Executive Suite: Philip Weiss, Lynbrook
At Philip Weiss Auctions in Lynbrook, a long wall of oil paintings abuts a table holding Beatles cards, a tin sign and a herd of tiny porcelain swans.
The art of being a successful auction house means not just knowing Ming from Meissen, but being able to adapt. In the 26 years since the company opened its doors it has reinvented itself more than once, surviving and thriving through changing markets, new technologies and Mother Nature.
When superstorm Sandy destroyed its Oceanside location, the auction house relocated to Lynbrook and was back in business within three months.
"Basically you have two choices," president Philip Weiss said. "You close your doors, or you put your shoulder to it."
Weiss, known for his expertise, has appeared on PBS' "Antiques Roadshow," consulted with other auction houses and served as an auctioneer and appraiser for local causes.
Despite the economy, Weiss says, people are buying, but they are buying smarter and, if anything, spending more. "People are getting to the point where their thinking is, if they're going to buy something, they're going to buy something good."
How do you recognize treasures "on your feet"?
There's a lot of gut in it, but also it's that I've been doing this since I was 8. Take that painting over there. I just looked at it and I knew it's something. Now I have to do the research, but you can tell right away it's a great portrait because of the hands.
Do you have a favorite thing you've auctioned?
I guess it would be a 19th century Puck figure because of the story behind it. I got a call from a woman who was handling her friend's estate. When I pulled up it was in an industrial part of Long Island City; there was this brownstone in the middle. I stepped in and there were holes in the ceiling and pigeons nesting. But it was full of treasures. I felt like Howard Carter when he stepped up at King Tut's tomb and said, "I see wonderful things." That figure sold for $500,000.
Early on, you only auctioned stamps, coins and books, then collectibles and later fine art. How did the expansion come about?
After years and years of people calling and asking me about paintings and porcelains and me referring them out, I decided to give it a try. We made $300,000 on that painting over there, and I said, "This is crazy. I've been giving it all away."
Do you still use a gavel?
No, I'm afraid I'll break the screen on my laptop.
Your wife is the office manager, and your four sons work at the auction house in the summers. How does that impact running the business?
That's, to me, part of the fun -- the fact that we're running it together. Having all of us here in the summer makes it even more special.
A 2014 study by the National Auctioneers Association cited "online competitors" as a major challenge. What is your experience?
As much as the Internet has helped the auction business it has also hurt it, because it's made it very easy for people to find the things. It used to be that if someone was looking, say, for a rare book and he finally found one, he'd buy it because who knows when he would find another one. Now you type it in and you get a list of them.
You also have an online presence, and, in fact, your auctions run simultaneously online and at the auction house. How has that changed the way you do business?
It's made it less enjoyable for me, because in the days before the Internet this space wouldn't have been enough for an auction. Now we get 60 to 70 people over the course of the day -- but a couple thousand online.
What would you advise someone who is thinking of going into the business?
Everyone looks at it and they see the day of the auction, but there is an enormous amount of work before that. I can't tell you how many people try it and then go out of business. A guy called me and said, "I'm going to put you out of business." I said, "Be my guest." He did two auctions and he was out of the business.