Old has always been good in Duane Merrill's world. The Milton resident, a 10th-generation Vermonter, was raised by parents who passionately pursued timeless treasures. For half a century they ran Ethan Allen Antiques in South Burlington. It seems logical that their son, now 61, would grow up to become an auctioneer.
Duane Merrill & Company, which operates from a gallery in Williston, specializes in upscale auctions and appraisals. After 35 years in the business, Merrill fondly remembers the quaint "New England Yankee farmhouse auctions" that are fast disappearing in the age of eBay. "There was great stuff coming out of attics then," he notes. "Now, with all the changes in this state, some of my best stuff often comes out of condos."
Yet he realizes there's a certain mystique in the almost archaeological process of digging through the detritus of a bygone era. While helping organize a Burlington estate sale a few months ago, his son -- Ethan Merrill, 32 -- found a valuable daguerreotype stashed in a carton of Chesterfield cigarettes that had been tossed on a trash pile. The forgotten photograph sold at auction for $9000.
In more than three decades, Duane Merrill has observed the increasing popularity of auctions. He sees his trade as a form of recycling that's also entertainment. And though summer was once the season for bidding wars, these days many sales take place in the colder months as well.
SEVEN DAYS: When did you know this was what you wanted to do in life?
DUANE MERRILL: As a young kid, I used to practice behind my parents' shop.
SD: You held mock auctions?
DM: Yeah. But I also loved athletics. I studied business management in college, and then became a high school teacher and a coach.
SD: So how did you get back to the basics?
DM: In 1967, I was asked to do a benefit auction for the St. Joseph Home [for retirees] on Prospect Street. We were still taking 25-cent bids in those days; some old-timers wanted me to start at a dime. By contrast, I sold a Gustav Stickley cupboard for $270,000 -- a world record for that type of piece -- in 1999.
SD: After that first experience 36 years ago, did you quit your day job?
DM: No. But I was recruited every summer for three or four years to work with Warren Smith, who was a one-armed auctioneer. I was in my early twenties, so that was a great opportunity. I was selling right alongside him.
SD: What did you learn then, or since, about the job's requirements?
DM: That honesty is important. That some auctioneers just take bids; others sell. You need humor. And knowledge. Most auctioneering schools now teach speed, which can mean there's not enough time spent educating the buyer. I love history. I do as much research as I can on what I'm selling.
SD: When did you open your own firm?
DM: I started a sole proprietorship in 1970, and quit teaching in 1973. I worked my tail off, putting up tents, setting up chairs. I never got home before 11 or 12 at night. I was the first guy around here who really invested in the business. I bought van-trucks, tents, lights and microphones.
SD: Was it an instant success?
DM: No, I was getting turned down for important estate sales. I looked too young. It was frustrating.
SD: When did things begin to turn around?
DM: About 1978, I guess. I did a four-day sale at a 1799 house in Middlebury. Untouched condition. That's as good as it gets. We built this gallery in 1980. Now, I have more work than I can handle. We sell in the millions of dollars a year. It's the more selective, higher-quality things, not the pots and pans. I'm often written into people's wills -- they don't want some attorney or banker screwing it up. It's grown beyond my expectations. But we have a saying: "You're only as good as your next auction."
SD: Did you make any mistakes along the way?
DM: Sure. We all have what's called "seller's regrets." Many years ago, I sold an 18th-century Queen Anne lowboy dressing table for $3000. It was worth $10,000. I later discovered that the bid didn't go higher because of a dealers' pool.
SD: What is that?
DM: When dealers conspire beforehand to keep the price down. It's illegal, because of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. I know how to handle that sort of thing now.
DM: I can't give away trade secrets.
SD: Can you share any the tricks of the trade?
DM: You have to put people at ease. You have to represent the seller and be fair to the buyer. If I say, "That's a 1780 Chippendale desk," I'd better know what I'm talking about. I don't use a gavel and I don't like to stand at a podium. I generally move around. What I'm trying to accomplish psychologically is reading the crowd.
SD: What about the auctioneer's lingo?
DM: We develop a "chant." Perhaps three or four of them. They're handed down through the ages, but you put your own twist on it. And you reinvent it for whatever type of auction. There's a lot of word repetition. It's instantaneous and instinctive. You know the value of an item; you put out the rarity and refinements of the piece and give it the right verbal framework. There's a certain amount of showmanship involved.
SD: Do you still put in a lot of hours?
DM: Well, it's still demanding. I drive about 150 miles a day to make appraisals or auction estimates. Yesterday, I visited Craftsbury Common. Tuesday night it was St. Albans. Before that, I went to Keeseville, New York. But now I have five full-time employees, plus 12 part-time people. I no longer have to do all the auctioneering myself. I'll sell the first two hours, Ethan takes over for the next two, and then my nephew Lyle Scanlon handles the third two-hour stretch.
SD: Does "the chant" take a toll on your voice?
DM: Some auctioneers use gum or lozenges or water. I prefer not to put sugary things on my throat. As a child, I had asthma and allergies. Now I'm OK as long as no one shakes an old Oriental rug in front of me.
SD: What's the weirdest item you ever came across?
DM: The joy of an on-site auction is the potential surprises. About 25 years ago in northern Vermont, I was going through the estate of a country doctor who'd been a medical examiner. I found a skeleton in an old trunk.
SD: And then what?
DM: I was not going to sell one human being to another.
NOTE: To keep the competition at bay, auction houses don't like to publicize their activities too far in advance. So information on Duane Merrill's upcoming events is sketchy: On May 31, at the Williston gallery, they're selling Americana items from the Holly Webb Froud estate in Shelburne. On June 7, they have an on-site auction in North Ferrisburgh. On June 21, there's another one in the gallery. Call 878-2625 or visit http://www.merrillsauction.com for more details.