The search for a bargain and the hope for an unrecognized treasure draws hundreds of people to a tiny East Coast town each week.
Every Wednesday, they descend upon a cavernous warehouse in Crumpton, Maryland, wandering past rows of long tables where they're liable to find everything from fedora hats to fishing rods and china vases to corner cupboards. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Crumpton Auction.
“You always see something that you’ve never seen before - every week,” says Dylan Dixon, 24, who oversees the buying and selling, making sure everything runs smoothly at the Crumpton Auction. He’s the third generation of his family to work here. "I’ve sold paintings that were laying in a field next to pots and pans, that no one had any idea that it had any value, and sold for $10,000, $12,000 dollars.”
While numerous auctions are held up and down the East Coast, Crumpton holds a special place on the auction circuit. Geographically, it's the middle ground and furniture dealers, especially, appreciate its Mid-Atlantic location, which is convenient for buyers stretching from New England to the southern states.
Most of the merchandise - up to 4,000 items on a busy day - comes from estates, houses being cleared when families move or someone dies.
While in good condition, the pieces up for auction here are not high-end like the antiques and art sold in well known auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, but that's part of the appeal to Dixon’s customers.
“I bought a statue of Madonna for $325 dollars and a couple bits of jewelry,” says John Raccuglia, who frequently makes the hour-and-a-half trip from his home in Baltimore. “I’m here to sell as well as buy. I do estate work. It's various things from dishes to little pieces of furniture, you name it.”
Antique dealers, collectors, designers, inn keepers and curiosity seekers come to check out the offerings.
Maryland antique dealer Brooke Logan browses a table crowded with lamps and vases. “I’m here looking for a good deal. I’ve already bought a painting that I’m pleased with. I buy a lot of art here actually. There’s a lot of good art that comes through here, so you just have to keep your eye out. I kind of have a lamp fetish. I’ve bought a lot of lamps and I buy a lot of ceramics.”
Depending on the size of the crowd and the number of items, up to three auctioneers work at the same time. On sunny days, the action moves outdoors onto two fields, two hectares each. Auctioneers ride up and down the rows of merchandise in golf carts - stopping and selling.
Frequent customer Raccuglia knows the system well. "It’s not like you know you’re going to pay one price for anything. It’s whatever happens, happens. You always have to keep on your toes here because the auctioneer sells so quickly.”
Max Bovis, who works for a bike dealer, is on the look-out for old bicycles. “We come out here and pick up used bikes and work on them, fix them up, add some parts, take some parts away, and sell them. We’ve got a couple wood-rimmed bikes we bought, 1890’s wood-rimmed bikes.”
Bovis also is fond of records. “I collect vinyl records and kind of archive them, as well as listen to them. I’ve found some really unique things out here, a lot of signed records show up in weird boxes.”
Another popular feature at the Crumpton Auction is the food. An Amish family from Lancaster, Pennsylvania drives two hours each week to sell home-made cakes, pies and doughnuts.
The rainy weather seems to have put a damper on today's auction, which is quieter than usual, with fewer buyers and sellers. With the economic downturn and the higher cost of gasoline, the auction’s owner - 75-year-old Norman Dixon - says making money in this business is getting harder.
“The expenses are all going up but your margin of profit is not going up. It’s more expensive for dealers to drive trailers longer distances. When things were booming, they came from Georgia to Maine. We’re losing some of those.”
But there are some frequent customers who continue to turn up. Melinda Lippincott, who lives nearby and has furnished her family’s new home with several pieces from Dixon’s, says there’s a certain charm at this auction.
"It’s just kind of like you’re stepping back in time when you’re here. It’s a nice feeling.”