Doorway: An Excerpt from “A Question of Value”

The following is an excerpt from A Question of Value: Stories from the Life of an Auctioneer by Robert Brunk, founder of Brunk Auctions in Asheville, NC. Antiques and the Arts Weekly calls A Question of Value “one of the best books on collecting in many years.” and it’s available now wherever books are sold.

book cover for A Question of Value by Robert Brunk


There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of cats: porcelain, silver, wood, glass, bronze, fabric, and wire cats, paintings and prints of cats sleeping, sitting, stalking, playing. Some were well made, others flimsy tourist souvenirs. It was 1986, and I found myself in a three-story brick house in Georgia, several years into my work as an auctioneer, in a spacious area known to the family as the cat room.

The daughter of the woman who had passed away encouraged me to look around. I opened one of eight doors to storage cabinets on a wall and saw a dozen snow globe music boxes. All made in China, stacked in a row in their original unopened boxes, they featured smiling cats sitting in snow. I opened more doors and found dozens of Christmas ornaments, small plastic dolls, and ceramic figurines, all new in unopened boxes, and all with a cat or kitten in some predictable pose.

Another client, a single woman in her late seventies, lived in a large mountain home with three spacious walk-in closets, each with rows of expensive dresses, coats, sweaters, and fashionable designer ensembles, most with their original price tags. Racks and drawers overflowed with hundreds of purses, gloves, sweaters, hats, belts, shoes, and pricey costume jewelry; most of it appeared to be new.

I have been in a home in which the owners had collected and stored in a walk-in safe forty-five sets of sterling silver flatware. In another estate, a four-room house was required to store and display the doll collection.

The essays in this book begin in the late 1970s, when I attended my first auctions; include stories after I became a licensed auctioneer in 1983; and extend to my retirement from the business I founded, Brunk Auctions, in 2013. In those thirty-odd years, I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, and was witness to the remarkable variety of objects to which people were attracted. At its peak, roughly 1980–2010, this collecting in the Asheville area was fed by twenty antique shops and fifteen auctioneers specializing in antiques and collectibles. But that hustling ecosystem of local commerce has largely vanished, replaced by the temptations of the Internet.

In those thirty-odd years, I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, and was witness to the remarkable variety of objects to which people were attracted.

A career as an auctioneer might seem strange for someone raised, like me, in the Mennonite church. Implicit in Mennonite beliefs and traditions is an unspoken rejection of mindless consumerism. In making decisions about our life work, we were encouraged not to ask, “What do I want?” but rather, “What needs to be done?” In this Mennonite culture, clothes, shoes, tools, appliances, food, vehicles, furniture, buildings, lumber, stones, land, and waterways were repaired, adapted, and reused. Relationships were rarely discarded; divorce was uncommon.

I had an uncle who only bought socks of the same brand and color, dark blue. If one sock was ever lost or worn out beyond repair, he found a matching sock and never needed to buy another pair or throw one sock away. It wasn’t merely a matter of recycling: it was about owning far fewer things to begin with. Creativity might find expression in a colorful and finely stitched quilt or apron made from old clothing; decoration, with what was at hand rather than from afar. Security was not how much you owned but what you could live without. This is the landscape of values in which I grew up, and it became one of the lenses through which I viewed the collections I encountered: some the result of careful consideration, others the consequence of mindless accumulation.

Collecting ranges in density from an occasional purchase to an addictive way of life. It might begin when a person inherits or purchases an interesting object—a duck decoy, an inkwell, a sampler—which leads to a second, similar purchase “because it goes with the one I have.” Some collectors set limits and might say they want to own two or three paintings by Julian Onderdonk—perhaps his Texas landscapes with bluebonnets—or eighteenth-century furniture from Botetourt County, Virginia. When these collectors purchase a new piece, they often sell a lesser example in their collection. Good, I say.

Collecting ranges in density from an occasional purchase to an addictive way of life.

For many people, a large collection is seen as an investment. If one etched Mettlach stein is a good investment, fifty of them are surely an outstanding asset. But this hope is often based on the erroneous assumption that as things get older, they get more valuable. The collectors who fifty years ago purchased pewter dinnerware, Hummel figurines, pump organs, pressed glass, and brass beds could attest to the fiction of this belief, as values for many of these have declined.

Collectors might also buy examples similar to pieces in their collection to “support the market.” They may own five paintings similar to the one being offered and buy another to be sure that prices for that artist are not viewed as soft, thereby devaluing their collection. “I had to buy it.”

On occasion, I worked with retired couples living in eight- or ten-room houses who had rented storage facilities because they “have nowhere to put anything.”

Aside from the relatively straightforward collections of furniture, paintings, rugs, ceramics, glassware, and silver with which many homes are furnished, Brunk Auctions has sold collections of:

fine wine, miniature cloisonné, canoes, buttons, outsider art, dolls, Asian porcelains, tools (for woodworking, watchmaking, mining, assaying, prospecting, making instruments, blacksmithing, whaling, repairing machinery), Elvis and Beatles memorabilia, railroad lanterns, eighteenth-century iron hinges, movie posters, pocket watches, prosthetic glass eyeballs, Bakelite jewelry, baskets, quack medicine devices, coins, autographs, saddles and other western gear, Napoleonic memorabilia, walking sticks, animal figures (cats, dogs, owls, bats, horses, alligators, chickens, pigs, whales, snakes, possums, frogs, butterflies, sharks, birds), license plates, Japanese sword fittings, fashion hats, marble busts, pedal cars, daguerreotypes, Hummels, clocks, antique firearms and armor, pottery (English, Native American, prehistoric, Arts and Crafts, Southern folk, seventeenth-century German, ancient Roman), tobacco tags, books (literary works, fine bindings, horticultural, mysteries, sporting, decorative arts, entire libraries), Civil War memorabilia, scientific instruments (globes, barometers, microscopes, telescopes, medical, nautical, horological, survey instruments), tea equipage, African carvings, beer steins, toys, quilts, samplers, sewing equipment, rock and crystal specimens, masks, netsuke, country store tins, eighteenth-century insurance markers, lighting devices, marbles, musical instruments (guitars, violins, harps, concertinas, banjos, flutes, pianos, melodeons, harmonicas, autoharps, dulcimers), golf clubs and golf course passes, soldier figurines, maps, painted furniture, advertising signs, postcards, African American entertainment memorabilia, stamps, stagecoach hardware, art glass (Tiffany, Lalique, Steuben, Baccarat, Daum), ivory figures, 78 rpm records, christening dresses, unmounted diamonds and emeralds, candlesticks (brass, silver, iron, paktong, wooden), aviation and outer space collectibles, embroideries, stone and marble structures (fire surrounds, doorways, arcades, columns), chandeliers, photographs, metal and wooden models (locomotive, airplane, car, truck), baseball and football cards, beaded flappers. We have also sold (not as a collection) classic cars: Thunderbird, Porsche, Model T, Packard, Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, Daimler, Volvo.