party at the auction house. The second night of the auction they throw a theme party. Their most recent theme party was a "Pirates of the Caribbean" celebration, which featured a $6,000 cake shaped like a treasure chest. In Atlanta, these parties have become as infamous as the auction itself. The most recent preview party featured several ice sculptures, catering, over five bars, a band, deejay, and a gospel singing group.
The price tag for a typical Red Baron party is over $100,000. Paul Brown explains that the owner Bob Brown has cultivated the Red Baron party tradition because he believes that it's good for the Atlanta community and it's good for business. The parties above all play an important role in making potential customers comfortable.
Each day of the two-day auction, approximately 1,000 people pack the Red Baron auction house. Caterers, cocktail waitresses, auctioneers, and the antiques crew work frenetically throughout the day to keep up with the pace of the all-day auction.
By the end of the auction weekend, almost 3,000 pieces will have moved across the auction floor. Four auctioneers rotate throughout the day, selling an item a minute. TV monitors above the floor show each piece as the auctioneer rattles off a description and guides the bidding. Pieces worth $20,000 to $50,000 are sold in the blink of an eye.
Red Baron's crew carefully move pieces from storage to the auction floor and back into the storage area in minutes. During the recent auction, Red Baron sold an entire six piece, $150,000 library and fireplace, with pieces measuring up to thirteen feet in height!
Once a piece is sold and Red Baron has received payment, the purchaser is responsible for getting the item home. Red Baron does not handle delivery, but does recommend shipping companies.
Not everybody can walk away with a bundle of magnificent antiques, of course. But even with a light wallet, Red Baron's Antiques' auctions are a lot of fun. Many Atlantans show up just to check out some cool stuff, learn some interesting history and rub elbows with millionaires in full spending mode. For more information about Red Baron and other auctions, check out the links on the next page