Going, going . . . gone. Absentee Auctioneers. At the Armans' auctions, customers are heard but not seen

It's six o'clock on a Wednesday evening, and auctioneers David and Linda Arman have brought down the gavel on over $100,000 worth of English and American antiques. There have been no cries of ``Do I hear $300?'' or ``Sold to the man in the red vest!'' here in the large country house where the couple and their two teen-age children live and work. In fact, the bidders are scattered from Anchorage to Jerusalem.

At the Armans' absentee auctions, the customers are heard but not seen.

The couple began as collectors when David was still working in the oil business. In the mid-1970s, with two young children to support, the Armans traded their settled existence for the peripatetic life of antiques dealers, as their interest grew into a passion. In one busy year, David remembers: ``We traveled over 50,000 miles -- from California to Texas to Massachusetts -- to exhibit our antiques at 26 different shows. We were absolutely exhausted.''

In 1983, however, they became innovative entrepreneurs in their rarified corner of the art world by mailing out catalogs for their first totally absentee auction of Early American glass.

``I felt the time was ripe for this particular idea,'' David recalls. ``The shows were getting so expensive you couldn't make any money on the deal, and the kids were at an age where they wanted to participate in more activities in school.'' The new strategy enabled the family to pursue the antiques business at home with less traveling and a better return for the effort.

``The Armans created a real stir in the glass world when one of their auctions produced some record prices for early Midwestern blown glass,'' says Jane Shadel Spillman of the Corning Museum of Glass. ``This was particularly interesting, since it was an absentee sale without all the auction floor hype. They proved it could be done.''

Linda Arman laughs when she recalls one especially hectic recent auction: ``I was too busy to even leave the house for the last week, so our daughter and younger son were pressed into emergency service as grocery shoppers and short-order cooks. This is a family business, and we certainly do it together!''

The Armans photograph and carefully describe each object, give it a lot number in a sale catalog, and then offer the catalogs through antiques publications for a modest fee. From the time they arrive in the hands of the subscribers, these catalogs are pored over, dog-eared, and annotated, as collectors weigh desires against bank balances.

Early bids are mailed or phoned in. Although it is possible to view the actual objects at the Armans' home by appointment, only around 5 percent of the bidders do so. Most rely on the detailed catalog description and their own specialized knowledge to make their decisions.

On the last day of the sale, no one is allowed on the premises. All attention is given to the telephones, which have been ringing steadily for days, as bids arrive from a variety of time zones. As David explains, ``there's so much activity around here we don't have time to talk to visitors. It's also fairer that way, since no one has the advantage of being on the spot during the final bidding.''

Antiques collectors, notoriously serious when their acquisitive instincts are aroused, make frequent checks on the progress of their offers, sometimes calling from ships and planes as well as homes and offices.

After the auction officially closes at 6:00 p.m., David and Linda begin checking with customers who have requested ``call-backs.'' If a collector has been overbid on a particularly desirable object, this gives them one more opportunity to go a step higher. At times, long-distance seesaw battles develop between two determined collectors.

The Armans specialize in Early American glass and Historical Staffordshire, a much sought-after category of 19th-century English china made for the American market. The latter features patriotic designs printed in a particularly glorious shade of cobalt blue, and the Armans have devoted two books to cataloguing its variety.

David still looks around for other highly specialized types of antiques -- paperweights, Chinese objects, art glass -- which could be adapted to absentee auctioning, but he emphasizes, ``we want to limit the number of sales each year to what we can comfortably handle ourselves.''

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