Ross: Finding new owners for old stuff

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Bill Neal and his wife, Paula, purchased Ross Auction 10 years ago.

Ross Auction is one of the city’s oldest continually operated businesses. Founded by Jack Ross during 1921, the company has held weekly auctions for the last 87 years.
Ross’ current owners, Bill and Paula Neal, purchased the privately held company during 1998 from Jack Ross’ daughter in-law Marie, who had run the business since her husband died in 1957.
Every Saturday, starting at 9 a.m., the traditional auctioneer’s chant signals the beginning of yet another fast-paced sale.
“We run about 1,000 lots per week, and we sell everything you can imagine-from tools and Tupperware to the finest antiques,” Bill Neal said.
What was the most expensive item that Ross ever sold?
“That would have been an 18th century Philadelphia Chippendale chair, with a Cadwalader provenance, and one of a very famous set that was made for that prominent family,” he said. “We sold it to the Keno twins (the well-known New York antique dealers Leigh and Leslie) for $160,000.
“And just last week, we sold a full set of Royal Copenhagen full lace blue fluted china — it’s the oldest continuously produced china pattern in the world — originally owned by the royal family of Denmark, for $23,000.”
And the most unusual?
“I’ve got them right here,” Neal said, producing a wooden box full of oddly shaped stainless steel implements.
“They’re old medical instruments — forceps for delivering babies, abortionist’s tools, stirrups for gynecological exams, lots of other things.”
Through the years, Ross has auctioned the estates of many of the city’s most prominent residents. One such auction, during the late 1950s, saw the contents of a Cascade Avenue mansion dispersed to new owners. Among the items sold was a set of 19th century painted furniture which, acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art nearly 50 years later, was traced back to the Ross sale by the museum’s curator.
Its provenance helped establish its authenticity, and the set was featured on the cover of the catalogue of a landmark exhibition at the museum, entitled “Federal Philadelphia — the Athens of America.”
Neal shakes his head as he describes one feature of the business.
“We see it pretty frequently,” he said. “It’s called compulsive buying disorder.”
Such individuals, Neal said, become obsessed with acquiring certain kinds of objects, and do so to the exclusion of almost anything else.
“They tend to live alone, and have no contact with anybody, except maybe the UPS man who delivers stuff every day,” he said. “It’s when they die, or when the family figures out what’s going on and intervenes, that is when we get involved.
“One lady had a collection of 2,000 dolls — and most of them had never been unwrapped. Another just ordered high-end cookware and never used it, never opened it. We auctioned it all off last year — you should have been here! Just the very best stuff, hundreds of lots. Altogether, it brought $32,000.
On a recent Saturday morning, the auction was in full swing. Several dozen buyers sat in folding chairs, as Neal swiftly called lot after lot. A pair of well-used boogie boards brought no bids, even when Neal lowered the opening bid to $2.50 for the pair.
“Take ’em to the beach next summer — your kids’ll love em!” he said.
Subsequent lots did better. An apparently pristine ski rack sold quickly, as did an enormous purple stuffed bear — sure to delight some lucky child.
For many Springs residents, the Saturday auctions, and Friday viewings are as much social occasions as buying opportunities, said Carole Wolfswinkel, who works at the auction.
“You see so many people you know, and they love to come here and socialize, even if they don’t buy.”
Ross has occupied the same rented space at 109 S. Sierra Madre for more than 40 years.
“We should have our own building — we must have spent half a million in rent in the last 10 years, but we like it here. They keep saying they’re going to build a hotel and redevelop the whole area, but we don’t see anything happening yet.”
Despite the company’s deeply traditional business model, Neal has successfully introduced modern practices.
“We were the first Colorado auction company to embrace the future by conducting an Internet auction with live online bidding,” he said, pointing out that the auction business has changed radically since the advent of eBay, and other Internet auction sites.
But despite all the changes, Neal is confident that Ross will not only survive, but thrive. Looking forward to the firm’s 100th anniversary, he reflected upon his company and its role in the community.
“It’s an institution — and it’s a privilege to be able to carry on the tradition,” Neal said. “We try to provide a necessary service in a way that no one else has been able to do — and I think we do a pretty good job.”