Clutching a paddle with the number 001, Larry Carton spent the morning of Saturday, Dec. 6, bidding on lace and other items at Alex Cooper Auctioneers in Towson.
Carton, of Pikesville, chuckled at the notion that he and his wife, Mical, an antiques dealer, got the number because they were the first registrants for the auction that day.
"It's a joke," he said, explaining that they come to Alex Cooper auctions so often that the staff finally assigned them a permanent paddle with an honorary number.
"They used to give us a different number all the time," he said. "Then, they got tired of it. They said, 'Here's a paddle.'"
The auction house, with offices at 908 York Road and in Washington, is celebrating its 90th year, thanks to longtime customers like the Cartons, who said they have attended every auction in Towson since 2000 and generally buy porcelain, china and decorative items.
"Anything I think I can resell at a profit," Mical Carton said. "It's just a convenient place for us to be. I think they're honest. I think they do a good job for their consignors. They're well established."
Rather than resting on its laurels, the family-owned-and-operated auction house, which has sold everything from the Senator Theatre and Sherwood Mansion to Thomas Jefferson's papers and a Nazi baton, is reinventing itself, with plans for a major renovation and reconfiguration next year that Vice-president Paul Cooper, the founder's grandson, said will cost in excess of $1 million.
"There's so much new development around us," said Cooper, 57, who began working for the business in his youth for $1 a day. "We're on the upswing in Towson. I definitely want to take advantage of that."
While looking to the future, Alex Cooper Auctioneers is celebrating its past, which began in 1924 on Howard Street and moved to several downtown locations on Charles and Calvert Street before relocating to Baltimore County in 1982. The reason?
"Convenience, parking and we all live out here," said Cooper, of Lutherville. "We decided we needed a presence in the county."
His father, Joseph Cooper, 80, president of the firm, is still active in the business, wearing his white shirt with the company's logo. He has worked there since he was 21.
"I did everything," he recalled, including designing advertisements. "There were five (employees)," he said. "Now, we have 48," including several of his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. "Now, I don't have to do the ads."
"This is his life," said his wife, Annette, also a longtime employee.
Today, people from Roland Park to Columbia come to Alex Cooper Auctioneers to buy everything from jewelry and textiles to rugs and real estate, both voluntary and foreclosure sales. They do brokerage work as well. One employee does nothing but settlements.
"We can handle (a property sale) from start to finish, from cleaning out the house to selling the house," Joseph Cooper said.
The company recently sold a hotel in Prince George's County for $4 million and has sold two hospitals in Cumberland, Md., Paul Cooper said. He said the company is the only one in the region that sells everything under one roof, and prides itself on hiring expert appraisers like Richard Hall, who specializes in ephemera, or historical papers.
Paul Cooper told of one instance in which Hall looked closely at an old book that someone brought in to be appraised and saw that it was inscribed by Cornelia Randolph, with the word "Monticello."
As Hall found out, Randolph was Jefferson's granddaughter and had lived in Monticello — and Jefferson had written a note to her in the book, Cooper said.
"This is where you have to have product knowledge and the right people working for you," Cooper said.
The auction house's most publicized sale in recent years was the foreclosure sale of the Senator Theatre to the Baltimore City government for $810,000 on July 23, 2009. The auction was marked by vociferous crowds and complaints by former owner Tom Kiefaber and his supporters that the auction was being held on the sidewalk, rather than inside the theater, as Kiefaber said had been discussed.
Paul Cooper was the auctioneer that day, his birthday.
"That was my birthday present, to be harassed," he said.
One of the biggest changes at Alex Cooper Auctioneers has been online sales since the advent of the Internet. It's not just people in the audience bidding at auctions, but people online as well.
"I have two (staff members) working the computers nowadays, calling out bids" during auctions, Paul Cooper said. "That's the way we're going now."
But although there are more online bidders now, Paul Cooper said he thinks there will also be a place for a live audience.
"People come for the excitement," he said. "I just don't know if that could ever go away."
Rugs and chocolates
On Saturday, the auctioneer, nephew Jon Levinson, told the audience of about 100 to take advantage of free coffee and doughnuts.
"The more you eat, the less we eat," he said.
The elder Cooper walked around, handing out chocolates to the audience.
Then, it was back to business, selling a rug from (Chef) Boyardee Estates on the Eastern Shore.
"It's got a couple of stains, but they'll come out," Levinson said.
In the audience was Tanya Williamson, 44, of Towson, a regular at Alex Cooper auctions, who said she was there on this day to "hopefully to get a carpet for less than retail (price). After coming to this auction, I'll never pay retail again."
And she said she would much rather come to the auction than go online, which she called "a bastardization of the auction process.
"This is exciting," Williamson said. "If you do it online, that feeling you get at an auction is lost."
"It's kind of fun to see them do it the old-fashioned way," said her husband, Richard Williamson, who described himself as "a tag-along."
Also among the 1,200 "lots" of items being sold Saturday were guns, a 19th-century camera obscura on a tripod and several elaborate paintings of nudes.
Peter Grier and his wife, Laura, of Roland Park, left with six rugs, for which they paid $375 in all. They said they come as much for entertainment value as for bargains.
But Laura Grier, first vice president of the Roland Park Civic League, said they don't always get an item that they want.