How I Made It: His auctioneering career began with wrangling pigs. Now he runs an auction house
Andrew Jones, 56, has converted his 40 years of experience at premium auction houses in the U.S. and abroad into his own business just south of downtown Los Angeles. Jones is president and chief executive of Andrew Jones Auctions, a full-service fine art and antiques auction operation, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary with a winning bid of $220,000 for a very rare set of books — a complete second edition of “Description de l’Egypte,” written in French by C.L.F. Panckoucke. The first book in the set, which took a decade to produce, was 199 years old. That was part of a two-day sale of 550 lots that brought in a total of $1.5 million. In a sign of how much the auction business has changed, only 100 people attended in person and 1,935 participated online.
Jones still runs the auctions occasionally, but the face-to-face cajoling and encouragement he once used exclusively to boost auction prices has been superseded by larger numbers of phone bidders and an online audience watching the bids from their homes and offices. At first, Jones said, “it was a little confusing, disorienting. … It took about 20 lots for me to just remember that there were people out there” beyond the phones and computer screens.
Find your passion
Jones became fascinated by auctions at age 6 in his native country of England, and he quit school at 16 to begin his career at the G.A. Keys auction house in the small town of Aylsham.
“I was a sponge,” Jones said. “By age 12 I knew all of the woods, oak, mahogany, walnut, elm, yew.”
Be haze proof
There is a ritual of testing at some businesses, some awful assignment to see if the new recruit is committed. Jones says his was “excruciating, moving pigs from trucks to the auction house. The worst day of my life. I hate pigs. I really hate them. I said to my dad,” — Robin Jones — “ ‘I don’t know if I can go back.’ ” He said, “ ‘You can’t quit now. It’s your first day. It could get better. Can it get any worse?’ ”
Jones did go back and began building a reputation as a shrewd, honest and successful auctioneer, one who knew how often he could go back to a likely bidder and precisely when to do it without scaring them off. From there, he was hired at Phillips in London, the now 223-year-old auction house. The transition was not intimidating, he said, in spite of moving into the upper echelon of item values.
“It was interesting to get there and to find out that the business is the same whether you’re selling a bag of carrots, a pig or a George III mahogany chest in a fine sale. It’s the same process,” Jones said. “I was in various departments for four or five years, which was a great learning curve. You’re working with some really top-notch people, and you get a good grounding in European paintings, rugs, furniture, silver, clocks, the whole gamut.”
Some advice that Jones took to heart throughout his career came from his mother, Phyllis. “She said, ‘If you treat everybody like they’re your grandmother, you’ll never go far wrong,’ ” particularly when it comes to visiting homes for appraisals, looking for items that might be great for an auction, Jones said. “I think when you’re dealing with people, you’ve got to remember these are their possessions and there is still a strong sentimental attachment involved.”
On his own
Jones spent nearly 20 years with Phillips, rising as high as regional director for its East Anglia office. Next came more than 16 years with another highly regarded auction house, Butterfields, which was purchased by Bonhams. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, serving as director for furniture and decorative arts and private collections and house sales for North America. But Jones wanted his own establishment, in spite of the boom-and-bust cycles of auctions, an aging population of buyers, and younger, more tentative clients. He employs six people full time.
“I remember our first sale, we were working to two to three in the morning. We were killing ourselves,” Jones said. “There was a lot that we’d never done before, the marketing, the advertising. We’d always had somebody else to do this. Having to learn a lot of new things has been challenging, it’s been fun.”
“My dad told me, ‘Know what your weaknesses are and make sure you surround yourself with people whose strengths are your weaknesses,’ ” Jones said. “That’s the team I’ve got. And what is beautiful is there’s not one personality problem, and that’s the lovely thing.”
Jones said his clients have included Shera Falk, widow of the late actor Peter Falk of Columbo fame, and Joanna Carson, a former wife of “The Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson. But he doesn’t always have good news for potential customers based on the market for some categories.
“Letting people down in a kind way is a big part of our job today,” Jones said, explaining that “I can quote a chest of drawers or a painting that was worth $15,000 10 years ago and is probably worth just $2,000 or $3,000 now. Not across the board, but there are certain areas which have just softened dramatically.”
Honesty is vital, Jones said.
“Most furniture that is vintage or antique will not be perfect, it’s going to have some dings, scratches, maybe breaks and repairs, but if you’re honest about all that upfront, that person will come back again as a satisfied buyer,” he said. “So when a friend comes around and says, ‘That’s been restored,’ the buyer can say, ‘Yeah, I know. They told me.’”
“The modern approach to auctioneering is embracing all the modern technology, understanding that the good old days as I recall them are gone, and you really have to be fully onboard with social media platforms,” Jones said. “I would much prefer to get on the rostrum and look at a crowd of 400 people and have no computers. It would be a lot more fun.”
Jones has two adult children, Catherine, 25, and Christopher, 22. When not working, Jones likes hiking and visiting museums. He’s also become quite fond of the office dog, a rescued bulldog named Archie who has become a valued employee. “When we’ve got a lot of carpets in, I let him walk across them and if he stops and sniffs, I know we’ve got a problem with it and it has to be cleaned. If he just walks across it, we’re good with that carpet. No old dog pee on that one.”
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