Auction Fever!

Sam Cottone and his son Matt sold 700 lots of fine art for $2.2 million during a two-day sale. The 1954 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith James Young Sports Saloon fetched $48,300.

Story and photos by Laurie Mercer


Rhonda Jenner, owner of Rhonda’s Auction Center, 6980 Routes 5 & 20 in Bloomfield, just concluded her first year in the auction business with 32 events. Rhonda, in her heated and air conditioned, 6,000-square-foot auction house, fondly remembers the moment when she sold a stoneware crock decorated with a deer and a tree for $19,500, despite a clear crack that divided the vessel in half. “After that,” she laughed, “Everybody brought me all the crockery they could find.”

Rhonda always seems to be smiling, and is a big hit with her customers. She favors early primitive furniture in her sales, but the auction house also has new appliances, plenty of collectibles, and sometimes some really odd items, like a collection of edgy manikins. Local art, vintage motorcycle goggles, quilts, folk art, early tools, metal toys, advertising signs, toys, and period photo albums of people you will never meet change owners quickly as the gavel comes down.

While her husband Bill and son Carl help out, an economical ($10) all-you-can-eat buffet coincides with the preview. Rhonda averages about two auctions a month, held on Saturday nights.

All items are consigned, but not everything is accepted. Many people have unrealistic expectations about what their items are worth, she says. “You can’t sell everything.

“We look at hundreds of items all the time,” Rhonda concludes. “Some of it is great stuff. There are so many surprises out here in this part of the state.”

Real Estate Auctions — Quickly Selling History and Dreams 

Thelma Fraser had lived in her old farmhouse on Routes 5 & 20 in Lima for many years. The announcement of the auction to sell Thelma’s home described it accurately as a “park-like setting.” The 2,700 square foot house and two barns were located on 5 acres with “considerable road frontage.” The property was assessed at $128,800.  The auction was due to Thelma’s need for nursing home care.

The real estate auction of her home was being run by two old timers in the business – Thomas P. Wamp and James P. Pirrung. Their auctioneer’s chant began about 6 pm, and by the time the sun began to set 13 minutes later, they accepted the final bid of $77,000 on behalf of her estate.

Jim, a large, easy-going guy, wears his white hair a little longer than your average upstate dairy farmer’s. He grew up on a farm in Wayland that was first tilled by his family in 1881; by age 6 he was auctioneering. Jim says there are “maybe a dozen reasons” why people turn to real-estate auctions, including financial difficulty, accidents and divorce. “There are lots of properties that need private treaty,” he says, “but there are lots of other situations that could be helped by an immediate sale. Property, if you are not using it, is costing you money with taxes, insurance, utilities, and general upkeep.”

Because outwitting the people bidding against you is part of the intrigue, some of Jim’s regulars have developed some unique, in-house techniques. One uses his eyes, but sometimes switches to using his hand positioned low near his pocket. “When people just throw bids at out at you, hell – that’s no auctioneer. There has to be some salesmanship involved,” he says.

“My dad always said the last few bids have to be coaxed out of the property.”

Sam Cottone — A Major Player in Fine Art Auctions in Geneseo

Oh too bad. You missed your opportunity to scoop up the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington for $1.3 million, not to mention the 1954 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith James Young Sports Saloon that fetched $48,300. Both were sold in Sam Cottone Auction’s two-day fall sale. His mainstays were there, too – fine art, silver, Asian art and very fine antiques – all with six-figure price tags. The entire sale of 700 lots fetched $2.2 million, short of the record.

Some of Sam’s inventory is local, but much of the Asian art came from Manhattan, and the Rolls came from Florida. The Roman nude statue carved in the second century ($86,250) came from the same family.

“You build relationships with people. You sell something for them. If they are pleased, they pass your name on to their friends,” says Sam. “We run a very disciplined business. We never sell just stuff. We turn away far more items than we ever accept.”

Sam organized his first auction in 1986 and says, “I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

In addition to holding two big, two-day sales of fine art each year featuring about 800 separate objects, he also holds an annual firearms sale and a clock sale. In November, he auctions “moderately priced nice things.” He advertises in England, Hong Kong and China, and notes that China and Russia are especially hot markets right now. For example, a Jade Gu vase, a tiny thing, sold at Cottone’s for $178,200! Two years ago, he had a collection of Tiffany-manufactured early outdoor lighting devices in mint condition. They had been carefully stored in a Naples farmhouse, and Sam thought they might be worth $30,000. Under the gavel at Cottone’s auction house, the collection brought in $1.5 million dollars!

“Not everything we sell is of high value,” says Sam. “We sell lots of things in the $400 to $500 range, but there is an interest in them, but average things are not good for an auction,” he says. He is constantly training himself to identify the differences between good, better and best.

“When you get into fine things, it is a very small market,” he continues. “You have to have a lot of knowledge and a lot of fortitude to know what you are looking at. When you sell on eBay you are selling moderate things. But when you are selling Meissen armorial covered urns made for the Saxon royal house for the coronation of King Albert the First, there are only so many people who are going to be players on this. People are much better educated than they were 20 years ago, which is why the market has changed.” (Spoiler alert: the urns went for $201,250.)

“If people think they may want to become buyers, they should come to a big auction like this one. Most dealers with 40 years of experience have never handled this much merchandise. So it’s a chance to come and look at real things portrayed as they are supposed to be. That’s the best way to learn the business.”

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