When Andre and Nicholas Hilliard were growing up, neither brother had any aspirations to become an auctioneer or own an auction company. In fact, the brothers ended up in the industry by chance and after several years of working for established companies decided they could provide better service than most of the competition and established Hilliard and Company Auctioneers in Madison. The Madison County residents opened the doors in 2015 and have been steadily gaining a name for themselves among those in the art and antique world.
The Hilliards hold monthly auctions with their primary focus being antiques and fine art. The past few months have marked several milestones for the brothers including the four-year anniversary of their first auction, the recent sale of a Chinese vase for $23,600 and being featured in “Maine Antique Digest,” the primary magazine of the antiques trade.
After years of working for other auction houses, Andre felt that there were many things in the industry he could improve on. Not wanting to stay in a dead-end situation, Andre realized that he would have to branch out on his own and asked his brother if he wanted to start a business.
Both Andre and Nicholas had been working for Charlottesville-based auction house Harlow Powell. Andre had always had an affinity for art and photography when he started at Harlow Powell in 2008 doing catalog photography. His brother also was employed at Harlow Powell in the shipping department. While neither brother was a collector, both appreciated the art and antiques and saw the tremendous potential in the business.
“I hadn’t grown up thinking I wanted to become an auctioneer or run an auction company,” said Andre. “I was focused on photography which is how I got started at Harlow Powell. At an auction gallery everybody is involved on sale day so after six years, I learned how to run an auction gallery by watching. I knew there were some things that I would do differently in terms of customer service that would help business. Up until I began working for Harlow Powell the only auction I had seen was here in Madison. When I was 12, I went with my mother to a sale here in Madison and bought a silver coffee pot with $20 of my allowance money. A few months later I sold it for $100 and was intrigued with the business. I didn’t go to an auction again until I was 22 and working for Harlow Powell.”
The brothers, who have lived in Madison County since 1995, chose to have their business in Madison. They started searching for an appropriate location and eventually settled on the old family store building at 132 N. Main St. and after getting approval from the town council in November 2014, opened for business in early 2015.
Both Andre and Nicholas noted that the business has operated at a profit since it first opened, but they’ve seen accelerated growth over the past few months.
“Some of it is because we’ve been open for a few years,” said Andre. “It is just the natural progress cycle of business. We’ve also gotten some national attention including the Chinese vase that we recently sold being featured in ‘Maine Antiques Digest.’ Even so, local people drop in or come to one of our sales and ask how long we’ve been here.”
“We’re really seeing an increase in both consignments and buyers,” added Nicholas. “I just tell them to keep spreading the word.”
The auction house sells a variety of items and the brothers assert that there is something for everyone.
“Some stuff sells for $10, some for thousands, and everything in between,” said Nicholas.
“You do the research to get an idea of what every object is worth, but you never really know what it will bring,” said Andre. “Sometimes only one person is bidding, and it sells for a bargain. Other times two or three people get in and become really emotionally invested in getting that piece. That is when you see stuff sell well above the estimated value. We try to give our consigners an accurate picture of what their objects are valued at. That way if they are attached to Grandma’s stuff more than the appraised value, we suggest that they keep it. Unlike many auction houses, we try to tailor the whole process to each individual’s needs and accept single consignments or entire estates.”
Everything in the Hilliard & Company sales is consigned and sold at auction. Bidding is possible by phone, live and online. The brothers divide the work responsibilities and also have two part-time employees. Nicholas takes care of the technology needs of the auction gallery and oversees online bidding on sale day. Andre is a licensed auctioneer and evaluates consignments. Hilliard & Company has consigners and buyers from all around the globe with 40 countries represented on the mailing list.
The auction business always has a surprise or two. Andre explained that some of the most unusual and valuable items come from unusual places.
“One time we were cleaning out an attic and found a civil war photo that sold for $850,” said Andre. “Another time we found some old photos in a drawer of a desk. The photos ended up being worth more than the desk. Moral of the story- always check the drawers. You never know what you’ll find.”