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Resale Therapy: Auction House Thrives In Bad Economy

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Weschler and Son has been in business for 120 years, auctioning personal items from households and estates through many different economic climates.
Weschlers.com
Weschler and Son has been in business for 120 years, auctioning personal items from households and estates through many different economic climates.

One such business is D.C.'s oldest auction house.

Inside a large, three-story building on E Street Northwest, a crowd of people is shouting out bids as Tom Weschler oversees an array of old books, paintings, vases and furniture. Weschler is one of three auctioneers running Weschler and Son, a local auction house that's been around nearly 120 years.

The Weschlers have seen economic climates of all kinds, but whereas other companies might struggle during a recession, for a business like this one, a crawling economy can actually be a good thing.

"We actually have seen an uptick since about October. We have seen probably in the 10 to 20 percent of our inventory that does come from private individuals because they were coming in because they were downsizing," Weschler says.

People are also hoping to make some cash, if not pick up some new bargains.

"We're also seeing people coming in interested in buying more furniture and smalls than they had in the past," Weschler says.

Hence the added heat on the auction floor.

"There's been more energy and participation in the bidding process," he says.

Professor Leigh Riddick teaches economics and investments at American University’s Kogod School of Business. She says there are two business models that can help companies in hard economies.

“One [model] is to have a business that has a less expensive alternative for something that people need or value,” she says. “Maybe someone was shopping at Saks and Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, and maybe now they’re going to step down to Kohl’s and Target.”

Riddick says the secondhand market trend is one of the more personal effects of the struggling economy.

"In terms of desperation, it's more the middle class and further down the income chain who are getting rid of that one special thing," she says.

Such as treasured family heirlooms.

Those valuables are a specialty at Weschler and Son. Weschler says out-the-door prices of most items he auctions off are going down, which is good news for the buyer…not so good for the owner.

"We probably have gotten more conservative and realistic with our estimates in the past year, year and a half, with that in mind," he says.

Another change, he says, is the age of customers at the auction house.

"We are seeing people in their 30s coming to auctions, where two years ago, we weren’t seeing that," he says.

Weschler says for young professionals navigating this economy, buying previously-owned items is a must for stocking their growing households. And that, he says, is a trend for any generation struggling with less opportunity than its predecessors.

"But we are seeing some effort into the 30s and 40s of people trying to furnish their homes more economically as opposed to going the retail route," he says.

A 30-something man grabs a pile of vinyl records from the auction floor and shouts out his bid.

Items like these are what Professor Riddick calls "small luxuries."

"When people are financially constrained, they may pick one thing that they're going to let themselves have. Maybe it's a massage, or maybe it's a trip to the theater," she says.

Riddick says it's retail therapy, or, in this case, re-sale therapy -- a kind of pick-me-up.

"Often when people are looking for those perks, if you will, to help them get through the tough times, they look for the less-expensive alternatives," she says.

Here in the auction house, patrons achieve that shopper's high, mixed with a sense of victory. A woman who just successfully outbid a rival for an antique book happily tucks her treasure under her arm. The price tag for her momentary glee? Only $5.

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