My Interview with Paul Brown of “Auction Kings”

August 05

A few months back I wrote a little post about a not-so-little new show on Discovery Channel entitled, “Auction Kings.”  I mentioned how much my family and I enjoyed the show and how I thought it was kind of funny that Paul Brown, owner of Gallery 63 and main focus of the show, wore a blue soccer type jersey shirt.  Well. Never did I think Paul Brown would actually read that post.  But he did.  And he sent me an e-mail thanking me for the publicity and challenging me to go on TV and do what he does, meaning he wasn’t very enthused about my comment on his attire.  I e-mailed him back apologizing and wrote an “explanation,” if you will, of how I really felt about Paul Brown.  I wasn’t sure he’d read that post either, but after a few weeks, I received another e-mail from the man himself.  And, at that time, he mentioned that the new season was fast approaching and asked if I’d like to interview him.  Heck yeah.

Paul called me somewhat unexpectedly and early one morning (he’s on the east coast and I’m on the west), and was ready for action.  I scrambled, put the phone on speaker, got my iPhone to record, pulled up my questions and was ready to roll.  We talked for about a half an hour and in the end, what struck me most was how eloquent in his words and wise in his knowledge of antiques and auctions Mr. Paul Brown is.  My questions were mere flint to his flame of exuberance, emotion and energy that he has about what “Auction Kings,” the show, has done for his life.  His theories and philosophies ring so true to my ears and are lessons every treasure hunter must learn if they did not know them already. Beyond just an interview, this was an education.

Miss Bargain Huntress: How did the show come about?

Paul Brown:  I got a phone call one day from a production company.  They were doing a national search putting some feelers out to see how they could do a show on an auction house.  To be honest, it sounded like a con to me, so I kind of blew them off. But the guy called me back and said he was serious.  So he sent me a flip camera to use to show a day in the life of Gallery 63.  I sent it back and 2 days later they called me and told me we made the final cut.  We went back and forth with contracts, they showed up with a camera crew, shot a pilot and Discovery ordered 20 episodes.  After 6 months of shooting and a little time in between, the show debuted last October.  I didn’t really know what I had gotten myself into. All of a sudden, I’m at the gas station and people are yelling at me, “Great show!”  And then it was this cavalcade of “Oh my God, I’m on TV.”  I had lived relatively anonymously before that and all of a sudden, I’m not.

MBH:  How do you feel about that?

PB:  I’m havin’ the time of my life, are you kidding me?   It’s awesome.  You just never know what’s around the next corner in life or business or anything.  I really didn’t know what to expect with the show since I’m not involved with editing or putting it together.   When I finally saw it, I was very pleased.  I had initial concerns about how they were going to portray us and what we were going to look like.  But I had a lot of confidence in Discovery.  I’m not a big TV watcher to begin with, but I know that Discovery is a teaching network.  And they’ve been so awesome to me, I love those people.

MBH:  Do you have people coming up to you asking you about antiques and what stuff is worth?

PB:  Every single day.  I enjoy it.  I’m a talker.  I like to talk to people so it’s fun.  I always tell them, which is the premise of the show, we have “experts,” but they often disagree with each other.   They often aren’t aware of what the public will pay. They might say a piece is worth $1,000 in a retail store, but that doesn’t have any bearing on what it’s worth that day at the auction.  The person that writes the appraisal is never the person that writes the check.  The expert will say it’s worth $5,000, you offer it to them for $3,000 and they’ll say, “Yeah, no.”  You offer it to them for $2,000 and they’ll say, “Yeah, no.”  Worth is such a relative thing.  I’m not always right and I’m not always wrong.  We can bring the same item on stage two months apart and one day it’s worth $500, the next time it’s worth $1,500, and the next time it only brings $200.  There is a wide range of value, there is no book value on a lot of stuff, it just brings what it brings.

MBH: Your dad started in this business, right?

PB: Yeah, and his mom, too.  I’ve been in this business my whole entire life, third generation.  I worked for my family’s company, Red Baron Antiques, which is more of an antique store that does a few auctions a year, which is how I cut my teeth in the industry.  I did all of the promotions, all the research.  My background is English Literature, so I enjoyed doing the research component of the job.  We would pull stuff in and I was the person who looked up the pieces and found their historic and aesthetic significance.  I would then write the description and do the marketing and selling through printed media pre-internet.  That’s how I learned.  I worked there since I was young kid, daily since I was nineteen, twenty, even while I was in college.  Eventually, I wanted to move on to Gallery 63 which was a tiny little low-end auction house that has grown into what it is today.

MBH:  So you bought Gallery 63?

PB:  No, Gallery 63 was a subsidiary of Red Baron Antiques.  It was a clearing house for them and we’d sell box lots of household goods and cheap furniture all day long.  It didn’t make a whole lot of money, but I always saw potential in it.  When you have an estate auction, you’re selling goods to the public with no cost of the goods to you.  You don’t have to buy the inventory, it’s somebody else’s inventory.  At the time, I had to drum up inventory and a lot of my energy went toward that. Now, with the show, I just open the door and people pull up with trucks. Great stuff just comes pouring in.  Earlier, though, I used my contacts from over the years at Red Baron to find that great inventory. Atlanta’s a big city so there’s a lot of stuff here.  I started opening up my market and we began getting stuff in from the Southeast, as well.  Little by little I grew the business to the point that it was no longer just junk and now some pretty good stuff rolls through here. I guess, somehow or another, that might have caught the attention of the production company or Discovery.  Plus, we don’t necessarily look, talk or act like your average antique dealer, which I think plays into the TV thing.

MBH:  Exactly. Which is what makes you different.

PB:  Yeah, I actually unload trucks.  I don’t want to wear a suit.  It would get all torn up, unloading a truck in a suit!

MBH: Finding the significance of the pieces you bring in must be a lot easier now with the internet?

PB:  Oh my God, remember back in the day, I used to go to these places, they were big buildings that had books in them called “libraries.”  I’d go to the card catalog and then I’d go to the fifth floor, and I’d wind through these endless aisles of books.  I’d finally get to the shelf and I’ll be darned if someone hadn’t checked the book out already.  Now I have my iPad, click a couple keystrokes and “bam,” there it is.  So, yeah, totally, it’s changed that component of the business.

MBH: So what do you like to collect?

PB:  Time.  Time with my friends, time with my family, time to enjoy myself.  I don’t ever have enough of it. But I don’t personally collect anything.  I like Modernism.  I grew up around these sort of eclectic, heavily carved, baroque, rococo, highly ornamented styles that were in my life from the time that I was a child until now in my business life.  So I like clean, straight, minimalist lines. I love Mid-Century Modernism, I love current Modernism.

MBH: That must have formed what you like, being around that all the time.

PB:  Well, people’s tastes change.  There was a time when I really loved American Aesthetic Movement furniture, Gilded Age stuff from about 1870 to 1900.  And then I got into an Art Nouveau period where I loved sinewy, organic lines like Tiffany Lamps and Majorelle furniture and Gallé.  And then that morphed into a stream-lined deco.  And now I’m just sort of straight-up Modernism. Who knows what I’ll like next.

MBH: Do you have any advice for people as to what they should be looking for at garage sales, thrift stores, etc.?  Some things that always sell, that are hot pieces?

PB:  Right now, you know, it’s funny, because the market has changed so much in the past 6 or 7 years with the economy doing what it’s doing.  Some of the things that used to be worth a lot of money, are not now. What I always tell people is that styles change, as I kind of illustrated with my own personal style.  Styles in society change, quality does not, quality remains.  If you buy things that were at one time of a high quality manufacturer or craftsmanship, then that will retain its value and has a chance of appreciating.  If you buy whatever’s hot or in style, that has a good chance of not appreciating. I always go for quality.  There was a time in the 1930’s when Tiffany Lamps, which are among the most prized pieces for Art Nouveau and American Decorative Art collectors, were thrown away because they were thought of as antiquated stylistically, “grandma’s style,” during a time when people wanted something more streamlined for a more modern age. Tons of lamps, patterns, glass, etc. were dumped in the Hudson River when the factory burned down, as a matter of fact.  But the ones that remain were made with a high degree of quality and therefore have appreciated in value.

MBH: What can you tell us about the upcoming season?  Any teasers?

PB:  The upcoming season starts the 9th of August.  What I’m really excited about is that we got the Prime Time slot at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays instead of 10 p.m. like last season.  As far as the items go, we’ve been shooting since January and we have some cool, cool, cool, cool stuff.   We have Elvis’s Cadillac, a World War II Harley Davidson, a Delorean Time Machine and a lot more.  (Go to the Episode Guide for more info.)

MBH:  What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever sold at Gallery 63?

PB:  At Gallery 63, the most expensive thing I ever sold was a Diamond Tennis Bracelet,  20 some-odd carats, all white, emerald cut, VS stones all the way around.  Beautiful.  It went for about $98,000 on the floor.  I’ve sold lots of paintings in the $30,000-$50,000 range.  I’ve sold lots of cars in the $20,000-$40,000 range.

MBH:  What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever sold?

PB:  Oh!  I sold a letter, about 3 years ago, before TV.  A woman found it under a staircase in a grand antebellum mansion in Texas.  It was one of only 3 copies of this letter written by General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant surrendering and ending the Civil War.  It was authenticated by Shelby Foote, the Civil War scholar that did the PBS series and was the pre-eminent scholar and academic on the Civil War of the day.  He authenticated the letter on his own letterhead.  Somehow it ended up here, I don’t know how or why, but it did. A gentleman in my audience paid some-odd $60,000 for it and promptly donated it to his alma mater.  It was one of those rare historical things that when you hold it in your hands you think, “this is pretty darn cool.”  I also had a folder full of Martin Luther King’s personal papers, speeches and hand-written edits, which was very humbling just to hold. First drafts of history, right there in my hand. I love letters, I love words, I love literature, so things like that speak to me.

MBH: Do most things sell higher or lower or is it a pretty even mix?

PB:  You know what, I always tell people when they bring me things to sell, if they bring me 10 things, 2 of them are going to go higher than either of us thought, 2 of them are going to go lower for sure, and the middle six will be within a range of values that is kind of what you would expect. By nature, an auction is kind of a wholesale beast anyway.  You’re buying second hand goods, even with the historical, antique or aesthetic value.  You look to get the wholesale price and you hope for retail spikes periodically when you get two or three people in the audience that want the same thing.  Because then it almost becomes an ego contest.  If you get a couple of big players in the audience that both want it, they know they may overpay for it, but they can’t back down in front of their husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, or whoever and they want to win because that’s human nature.  That definitely happens and that happens several times in the upcoming season which is always fun.  They audience “ooohs” and “ahhhs,” it’s like watching the back and forth of a tennis match.

MBH: You obviously send out a catalog before an auction to attract your audience?

PB: Historically, I did.  I sent out a piece of direct mail with pictures of 30-40 pieces that were on the floor. Nowadays my website gets 20,000-30,000 hits a day, so I hired a full-time guy who snaps a picture and puts it up on the website before day’s end.  By the end of the day, 1,000 people have looked at it.  So I don’t really have to send out a catalog anymore.  That’s been a great benefit of the show.

MBH: So people will know what you have coming up and then those specialized customers that want that particular piece are going to be there to bid on it.

PB:  Right.  I’ve got a 45 year database of national and international clients.  I will do targeted marketing, too. Like if I know somebody collects American Silver from the 1800’s, and we get this great bowl in, I’ll find those twenty people that have historically bought that kind of thing from me and I’ll hit ‘em with an email with a picture attached to it.

MBH: That sounds like a big job in itself.

PB:  It is, but it’s not.  We all kind of tag team it.  We all have laptops and cameras.  First of all, I have more than just Cindy, John and Delfino that work for me, I’ve got 12 people working here.  We have a larger support staff.

MBH:  What else can you tell us about the upcoming season?

PB:  We have new apparel.

MBH:  You do?!  What are you wearing?

PB:  I went to Nordstrom and found a shirt that I kind of liked, bought 20 them, had them embroidered.

MBH:  Do you like to write?  Seeing as you were an English Literature major?

PB:   I do. I was convinced I was going to be a writer or an English Professor.  And who knows what life will bring me.  Nowadays, honestly, I don’t even have time.  My days are a flash and a blur.  By the time I get some free time I just sit on the back porch, drink a glass of wine, listen to some music, read the paper, that kind of stuff and just unwind.

MBH:  Maybe some day you’ll write about all of this.

PB:  I’m thinking about doing a book based on the show.  Maybe working with the network and doing some sort of treasure-hunting, antiquing, collecting type of guide book.  I’m not really sure.  I would intersperse it with anecdotal stories and cool pictures.  It would be fun and have the same sort of appeal as the show.  In other words, it’s not going to be your typical high-brow, scholarly opus, but it will indeed have factual, usable information and still retain the kind of fun quirkiness and whimsicality of the show.

MBH:  I think that would be great. I think it would be a big seller.

PB:  Yeah, life has definitely taken a turn for the better.  The show has opened so many doors.  I’ve met so many cool people and they travel from all over the country to come to the auctions.  We have Gary, the auctioneer, ask the crowd how many of them are from outside of Atlanta and most of them raise their hands. Then he asks how many are from west of the Mississippi, and there will be a huge number.  We’ve become a destination.  It’s been good for business, but it’s also a lot of fun. My theory with the auctions has been to try to make them like a party, like a social event. If people are having a good time, talking with their friends, they’re much more likely to bid.  An auction, by nature, is an impulsive thing.  You get people having fun, they see an item they think is pretty cool and then they think, “I’ll bid on that!”  Then they get emotionally attached to it and don’t want to lose it as the price creeps on up.

MBH:  Would you say your audience has doubled?

PB:  I would say it has probably close to doubled.  I used to get, on average, about 200-225 people or so.  The building only holds 350.  Now, when the show is on TV, we get 350 and there’s a line out the door, so that when 10 people leave, we let 10 more in.

MBH:  Do you think you’ll need a bigger place?

PB:  It’s possible.  You just don’t know what the future holds.  It’s all I can do, I effectively have two jobs.  I run this business and I also have the television show, which doesn’t seem like it would take that much time, but it does.  Each item has a true narrative, a beginning a middle and an end, and there are three items on each show.  Each item has to have an intake scene, an expert scene and the sale scene.  I have to talk about each item in an OTF, an “on the fly” interview.  I also function as the narrator of the show, as well, to help them tell the tale in 22 minutes.  So I just don’t have that much time to think about getting another building.

MBH:  And if you have a bigger building, it’s just more to manage.

PB:  Yeah, it’s just more stuff, right?  I’m in a good position.  God has blessed me.  I feel very, very, very fortunate to have had this happen.  But with every opportunity also comes challenges.  Like when it’s 100 degrees in Atlanta and we have an auction and I have a big metal building.  So I had to get new AC just because there are so many people and no one is bidding because they’re so hot and they’re gonna pass out!

MBH:  You need to install misters.

PB:  Misters would be good.  There are probably still some kickin’ around from back when they had the Olympics here in ’96.  I bet there’s a warehouse full of misters somewhere.

MBH:  As long as it doesn’t damage any of the stuff.

PB:  Yeah, we’ll try to just mist the people, not the furniture.

MBH:  It’s been a pleasure talking to you!

PB:  Thank you.  Thanks for calling.  Thanks for writing.  Thank you so much for having interest in the show.

MBH:  We can’t wait.  August 9th.

PB:  August 9th.  Don’t miss it.  Tell the neighbors.  Wake the kids.

MBH:  On the Tivo.  On the TV.  Thanks, Paul!


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4 responses to “My Interview with Paul Brown of “Auction Kings”

  1. Sarah Jones

    August 10, 2011 at 1:02 am

    You forgot to ask if he’s single or in a relationship!

  2. MissBargainHuntress

    August 10, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Sorry ladies, he’s engaged.

  3. Sarah Jones

    August 13, 2011 at 12:28 am

    I object!

  4. alex hall

    July 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    im a big fan of Auction Kings and Paul Brown(: i always wanted to go to Georgia


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