Published: July 11, 2016
As befits New England’s oldest auction house, Eldred’s is steeped in offhand charm and a wise, worldly approach to selling the classics, from early American antiques to Asian art and artifacts. But the company’s deep roots in East Dennis on Cape Cod’s North Shore and its long occupation of an antique barn adjacent to an 1840s sea captain’s house belie the ambition and technological acumen of current president Joshua F. Eldred, who assumed his post in March 2016. We recently spoke to Josh about the family business and its place in a rapidly changing auction industry.
How did Eldred’s get started?
My grandfather, Robert C. Eldred, Sr, worked for an antiques dealer as a kid. As a disabled vet, he needed a new career when he returned from World War II. He stumbled into the auction business in the 1940s after hiring an auctioneer to sell an estate he’d purchased. He was quite a showman and felt he could do a better job.
I grew up in the auction business, working as a runner and parking cars as a kid. I later worked for State Street Bank, but it didn’t take me long to miss the antiques business. I was with an early start-up, AntiquesAmerica.com, in a sales role in 1999 and 2000. MFA Boston curator emeritus Jonathan Fairbanks and I met there, formed a friendship and subsequently did some consulting work with collectors.
Did your duties at Eldred’s change with your new title?
Not much. My father, Robert C. Eldred, Jr, died in January but had retired several years ago. His longtime business partner, John H. Schofield, was our president and is now president emeritus. We operate as a family business, with much respect and appreciation for one another, for which I’m very fortunate.
Didn’t you help develop the first online auction platform?
In 2000, I co-founded a software company in Cambridge, Mass., with the idea of creating a marketing platform and historic prices database for traditional auction houses. That company purchased Artfact and was an early strategic partner with eBay. Artfact, through eBay, really helped shape what bidding platforms have become. I spent about six years there and learned so much. I returned to Eldred’s in 2006. Around that time, Artfact purchased Invaluable and later adopted its name.
So are you a tech titan with a load of stock?
I don’t think I will be retiring as an auctioneer any time soon, but honestly the experience and lessons I learned are worth more to me than money.
What bidding platform does Eldred’s use?
Invaluable and Eldreds.com, which is powered by Invaluable but is private label for us. Through Invaluable, we’re on eBay Live, EpaiLive in Asia, LeFigaro.fr in France and AuctionZip. Our online sales are growing exponentially — about 15 percent a year across categories — and would be even greater were it not for the fees associated with online bidding. Eldred’s was the first American house to organize specialized sales of Chinese art, beginning in 1969. The internet opened up Asia in a way we couldn’t get to before. I don’t share some brick-and-mortar auctioneers’ views that the online providers will eventually consume our business. We have an effective partnership with Invaluable. I can’t compete with them on a technology level, but they can’t match our expertise or our relationships with dealers, collectors and trust departments.
New initiatives and directions at Eldred’s?
We’re seeing a lot of business already in our new office in Mystic, Conn., chosen because it is halfway between metropolitan New York and the Cape. The office is a place for drop-offs, pickups, viewings and consultations. We’ve done charity auctions in the area and would like to have more sales in Connecticut, which is underserved.
We’re printing fewer but better catalogs and restructuring some of our sales to better fit the new online environment. In the old days, you needed 300 lots — a critical mass — to draw an audience. Now you can do smaller niche sales with property that is easily marketed online and shipped.
What sales are coming up?
Our August 3–5 Summer Americana sale is followed by Japanese art and Paul Jacoulet prints on August 16–17. Asian art is scheduled for August 18–20. Focusing on New England artists, our next contemporary sale, a category we created a decade ago, is set for August 24. We are lucky to have a great private collection of antique yachting material, which we plan to sell in September or October.
I have lots of ideas but not always the time to develop them. My wife and I have two little boys, ages 6 and 8, and I just joined the board of the Cape Cod Maritime Museum.
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