HATFIELD, Pa. — Brent Souder started in the auction business in 1981. He worked for Sanford Alderfer in Hatfield. Souder helped clean out houses, load and unload trucks, and do many of the other unseen tasks that are a necessary part of the auction trade. He liked the work, the paychecks, and the excitement of discovery.
He was 13 years old.
Did he like, as one might expect of a 13-year-old, the excitement of discovering a trove of Hot Wheels cars? Mint condition baseball cards? Cap guns?
No, Souder said from his Hatfield office. “I liked the people,” he said. “I liked being able to go into their houses and pack them up. Looking for things we saw value in, whether it was Pennsylvania redware, or quilts and samplers, Chippendale furniture or a cool stereo system. ... We were looking for it all.”
And, the recently named Pennsylvania 2018 Auctioneer of the Year seems to have found it all.
When Souder graduated from high school in 1985, he continued working for Alderfer. He completed a two-week course at the Mendenhall School of Auctioneering in High Point, North Carolina, then began a two-year apprenticeship with Alderfer.
In 1986, the Alderfer family bought a sprawling chicken house in Hatfield and converted it into an auction barn. That’s where Brent Souder, with six years of industry experience already under his belt, first unleashed his verbal outcry — his chant — onto the auction-going public.
Souder has grown in the industry. He won the 2003 Pennsylvania Auctioneers Association bid-calling contest during its annual Pennsylvania Farm Show week convention in Harrisburg. At this year’s convention in January, he was named the PAA auctioneer of the year for his service to the industry and its clients. Souder today is sales director for Alderfer Auction and his office is in that same converted chicken house where he began his career. The chicken house has been thoroughly updated and modernized, of course, and is the work home for the company’s 38 employees.
When he’s not taking care of auction duties, Souder is often found competing in dirt bike events, riding the motorized two-wheelers that go fast, fly high, make a lot of noise and occasionally do things one doesn’t expect. Souder’s wife of 27 years, Anita, doesn’t share his dirt bike competitiveness, but Paige, their 22-year-old daughter and recent nursing school graduate, is a biker, as is their 20-year-old son Grant, who was recruited by a local Chevrolet dealer — while he was still in high school — to join the company as a salesman. He’s sidelined at the moment from both the job and dirt bike after the unexpected did happen in a racing accident that broke his femur and his shoulder. But, he’ll be okay.
Sitting at a desk doesn’t produce quite the same adrenalin rush as a dirt bike competition, but Souder, even after 37 years of the “same old, same old”, still gets excited about auctioneering. A big reason is because it’s never the same twice.
Big changes were actually occurring in the early years of Souder’s career. One reason Sanford Alderfer transformed a chicken house into an auction barn was because of the drop in the number of on-site sales. Estates were gradually downsizing, so it made sense to consolidate two or more estates and take them to an auction house. Yards had become smaller and municipalities were not enthused about the parking issues with on-site sales. And, a growing number of 55-and-over communities did not allow on-site auctions.
Alderfer Auction’s former chicken house, was transformed first into an auction barn, then gradually into an auction gallery with plenty of space for consolidated estate sales.
But, a problem with consolidation is that the auctioned items tend to lose their provenance, Souder said. A bidder who wins a piece of redware at the Hatfield location doesn’t necessarily know where it came from.
So, Souder said, they’re once again selling estates out of the home, but they’re doing it via the internet. Items are photographed in the home and posted on the Alderfer website. Buyers can bid from the images on the website, or they can go to the home where the items are located to view the actual items they’re interested in. That way, if a buyer wins a redware pitcher from the Smith family home, an early-19th-century stone farmhouse in Chester County, he or she will have an idea of its provenance.
Provenance adds value, Souder said. That would be especially true if the redware pitcher came from the home of the Smith family, which included two sons, one of whom became a judge and one of whom became a horse thief.
Buyers can preview an online estate sale by visiting the actual site, Souder said, but many bids come from people who’ve just seen the photographs and read the descriptions.
Beyond online estate sales, the internet has had a huge impact on the auction business. Buyers can shop for everything from collectible Barbie dolls to farm tractors from their home computers. If the auction is entirely online, there’s almost always a set time for potential buyers to visit the actual location to check out the items to be sold. That approach limits the social and community flavor of on-site auctions, but, Souder said, the pace of life for many people today limits the amount of time they want to spend at an auction waiting for an item to come up.
He said eBay has influenced auctions in both a positive and negative way. It has flattened the market for some items, Souder said, like Hummel figurines and plates. In the 1980s, a Hummel plate might have sold for $1,000, because it was perceived as rare by serious collectors. Today, the same plate can be had for $100 on eBay because it’s no longer considered all that rare.
But it has opened up new markets, too, said Souder. He cited the example of one eBay purchaser who buys sewing machines. He sells some of the machines as is, but mostly he dismantles the machines and sells the parts as repair items.
The auction business is in a continuing state of evolution since online sales have come to dominate the business. That said, the Alderfer crew did have 59 live auctions last year out of 160 total sales. Souder said he doesn’t see any time in the future when there’ll be no live auctions.
As he neared the end of his conversation about the future of the business, a mint-condition 1957 Ford Thunderbird rolled slowly past his office window. A difficult item to sell solely online, it was scheduled for a live auction that very afternoon.