If you didn't know you were in an auction house storage space when you walked through Earl's Auction Company & Liquidators, Inc. (5199 Lafayette Road), you might just assume you'd stumbled into a hoarder's paradise. Several connected warehouses contain a veritable mountain of goods, including couches, bookshelves, loveseats, toy car sets, china, bedroom suites, and a titillating collection of yet-to-be-unpacked boxes. Soon, however, these items secured from personal estates or stores that have gone out of business will be auctioned off to the highest bidder and on their way to new homes.
- Perry Reichanadter
Earl Cornwell Jr. auctions off an album of antique greeting cards at Earl's Auction Company and Liquidators, Inc.
In business since 1957, Earl's was started by Earl Cornwell Sr., and is now run by his son, Earl Jr. "Dad built the company from nothing," Earl Jr. says, which is impressive considering the company's current success and massive inventory, all of which is monitored by more cameras than the exercise yard at a maximum-security penitentiary. Earl Sr. hired his father to work at the auction house and also employed Earl Jr., who (at the time in 1978) was a high school student. Earl Jr. began running more of the operations in the early 1990s and bought out his father in 1998. Soon after, the business really took off and necessitated a location change from the former schoolhouse it was in. That brought the auction house to Indy's west side. "This has been my college," Earl Jr. says wistfully and smiles.
Earl's has at least one weekly auction on Tuesdays and up to 150 auctions a year, which accounts for the sale of 250,000 to 300,000 items annually. "There's a collector for everything," Earl Jr. says, and lists off a variety of items -- buttons, dolls, glassware, furniture, antiques, collectibles, tools, tractors, boats, guns, coins and even Victorian hair lockets.
He recently completed a real estate transaction that totaled nearly $400,000 and included a home, land, car, personal property, and even a tractor. There's no definitive list of goods that Earl sells, having done auctions for individual estates, restaurants, the airport and even the city of Indianapolis.
On a regular Tuesday auction, it begins with the "smalls" -- everything from dishes and household doodads to garden implements, jewelry and small appliances. Often there are so many smalls that Earl and his staff will put entire "boxed lots" on the table for bidders. "One price takes all," is the name of the game. You want that one green Depression glass saucer that was in the box? You'll have to take the lot -- faded fake flowers, wicker basket and collection of old FTD bud vases too -- if you're the winning bidder. Although part of the fun is buying a boxed lot and sharing items you don't want. You'll often find takers for just about everything you can't use.
- Perry Reichanadter
- Earl's auctions off everything from paintings, to stained glass lamp shades, to ye "Olde Frothingslosh" beer cans.
By late afternoon the handlers start trotting out the larger items, such as framed art and furniture, lawnmowers and large appliances. Plenty of artwork makes its way onto the auction block, though it ranges from vintage dime store paint-by-numbers pieces to sometimes very valuable paintings that were once prized in home galleries.
"Indiana art sells well in Indiana," Earl says. "Western art, New York art doesn't really sell here."
As for the most popular artwork auctioned off at Earl's, that would be the southern Indiana artists. "Brown County art from T.C. Steele on down. T.C. Steele is the grandpa," he says.
A member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America (CAGA), Earl Jr. is skilled at valuing goods before auctions, documenting the process with photographs and a detailed inventory, and finally a typed-and-bound report that serves as official record of his research. If he stumbles across items he needs help assessing, he turns to an impressive Rolodex full of contacts. It includes machinery people for rare coins, jewelry specialists, and three different "rug guys" who offer expertise in textiles.
Hearkening back to a lesson his dad taught him, Earl Jr. says, "As an auctioneer, you can't know everything about everything. I want to be able to look someone in the eye and say, 'This is 18-karat gold,'" he says. "Our reputation is on the line. The fakes are out there."
- Perry Reichanadter
A decorative metal water pitcher and detailed vintage clock found new homes, thanks to Earl's Auction Company and Liquidators, Inc.
Earl Jr. generally doesn't have what you would call a typical day. He rides to customer locations with his employees to pick up estates and talks about the bad and good sides of the business. On one hand, some of his inventory is a result of someone passing away, families losing their homes, or a business having to shut its doors.
But on the other hand, Earl. Jr. is a third-generation owner of a family business that he hopes to pass down to his daughters. "[Earl Sr.] built the foundation, basement and first floor," he explains. "I just added a little bit to the first floor, and hopefully my kids can put on an attic or whatever -- just keep on going."
To learn more about the many auctions that take place at Earl's and to preview the Tuesday offerings, visit the company website; a gallery of photos is uploaded after 6 p.m. on the evening prior to an auction. You can also see footage of the auction house earning a world record for selling a 1968 Shelby Cobra GT500KR.
Consumers who are new to auctions can easily find a time to drop in during the auctions, whether they're looking to bid on smalls of every sort, such as jewelry and collectibles, or suites of furniture (antique or brand new).
Earl Sr. coined the phrase "Indiana's oldest and largest residential, commercial, and industrial auction company." Of the slogan, Earl Jr. smiles almost shyly and says, "I don't want to be the biggest and the baddest anymore. I just want to do my thing ... and it's worked."
- Perry Reichanadter
Clockwise from top: Earl Jr. works the ring, taking bids on antique pins, Mark McMullen holds up a vintage Life Magazine, and antique jewelry from a Beech Grove estate is displayed for auction buyers.