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Take an EBay break and give the real thing a try

June 05, 2003|Leslee Komaiko | Special To The Times

A Martin guitar, two pachinko machines, a cowboy hat, a Stickley chair, a five-piece Thomasville bedroom set, three ceramic roosters, a KitchenAid stainless steel side-by-side refrigerator-freezer, a Louis Vuitton briefcase, a Tiffany clock, a box of stamps, an Apple laptop computer.

These are just a few of the thousand-plus items on the block on a recent Thursday at A.N. Abell Auction Co. in the City of Commerce.

Once the auction begins at 9 a.m., it's a great show, full of intrigue, even for those who choose just to watch. But it's hard not to be drawn into the action.

"There's a little competitive spirit going on," said Susan Zatarain, 47, of Santa Clarita, during a recent auction. Zatarain is in the candy-vending-machine business and has been attending for several years.

Among the dozens upon dozens of items Zatarain has purchased are a dining room table and chairs, an artist's drafting table and, most recently, a lot she won for $50 featuring two paintings of women.

"One I'm not interested in," she explained. "The other I'll probably put on EBay to see what happens."

A.N. Abell, a family-owned and -operated business that started in 1916, holds the live auctions each Thursday in its warehouse. Bidding typically continues until mid- or late afternoon depending on the number of lots. They're open to anyone who registers, an easy process that takes only a couple of minutes, after which participants are issued a number and are free to bid.

A significant percentage of the people who attend the auctions are buying to resell. Asian antiques dealer Chiali Huang, 30, who drives up each week from San Diego, purchased a 19th century Chinese altar table at this same auction for just $50. He also snagged a pair of horseshoe-shaped Elmwood chairs from the same period for $150 and a complete set of contemporary Japanese dishes for $70. He planned to refurbish the table and chairs and sell them for a profit on his Web site.

Kerry O'Connor, 53, travels from Melbourne, Australia, three or four times a year to find merchandise for his brick-and-mortar shop back home. He's been doing this for 15 years.

"It gives me an edge over the other dealers in Australia," he said. "There are three other dealers here who go for the same stuff [as I do]. But in an auction house this size, there really is something for everyone."

Indeed, the sheer amount and variety of merchandise, most of which comes from estates (small and large, fancy and ho-hum), is what distinguishes A.N. Abell's auctions from the many others around town.

And there are bargains to be had. That Thomasville bedroom set, for example, sold for $375 -- not bad to furnish an entire room, let alone handsomely. The Apple laptop, including a case, went for $175. Some things go for as little as a buck.

"You can get great floor lamps for a song," added Zatarain, who always brings a tape measure and two jeweler's loupes with her to the auctions. She also attends previews the day before each auction, as do most of the most serious buyers who know the value of examining the goods thoroughly before they bid. After all, everything at the Thursday auctions is sold strictly "as is."

The regulars also know the importance of remaining alert, since the pace is quick. It takes mere seconds to auction off certain items, especially when there is little interest or competition.

That makes it dangerously easy for bidders to end up with something they didn't intend to bid on, like the fellow standing behind me who bought a decorative menorah instead of the green ceramic bowl he had been eyeing.

The auction moves from one end of the warehouse to the other over the course of the day.

"We start with lower-grade items and get into better-grade until we get into antiques," offered Barry Abell, grandson of founder A.N. Abell and one of the four regular auctioneers. Thus, prices for the most part increase as the hour gets later.

The crowd changes too. "By the time 3 p.m. comes, it's changed three times," said Abell. Usually though, there are no more than 150 people milling about at any one time.

Not surprisingly, many of those looking to resell their purchases, either online or in chi-chi Melrose Avenue boutiques, aren't eager to give their names.

"I don't like to tell my clients where I shop," said a pretty, middle-aged blond who bought four artichoke plates, a red velvet chair and a portrait of Will Rogers, among other things.

Furthermore, dealers would rather not compete with individual collectors.

"The collector is willing to pay more because they don't have to resell it," Huang said. "We [dealers] need to make a living."

Despite the fact that the auction can get competitive, the mood is mostly light.

"People are there enjoying themselves and spending money," Abell said. "Some people come every week and it's a social event."


What not to do at an auction

* Never wave your hands in the air or use your bidding paddle or number sheet as a fly swatter or fan after an auction has begun.

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