- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

DALLAS — Employees at Heritage Auction Galleries search out treasures forgotten in attics or secreted away in bank vaults. They have sold the very first GI Joe action figure, the watch Buddy Holly was wearing when he died and letters from Abraham Lincoln.

The Dallas company, which bills itself as the world’s largest collectibles auction house, built its success on the pop culture of coins, comics and memorabilia, carving out a populist niche in a field dominated by institutions such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

“Every piece has a story,” says John Petty, a Heritage collectibles and comics expert. “That is what makes them so valuable. You are buying a piece of history, whether it is a big important piece like JFK’s rocking chair or a smaller piece.”

The company is selling John F. Kennedy’s bedroom rocker, kept by the assassinated president’s personal valet until the valet’s death.

Despite high expectations, bids at a recent auction for the chair, which researchers believe was a gift to Kennedy from the leader of Pakistan, did not reach the owners’ minimum asking price of $75,000. That day, though, Amelia Earhart’s historic flight plan claimed $23,900.

Heritage seeks out some consignors, but others contact the company. A pilot’s relatives, not knowing what they were worth, brought in maps that the man had drawn for Earhart’s famous trans-Atlantic journey.

The company promotes the objects, sets up the sale events and usually earns a commission of the final sale price. In rare instances, Heritage simply buys the item outright.

It is impossible to predict how much bidders will pay for a snippet of history or memento of their youth, says Tom Slater, who directed the auction that included the Kennedy rocker. There is always a gambler’s uncertainty for both the seller and the auctioneer.

The risks have paid off for Heritage, which was founded in 1983 as a specialty coin dealer with several dozen staffers. The company has grown to about 300 employees and $500 million in yearly sales.

Company President Greg Rohan says the key has been approachable staff, ambitious publicity campaigns and using the Internet to open up auctions to more and more people.

“We are trying to bring collecting to everyone, not just an exclusive club for the wealthy,” he says.

He credits EBay and other Internet platforms with bringing to the masses an understanding of auctions, once considered the province of the very rich. Heritage takes Internet bids on everything it sells and saw a major boost in sales as EBay and other sites took off in the 1990s.

While the company hopes one day to overtake the East Coast auction houses in pricey fine art, Heritage’s staples remain the movie posters, coins, currency, comics and memorabilia that more people can afford, Mr. Rohan says. A baseball signed in 1961 by slugger Joe DiMaggio and actress Marilyn Monroe recently claimed $191,200.

The company’s four stories in a sleek uptown skyscraper can seal up like vast vaults if security is compromised, and Heritage recently used guards from Brinks Co. and an armored car to transport an action figure.

Collector Bill Hughes, a longtime Heritage consignor and bidder, locks his 1927 Babe Ruth poster in a vault. He paid $138,000 for the poster. A high-grade reproduction hangs in his home.

Buys such as the poster have been smart investments, Mr. Hughes says, with some jumping in value by tens of thousands of dollars in fewer than 10 years. Investments aside, he says collecting is just something in your blood. He started amassing coins and comics as a boy — some things are just cool, and you want to own them, he says.

Heritage agrees and hires collectors over socialites, infusing its headquarters with what Mr. Petty calls “geek cred.” Employees squeeze through a collectors’ hog heaven, with shelves of sorted and stacked loot lining the hallways.

Mr. Petty recently picked a box at random and pulled out an encased 1941 comic with Superman, Batman and Robin on the cover.

“This is the kind of stuff that as a comics collector, you just salivate over,” he says. “You think, ‘One day I might get to see a World’s Best Comics No. 1.’ And it’s just here, sitting in a box.”

An independent grading company has estimated its value at about $7,000, he says.

On a different floor, Doug Norwine examined James Dean’s pants from “Rebel Without a Cause” — a consignment he had finagled from the shuttered Dean museum in Fairmount, Ind.

Another find were original Duke Ellington scores that no one knew existed. A New York jazz trombone player called Mr. Norwine, hoping for a few hundred dollars to cure his sick dog. The trombone player got about $4,000 each for the scores at auction.

The bulk of the consignors are themselves avid collectors cashing out and moving on to a new category of keepsakes.

Mr. Norwine keeps at his desk Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask and a vial of dirt from blues legend Robert Johnson’s studio. He explains the impulse to spend thousands on seemingly mundane objects.

“At that moment, that person was there. It is a quicksilver moment in time,” Mr. Norwine says. “It is a connection that is almost spiritual.”


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