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Preserving the past, one antique at a time

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It’s been an unsteady few years for antiques. Furniture, artwork, jewelry and finely crafted household items from the past, long considered pricey but good investments, have seen dramatic decreases in demand and a depression in appraised value. The abundance of retail antique shops, which once lined major city thoroughfares, small towns and country barns, have largely disappeared. People looking for high-style antiques to buy or sell, are looking online.

Buyers, sellers, investors — and auctioneers or other businesses that act as intermediary in the antiques trade — are operating in a world at variance with their dearly held expectations. Some say the situation’s driven by overall migration or retail trade to the internet. Others suggest there’s been a fundamental generational shift in consumer tastes in 21st century America.

While industry experts grapple with these questions, a select few — like Roland Auctions of Glen Cove — is remaking itself to meet the changing conditions in a business environment that has sustained their family for decades, while helping to preserve the fine objects of the past.

“Prices are down, kids today are not as interested in antiques, and those who have collected objects that I sold my whole life are finding their investments are bringing a fraction of what they paid for them,” said Billy Roland, a principal in the company along with his brother Robert. “Meanwhile for buyers, many of the serious antique retailers, from Atlantic Avenue to Cold Spring Harbor, have just closed their doors. It used to be in my neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, people would drive up with antiques in tractor trailers, empty them out or fill them up. All that’s gone.”

But Roland Auctions, which opened in Glen Cove in 2018, are tough veterans of the competitive and fashionable New York City antiques world. With four decades under its belt working out of the historic St. Denis building, just south of Union Square, the company established a reputation, representing the estates of the rich and famous — major Manhattan collectors, celebrities and important Long Island estates.

And seeing the handwriting on the wall, this is one family owned and operated company that has taken action. First, by moving to the Piano Exchange on School Street in Glen Cove.

“We had a really sweet deal at the St. Denis,” Roland recalled. “It was a labyrinth of galleries, but increasingly, we ran antique lots online. We knew [Glen Cove] area. There was a period when we were active in the local community. With changing conditions in the market, we wanted to re-establish our roots here.”

Now from its new location, Roland Auction continues to handle estates for Manhattan clients, a great deal of Long Island’s great estate owners and offers charity auctions for many organizations.

If thinking of high end, high stakes auctioneering, there’s some of that – Roland has represented estates with art by Larry Rivers, Warhol, Renoir, Christo, Tiffany and fine furniture appraised in the tens of thousands of dollars. One client with a home on the Upper East Side was enamored with Napoléon. He slept in one of the emperor’s beds and owned a circa-1803 writing desk, which ended up on loan to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  

But as much as 65% of the objects in an auction are appraised for under $300.

For sellers, that means an initial sticker shock when appraisers come around. Meanwhile, for buyers, there are amazing and inexpensive opportunities. Either way, key to operating in the antiques market is understanding how it works today.

At its Glen Cove location, Roland Auctions is only open for auctions. That means browsing antiques means going online and looking for items that are of interest and appraised at prices within range that is affordable.

“We’ve worked hard to make it possible for buyers to see what will be auctioned online, with high quality photography and written descriptions,” Roland said. “The idea is to see what’s listed, then go to the auction 2 to 3 days ahead of time, view items in the exhibition circle and decide how much you are willing to pay for them. It’s a little bit of an intimidating process, but auctioneers don’t want to rob you. They want you to have a good experience and come back.”

That makes Glen Cove a good location for an operation like Roland Auctions. Buyers no longer have to travel far or go to NYC or Connecticut to view antiques.

Meanwhile, sellers have the comfort of knowing that their treasured items are being offered on the internet to buyers worldwide, maximizing the purchase price.

In fact, the strategy may be paying off. The last four auctions have been record-setting for the Roland Auctions, according to company president Sal Trupiano. “More and more people are buying,” he said. “People are becoming comfortable with being online, we have more pictures, better descriptions.” 

In Trupiano’s view, the internet may be how the antique industry will move forward into the future. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “If you’re in New York City and have expensive space, a guy from Ohio can be competing with you. But in Glen Cove, we’re able to get good prices and not only sell to a local audience because we’re online. Some of our expensive items go to Europe, Asia, to the western U.S. That’s great. We never had that access before.”

As for the overall demand for antiques, while it may be cause for worry to some in the short-run, people like Peter James, an Oyster Bay interior designer, are reserving judgment over the long haul.

“There will always be someone interested in antiques,” he explained. “The trend right now is modern, simple, but there’s a niche for antiques in stately homes and they can be effective accent pieces. We are in a modern trend, no question about that, but these things tend to be cyclical.”

That’s good news to Roland, who with his family and staff at Roland Auctions is trying to navigate his way through present conditions.

“The truth is, right now there’s more money in cleaning out a home than there is in going through it for auctionable antiques,” he said. “But we’re not just in this for the money. We are also in the business of preserving heritage. I’d like to think that one day the market will all come back.”

And that, said Roland, is a kind of mission for his family auctioneer operation in Glen Cove.

“In a sense, by preserving precious items from the past, we are a keeper of the future,” he explained. “We’re one of the few people left doing that.”