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The Bid League

From frying pans to fine art, homeowners can find antiques and household items at bargain prices at Southland auctions.

May 11, 1997|SUSAN CARRIER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Carrier is a Los Angeles freelance writer

Joan Johnson's habit of collecting beautiful items at bargain prices started small--a bowl here or knickknack there, all picked up at local thrift shops.

But five years ago, when Johnson saw the sign for Abell's Auction Co. in Commerce, she moved on to larger items--big-screen television sets, curios, entire racks of clothing, dining room sets, bedroom sets and couches.

And now Johnson's hooked--a regular and enthusiastic bidder at weekly auctions.

"It's so nice to look at things and know, even though you could never afford them retail, you have a real chance here," she said.

Johnson, a bus driver for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, is one of a growing number of Southland residents who have found auctions to be a way to furnish their homes at a fraction of the cost of retail shopping.

And Los Angeles and Orange counties are home to a variety of independent auction houses that sell everything from frying pans to fine art at reasonable prices.

Those who love to prowl flea markets and garage and estate sales will find an even greater variety and quantity of merchandise at auctions.

"Since the majority of our merchandise comes from estates, going to auction is the equivalent of hitting four to 20 estate sales in one day," said Maureen File, of File's Auctioneering & Fine Art in Santa Ana.

But unlike estate sales and flea markets, everyone has the same shot at a coveted item, not just the person who happens to stroll in first. And, depending on who is competing for an item, auctions offer an opportunity for bargain prices.

The "bargain bug" first bit Adams District resident Johnnie Solomon more than five decades ago, when Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles was crowded with eight auction houses in a four-block stretch.

Solomon still treks weekly to Orrill's Auction Studio, where he views merchandise, socializes with friends and keeps an eye open for "can't-live-without" deals, like his most recent purchase, a 1978 Cadillac Sedan Deville.

"You just need to buy one thing at auction and then, I can guarantee you, you'll be hooked for life," Solomon said.

Solomon's half-century auction habit makes other devotees, like 10-year auction shopper Nancy Thomas, seem like newcomers. Thomas, a former interior designer, derides both the high prices and cookie-cutter appearance that can result from retail shopping.

"Not only do you get more for your money [at auctions], but your home starts evolving into something that is warm and filled with character," she said. "When each piece has a story to tell, your home becomes a very interesting place."

Thomas still gets teary when she tells the story of how her son successfully bid for an antique rocking horse when he was 3 1/2 years old. Almost every item in her family's Mediterranean-style home in Altadena, from a 16th century South American chest (for which she paid about $600) to an antique commercial stove, came from an auction.

"I believe that when you create a home, every piece in the home should appear to be handed down," Thomas said. "Patina and scratches are marks of character, evidence of life and history."

Len Aten, a vocational education program manager for four school districts, has a similar approach to furnishing his Santa Ana home.

After years of acquiring antiques through dealers, Aten made his first purchase at Files Auctioneering in 1986. His home is now overflowing with turn-of-the-century Eastlake Victorian ("a little less fussy than Queen Ann Victorian") furniture, lamps, carpets and art objects purchased at auction.

"You've got to be prepared to take the time," Aten warned, "but the benefits are lower prices and the ability to get something you won't see anywhere else."

Aten has paid as little as $25 each for a set of six Victorian chairs in need of reupholstery and as much as $4,000 for an elaborate, hand-carved Eastlake Victorian bed. He has a similar bed, purchased in his pre-auction days from an antique dealer for $8,500.

But, as Joan Johnson discovered, auctions are not just for antique lovers. Ever since Johnson's first purchase five years ago--a 52-inch big-screen television--she's been a devotee.

"You name it, and I've found it at auction," said Johnson, a weekly regular at Orrill's Auction Studio in Los Angeles. "Sooner or later, whatever you're looking for is going to show up. You just have to be patient."

Her patience and persistence have been rewarded with a home that is almost entirely filled with furnishings and accessories from auctions.

She once paid $4,000 retail for a brand-name bedroom set with headboard, armoire, dresser and night stands, only to later find the same set at auction. "When I saw that bedroom set, I just had to get it for my son and his wife, and I walked away with it for $800."

Her "best deal," however, was a like-new, walnut dinette set with three leaves, two armchairs and four side-chairs she purchased for $200.

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