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An Interview With Steve Stanton

Steve Stanton, Auctioneer

On Sunday January 14th, CAPS was honoured to have Steve Stanton of Stanton’s Auctioneers, Appraisers and Realtors speak at our meeting. Steve covered the many aspects of running a specialized phonograph and musical instrument-type auction, as well as tips and facts for disposing of part or all of a collection (plus dealing with issues that might be unique to Canadians bringing items into the United States).

Prior to his presentation, Steve kindly sat down with the writer to answer some questions about his business, his life and his interests, as well as his perspective on our most interesting hobby.

Just the day before the visit to CAPS, Steve was running an auction in Michigan that lasted seven hours. He is often travelling all over the United States and Canada to view prospective collections and items. Steve is a true gentleman who knows his business inside out. I was amazed at his recollection of the thousands of items that have passed through his auctions over the years, their values and the many private collections from which they came.

MD: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did your family originate? Have you always resided in Michigan – if not, when did you move there? We noticed on your website that you have been doing antique auctions since the 1950s. How did all of this get started?

This oak Reginaphone 240 with Lions head
in exceptional finish brought $18,500.

SS: Our family has always been in the mid-Michigan area. Our father, William J. Stanton, began auctioneering in the early 1950s and formed our firm in 1954. He offered auctioneering, real estate sales and insurance. Our business began to grow, so Dad decided to eventually sell off the insurance portion and concentrate on the auctions and real estate. As I was growing up, I worked in the business and then went to Reppert’s School of Auctioneering in 1970. My two sisters (Kathy Swan and Patsy Stine), are part of the business as well. In addition, we have Michael Bleisch (an auctioneer), and numerous people who assist in the day-by-day activities of running a large auction firm. We conduct approximately 170-180 auctions each year including our two, three-day music machine auctions that are held in the spring (April or May) and fall (one week prior to USA Thanksgiving in November).

I am married to my wife Debra, and have two daughters (Elizabeth and Stephanie -- one of whom assists us with our web site and other with computer requirements).

MD: Your website indicates that you sell real estate, farm machinery, home and property auctions - how did antique music machines become so prominent at Stanton's? How did you gain knowledge about the merchandise you sell?

SS: In the 1970s, I went to look at a large collection of phonographs, music boxes & various machines owned by the late Al Parrish of Lansing, Michigan. Shortly thereafter, I started a collection of my own. From that point forward, through collecting (but with a tremendous amount of help from other collectors and individuals interested in the field), I was fortunate to gain my knowledge and experience from handling the thousands of machines that we have sold and seen over the years. I have always had an interest in machines. My original collection was later disposed of, but I still have some accent pieces in my home. Our firm normally tries to adhere to a policy of not competing on the items that are being offered through our auctions (prior to, and at the auctions). We feel it is a conflict of interest for not only our sellers, but also the buyers alike. My wife and I are both collectors of other types of antiques and collectibles that we have decorated our home with over the years.

This Regina Rookwood decorated
console music box sold for $20,500.

MD: What are some of the most interesting and expensive pieces Stanton's has auctioned, including antique music machine-related and other? What stands out in your mind? What irritates you and what excites you about the auction business?

SS: We have been fortunate over the years to offer many items that have produced interesting results. There was a Berliner Ratchet-wind machine with records that had been purchased by the consignor for $135 at an antique show, and that sold for $23,465. Other items that stand out in my mind are: the Multiphone 24-cylinder record coin-op machines for $71,000 and $77,000 when a previous example had sold 8 years earlier for $35,000; Edison Ajax $45,000; a very interesting set of Talking Scales (that would tell your weight) from a Colorado Estate that sold for $5,500; Seeburg KT nickelodeons for $32,500 and $44,000; Berliner JS gramophone for $38,500; Regina Automatic Changer with stained and leaded glass and clock top $43,500 and $38,000. But even the small pieces of lesser value certainly can be very significant and interesting, i.e. advertising, record collections, juke boxes, just about every category (including cabinetry) usually presents some great pieces and opportunities. In addition to the music machine field, we find our firm handling other pieces that are sought after: last year saw a 1923 John Deere “Spoker” D tractor bring $23,500 (going to a bidder in the Netherlands); a 1945 Harley Davidson “Knucklehead” motorcycle, that had been purchased by a WWII soldier upon discharge, found a new owner for $32,500; a Winchester Model 1886 – 45-70 Deluxe rifle went through one of our gun sales for $11,000; and an estate sale that specialized in tobacco tins saw many of the pieces bringing $1,000 - $2,000 prices for the pocket tin examples.

MD: Your auction of May 2016 had some extremely rare and collectible pieces such as a Berliner JS, Type A, and a Ratchet-wind. How do you come across such a fabulous assortment of historic pieces such as these? Why do the sellers choose Stanton’s for the rarest of the rare?

This 1946 Harley Davidson Knucklehead
restored motorcycle, purchased with discharge
money from WWII service, sold for $32,500.

SS: We have been very fortunate over the years to receive some very fine pieces and collections to sell. We believe that there are a number of reasons why the sellers have come to us. First, our rates are very competitive. Next, and even more important, is the fact that the buyer’s premium that we charge, being 10%, is significantly less than the majority of other firms across North America. Some firms are charging up to 27% to the buyers. Any seller that does not realize that a charge like that is actually affecting their bottom line (when the buyer adjusts their bids to compensate for the same) is not analyzing the whole picture. We offer the bidders a variety of ways to place a bid: the ability to leave bids, e-mail bids or make a phone bid if they are not able to attend the auction in person. We have also specialized in this field for nearly 40 years so our customer base and direct advertising program reaches just about everyone with an interest in this field. The buyers and sellers (who many times have worn both hats over the years) have come to know that they have been and will be treated honestly and fairly by Stanton’s.

MD: Do you sell the items on consignment, or do you buy entire collections for the auction? Are minimum reserve prices set? If so, what are the advantages and disadvantages of such a set up?

This Watling Bird of Paradise
slot machine sold for $3,800.

SS: The items and collections are sold on consignment. In my 48 years of being in the auction business, we have only purchased two collections outright, and it was after our suggestion to the owners to have us sell for them (as opposed to us purchasing). Our belief is that anyone anytime will receive more for their collection when it is offered piece by piece to a group of interested collectors, than when it is sold in a bulk-lot sale. This is obvious when individuals purchase collections and then come to us to later liquidate. In regards to minimums, at certain times they can be set, after a discussion between the owner and myself. Sometimes my minimums are used, but usually the pieces being sold will generate (through competitive bidding) a fair and more than acceptable market value. Items can come into the auction with a reserve bid (there is nothing wrong with putting a $5000 reserve on a $10,000 item). However, sometimes an item will just not generate the interest that it should. We do not force buyers to take home something they do not want, so in cases like that we may just pass on that item until the next auction.

MD: Can you give us an idea of the type of person(s) who buy, collect, and pay high prices for these rare arti- facts? Where does your auction audience typically come from? (dealers, collectors, general public). What is the rough percentage of dealers to collectors? How far reaching (geographically) is your audience?

SS: That is an impossible question to answer, because the answer encompasses nearly everyone! Private individuals would fall into all ages, although the majority probably would be from 45 to 75 years old, due to the fact most people need to get their family and financial obligations out of the way before they are able to pursue collecting on a serious level. The majority are men, but there are also women as well as couples who pursue the hobby. Museums and investors are also clients. One of my favourite observations is attempting to separate the dealers from collectors. Nearly every collector will usually become a dealer, and every dealer usually is a collector. Our audience covers buyers, sellers and collectors from all over the U.S.A, and Canada, as well as Europe, Australia and New Zealand, China & Japan. Surprisingly, there has never been a great deal of interest or response from Mexico or South America.

A very rare collection of various high end Victrolas created much action at a recent auction.
(Photo courtesy of Blain McCutchen)

MD: Tell us about some of the preparation that goes into one of your phonograph auctions (from road trips, transporting, cataloguing, listing, photographing, to final sale). What commission percentage do you charge for all this work and effort?

SS: Our music sale takes nearly six months to coordinate. Normally we will travel to the location of the collection, catalogue the collection on site with a laptop, photograph the items, pack the machines (usually using pads and/or bubble wrap inside plastic tubs for protection) and then transport them back to a storage location, awaiting the move to the auction site for the sale set-up. This whole process takes quite some time and is a lot of work. We also have to crop and edit each photo as well as ensure that a “lot number” is assigned. When the client’s items are moved, an “Inland Marine Insurance Policy” covers them and, when they reach the storage facility, they are covered by a $1,000,000 bond. Over the course of the six-month period (prior to the auction), the material is continuously publicized in not only the antique publications, but in the specialized organization publications throughout the country and around the world - both in print and on our website. Finally, the catalog is printed and sent to all individuals who have requested one. Our catalogs usually contain 650-900 photographs, as well as the entire listing (and photographs) that are available on our website.

Stanton’s often gets jukeboxes in their auctions. Here we see a 1946 Rockola, a couple of early 1950’s Wurlitzers, two 1954 Seeburg R’s,
and a 1948 Seeburg Trashcan.
(Photo courtesy of Blain McCutchen)

MD: Trends and Observations: You, probably more than most people in this hobby, have the best idea of where interest in the antique phonograph hobby is trending and how it is doing in general. What are some of your recent observations? What trends did you see in the collector phono industry in the past 10 years – what is more popular now and what has waned? What are the hottest items in the auction business? What do you see as collectables of growing interest?

SS: The rare and desirable examples continue to attract a great deal of interest, and always seem to generate strong bidding. The more common pieces (like Edison Standards of which millions were made) have softened over the last 10 years, but that has been the same thing in just about every category of antique collecting. However, we have to ask ourselves if perhaps they were over-valued in the first place, and now prices have dropped to where they should more realistically be. As for the field of music boxes, even though good music boxes are still in demand, some of that market may have softened due to the age of the collectors who strongly supported the market 15-20 years ago. The early, unusual, rare and book-identifiable machines, along with sought-after jukeboxes and coin-operated machines always seem to attract interest from collectors. I have noticed that demographics have changed over time and we have been able to expand our sales to a wider audience. The types of items have expanded and we see better (rarer) items coming to auction more often. Yes, the market place does have cycles and values can change. Some items increase in value while others do not. However, it appears that this hobby is indifferent to economic conditions and that the ‘best of the best’ continues to increase in value.

Machines up for auction at Stanton's
(Photo courtesy of Blain McCutchen)

MD: What is the median age of the buyer/collector (age, gender, social or ethnic background?) Who is the typical purchaser at your auctions? Do you see any younger people getting involved in the hobby? Is the supply of items increasing, static or dwindling?

SS: Even though there are some younger buyers, I have noticed that in most fields of collecting the average age of the collectors is in the age 40-70 range. This hobby has never been a younger person’s passion. The field of collecting music machines and related items lends itself more to male collectors but, as I mentioned earlier, there are also female collectors and couples who study the field and collect. There is always a possibility that some younger people will develop an interest in the field, and begin collecting at an earlier age. However, the main factor that comes into play is the availability of funds that an individual requires to collect, and the point (or age) when they have the extra money to pursue a hobby like this. They have to first establish a home, raise children (and put through college) before having funds left to spend for themselves on a hobby.

An American Berliner “Trademark” gramophone
with a Clark Johnson reproducer,
“hold down” screw and unusual horn

Regarding the question of supply …in the last few years there have been many machines that have come onto the market due to the age of collectors, estates and economic factors. Over the years, we have seen increases and decreases in the number of machines and related items (and other types of antiques) that hit the market. This will always continue to happen, with a resultant influence on the prices that are received. It is amazing, however, the number of collections there are “hidden” away. Individuals that are unknown to nearly everyone in the various collector societies and organizations have accumulated these. In my opinion, there are still a lot of hidden treasures out there that will be uncovered and found (and end up in our auction). I have also noticed another trend: in prior years when a person passed away, the family would keep some or all of the possessions as inheritance, to be enjoyed by future generations (often in the same house). Now with especially new homes (and condominiums) being so small, there is little interest in keeping the collection, so it is liquidated.

MD: The photographs that accompany your advertising are beautiful. Do you take them yourself or have someone who does it for you? Can you elaborate a bit about this aspect of the auction?

A beautiful mahogany Victor IV with black horn
and unusual style “mum” floral decoration
from the Tea Tray Company

SS: Thank you for your kind words! I, and the other auctioneer, Michael Bleisch, handle all of the photography work ourselves. We feel that it is important to do as good a job as possible, offering multiple views of the various pieces. Additional pictures (when requested) are available to potential buyers on items being offered, and that will help a bidder decide if they are interested in pursuing the piece which is being sold. Much time is spent cropping and editing the photos to make them look good in our publications. When we first started these auctions, there were about 25 to 30 phonographs in each one, with bidders coming from about five states. Now we typically have 1500+ items in each sale and the audience is all over the world.

MD: How has the internet, specifically online auctions like e-Bay, and even Kijiji, transformed the antique music machine auction business? Has there been any impact, good or negative?

SS: The internet and technology is definitely a benefit in the promotion of items being sold. We continue to promote the auction and items on our website at www.stantons-auctions.com, as well as Auction Zip, and two other Auction Association sites. We do not use an online bidding format for a couple of reasons. First, a hands-on inspection by the buyers is something that cannot be improved upon. Next, our auctions permit email and mail bids, as well as phone bidding during the actual auction. However, the online format, when used in conjunction with most auctions, reduces the attendance to a point that restricts the competitive bidding on a large number of the pieces being offered. In addition, the online bidding offered by most firms requires a buyer's premium that ranges from 20%-27%. I do not believe that the internet competes with our auctions. Bidders know that they are getting from Stanton's an item that is properly described and identified. They can always call me (or my staff) if they have questions about something. I have even played machines for people over the phone!

An Auxetophone phonograph with mechanical/ electrical amplification using compressed air

MD: Attending an auction: please describe what a firsttime novice attendee of your auction can expect. Please describe viewing times, testing and playing of each machine, registering, security deposits, etc. What tips or suggestions do you have for buyers attending a Stanton’s Auction? How does the purchaser pay? Is there an area hotel that gives preferred rates?

SS: It is really quite simple. The first thing will normally be how amazed they will be at the offering. When a collector walks into one of our sales and is able to see over 1,000 items, hundreds of phonographs and music boxes, roller organs, records and everything imaginable in one room, it usually makes them wonder why they waited so long to attend their first sale! All they need to do is register with our cashier with a driver’s license. Method of payment for purchases is cash or personal check; or MasterCard / Visa is accepted with a 3% handling fee (all payable in U.S. funds). The next sale for April 26, 27, & 28, 2018, will be held in Hastings, Michigan (not Charlotte), and we are presently working with the Holiday Inn Express to see if they will offer a special rate. Hastings is only 23 miles from Grand Rapids, which is a good airport for anyone flying in.

MD: Absentee bidding: what is the percentage of absentee bidding vs. those who attend in person? What is your process for accepting absentee bids (phone, writing, e-mail, etc.)? How would a phone bidder know when a certain item is coming up for bid? Do you see your business becoming "on-line bidding”?

SS: Even though it varies per sale, I would estimate that approximately 15-20% of the dollar value comes from the absentee bidders. As discussed previously, email, phone, and even phone bidding during the sale are acceptable. (Editor note: Please see accompanying outline about leaving a bid at an auction sales.)

Process for leaving a bid or bidding at one of our auction sales

As an interested auction participant, you have the opportunity to bid on a piece by leaving a bid with us prior to the time of the sale, which we will execute for you, just as if you are standing in the crowd bidding for yourself…i.e. if you leave us a bid of a $1,000 and can buy it for $800. you will get the item. If someone else falls right on the $1,000 amount or pays more than that, then they will be the buyer…the only exception is if you say you will pay “$1,000 plus one”… meaning one more bid over the $1,000 amount if a “tie” occurs…. but that is your decision.

You also have the opportunity to bid via phone as the item is being auctioned. If you decide to do this, we will call you 5 minutes before the sale and then you can participate as I, or any auctioneer, offer the piece through live bidding.

If you are the successful bidder, the cost is the hammer- price plus 10%, plus sales tax if applicable.

The state tax is not charged if we ship the item, or if you appoint a shipper and the piece is shipped to a location out of state or out of the country. The other exception is if you have a sales tax number.

If you give us permission to release the piece to an individual at the sale, we will do so.

You will then need to send us a cheque, or you are able to pay by Visa or MasterCard (with a 3% handling fee) immediately following the auction.

If you desire for us to ship the piece, we will take it to a shipper (at no charge) and then you will negotiate (with the shipper) how you want to have it shipped, the amount of insurance, etc.

Please feel free to contact us anytime with further questions.

MD: Do you have a good idea beforehand of which items will generate a lot of activity and enthusiasm among bidders? Have there been some sleepers that have surprised you (or conversely, some that you expected to go for much more, but generated little buyer interest)?

A Victor Junior in excellent condition
with good original paint on the horn

SS: Usually I have a good handle on what the items will generate but, of course, there are always pieces that bring more bidding activity than you would expect. Some pieces periodically bring less, but normally when they do, there is a good reason for it; i.e. condition, missing parts or some other factor that I may not have taken into consideration. Value, of course, is all in the eye of the beholder, and that is what makes this so interesting from day to day. In the end, almost everything sells.

I have something like 550 to 600 books that I use for reference. This helps me get a better idea on values, and is still far better in my opinion, than the internet.

MD: Selling at Stanton’s: how would the average per- son sell a piece at Stanton’s? How would they transport it to you? Who is responsible for the item’s safety? Is it hard for a Canadian seller to get a machine over the border in either direction - what is required for this? What are the costs to sell an item—summary? As a Canadian, do I have to pay Michigan sales tax (can I get a refund)?

SS: A consignor can bring the items to us, or we can transport the items for them. We can handle the moving of the items from a Canadian seller to the U.S.A. by preparing the proper inventory and forms and using a Customs Broker. Customs wants an itemized list showing the age, value and weight. This is also good for the collector, so he will have a list for his own reference.

A front mount Columbia Graphophone
model Sterling B1

While the items are in transit and stored at our location, a $1 million Inland Marine Policy covers them.

We have a 10% buyer's premium (other auction houses typically charge 23 to 30%). Our advertising costs are typically in the $35,000 range for each auction, so the 10% premium helps to cover this. The seller bears a 15% commission rate, the cost to ship the items to Stanton’s and Customs duty.

If the collection is “antique” (100 + years old) the fees are minimal. If the items are not antique, there is a duty charge, but the fee still is not a restrictive amount. Also remember to consider the difference in funds – a Canadian seller will benefit by approximately one-third more by selling in U.S. funds.

If a person wants, they can sell their entire collection, or only one item in our auction – it is up to them.

Any buyer participating in our sales (as an onsite buyer) has to pay the Michigan State Sales tax of 6%, unless 1). They have a sale tax license number, or 2). The item is shipped to their location by a professional shipper.

Reserves on certain items can be used to protect the interest of the clients that we are working for. These situations are discussed, and the value of the items and the amount of the base figures or minimums are set prior to the pieces being offered.

A child’s toy Bingophone in excellent condition
with good original graphics

MD: Advertising: we know you do extensive advertising for your auctions (and CAPS greatly thanks you for your patronage!). What is your recommendation for the best manner a potential buyer can get information about the items in your auctions? Is a catalogue available, or should we look on-line?

SS: A free catalog is available to everyone 3 weeks prior to the time of the auction. Any interested party merely has to contact our office and request one. The photographs and other ads are posted, as they are received, on our website.

MD: Do you see more auction inventory becoming available, as collectors are an aging group? What have you noticed in sellers lately?

SS: I believe that our collectors' organizations, associations and societies, coupled A front mount Columbia Graphophone model with the publications that they print, and the books that have been written on these topics continue to show the public and our collectors the significance of these historical items. Everyone’s actions and efforts have continued to bring attention and interest to both the items and the associated hobbies.

In general, the market has softened in the past ten to fifteen years. However, maybe the market just got too hot for a while, and now it is more where it should be. In my opinion, the market is still exceptionally good for exceptionally good items. There is still a lot of money being put into this hobby and there is still tons of stuff out there that nobody knew about. In the last five to seven years, I have witnessed several large collections being sold off by their estates. There are many collectors and hobbyists who do not participate or make their collections known. When they pass on, their family has to dispose of the collections and this is when the items enter our auction.

An oak Victor V with wooden oak spear tip horn

MD: I personally have a large record collection, as do some of our other members. If the time comes and I want to dispose of it, would Stanton’s be a good venue for it?

SS: We always have records in our auction. Sometimes the more desirable ones are sold one at a time; others are sold by the box. A couple of recent sales come to mind: a Ku Klux Klan record recently went for $980, a Vogue Picture Disc (Rum and Coca-Cola) for $5,000 and $6,600.

MD: If you were stranded on a desert island, and could bring one antique musical piece with you, what would it be? Is there one piece you would really like to have in your collection?

SS: If I were to be stranded on a desert island, I would bring something in the shape of a boat so that I could get off the island! Seriously, I really like the Upright Lyre shaped Multiphone cylinder phonograph machines. They play 24 records and there were only about 200 machines made. I have only seen three in all my years of auctioning and they have gone for $38,000, $71,000 and $77,000. If money were no object, I would have a big house and decorate each room in it with different pieces from different periods – Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Victorian, etc.

MD: It must be so hard for some people, who have amassed a large collection all their lives, to let it go. How do you address this with potential sellers? Do you also find that some have unrealistic expectations (on value)?

A giant Nipper stands perched on a 1930’s
Mills jukebox while a 1948 Seeburg
“trashcan” jukebox can be seen to the left.

SS: Yes, some people have a very hard time parting with their collection, and do not know how to handle it. However, every situation is different. It could be an estate sale, in which the person has passed away and left the collection to relatives to dispose of. There could also be monetary reasons – the items were originally bought as an investment, or the funds are needed to put their kids through college. Sometimes the items are not as dear to them as you might think. As part of the auction process, we take detailed pictures of each piece, and these are provided to the seller (who can use them as a keepsake). Having the pictures is sometimes sufficient for many people, as it is a permanent documentation of what they once had as a collection.

In terms of value, most people seem to recall what they paid for an item and have an idea of what it is worth today. However, sometimes they might have a very unrealistic expectation of value based especially on television shows (who inflate the value for sensationalism). In the end, these individuals may get a bad taste in their mouth if they do not realize this unrealistic amount at auction.

I too am a collector and always have been. However, there are no guarantees on the value of an item. You spend your money on it, enjoy it for a while, then stick your neck out (selling it) and you will then find out what it is really worth at that moment.

MD: As an auctioneer, what is one of your pet peeves?

SS: I like to keep the auction going at a fast, non-stop pace. My crew brings the items up and takes them off the table in a timely and organized fashion. As such, anything that interrupts the flow or distracts my attention is something that we always try to avoid, as it can become confusing and frustrating to everyone involved.

MD: Steve: we greatly appreciate your taking the time to speak to our members at a CAPS meeting, as well as for sitting down to answer the questions for this article. Thank you for the chat and for sharing your vast knowledge and insight into our unique hobby. We wish you the greatest of success with your future auctions and endeavors.

Should you wish to contact Steve directly, he may be reached at:

Steven E. Stanton
Auctioneer-Real Estate Broker
144 S. Main, Box 146
Vermontville, MI 49096 USA
(517) 331-8150 cellular
(517) 852-0627 eve.

All photos courtesy of Steve Stanton unless otherwise noted.