Value Added: Paul Quinn’s not-so-dull auction business

I have wanted to write about an auctioneer for more than a decade, ever since the best-selling “The Millionaire Next Door” described them as part of America’s hidden wealthy.

The book classified the auctioneer business as “dull normal,” lumping it with mobile-home park owners, rice farmers, welding contractors and pest controllers.

Not the usual high-tech, entrepreneur rich guy.

But Paul Quinn of family-run Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church has had his share of glamour.

There’s the 350-year-old imperial Chinese enamel-on-brass snuff bottle that brought $143,750. Or the Roy Lichtenstein painting that famously drew a $128,700 purchase last December. An 1827 map of Virginia, found in a $10 box of maps at an estate sale, raked in $23,4oo for the lucky seller. And an autograph by George Washington earned $12,870.

I visited Quinn on a steaming hot day last week at his gallery, tucked away near a car repair shop in a low-industrial corner of Falls Church.

Quinn does pretty well, and his life does not seem dull or normal.

At 67, he limps around on a bum knee through an auction house full of wing chairs, old jewelry, coins and stamps, toys, dolls, family china and even duck decoys.

I asked Quinn and his sons, David, 39, and Matt, 36, to explain the business to see whether they are “The Millionaire Next Door.”

The auction house charges sellers 30 percent on average on the sale of each item. So a $100 desk brings $70 to the seller and $30 to Quinn. That’s not the end of it, however. The buyer pays Quinn a 15 percent fee on top of the sale price. So the $100 desk might bring in $45.

Quinn figures he will earn gross revenue of about $1,800,000 on $4 million from 64 auctions this year. That’s a lot of hum-diddle-diddles.

After expenses, including 17 full- and part-time employees, rent, utilities, travel, advertising and administrative costs, Quinn’s business should turn a 20 percent profit this year. That’s close to $400,000.

When I was there last week, Matt was headed — on Quinn Galleries’ dime — to Tulsa to participate in the filming of “Antiques Roadshow,” the hugely popular PBS television program. Son David, who is president at the auction house, has appeared on the show.

Father and sons attended auction school to learn how to conduct a bidding session.

Quinn pays himself a meager salary of $30,000, while each of his sons earns shy of $100,000 when salary, bonus and benefits are added together. Depending on profit, owner bonuses vary from zero to $20,000. Quinn owns 67 percent of the business, and his sons split the rest.

Quinn is a real entrepreneur. In addition to the auction business, he owns the profitable Falls Church Antique Center, a building he rents to a group of antiques dealers.

“We are going to have a great year,” Paul said.

Part of the reason is the near-record high prices for gold and silver, which has prompted some people to sell their flatware and jewelry.

Quinn has built his various businesses into a one-stop shop designed for a common challenge: selling the family home (Realtor) and its contents (estate sales, some of which are conducted inside the home) for the surviving heirs who live out of town.

The low-margin real estate business will bring in well over $100,000 this year in revenue. The estate sales business will earn $60,000 more. Quinn has zero debt, so he uses cash from his profits for major purchases such as vehicles and a possible warehouse designed to grow the business.

Another thing that drew me to Quinn is his willingness to reinvent himself, something many people face as they contemplate retirement, deal with layoffs or face the dissolution of their business.

Quinn even planned for multiple careers, having bought the book “How to Retire Before 40” when he was 38.

“This is maybe my 10th career,” said Quinn, who retired from hospital administration 20 years ago, when he was a 47-year-old at the top of his game. After growing up on a farm in Iowa, he came east to earn a college degree at Catholic University and study for the priesthood. He earned a master’s in health care administration from Antioch College in Ohio.

He works 16-hour days and describes himself as “very intuitive, fairly driven.” After leaving Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, he and his wife, a pediatric nurse practitioner, spent a month in Britain, scouring antiques haunts from a small rented cottage in Stamford, an hour north of London.

They started the antiques shopping mall when they returned to the United States.

“I managed that business and built it up and in the course of running it, I decided to start the auction company,” Quinn said. The year was 1995, and it began as a two-person operation between himself and son David.

The hardest part of the business, said Quinn, is dealing with people’s emotional attachment to their family heirlooms.

“During the recession, people came in in tears because they had to part with their grandmother’s silverware. We all have those stories,” he said, adding he lost money in the 2008-2009 time period.

As we walked through his gallery, checking out German-made double-barrel shotguns, a drawing of John F. Kennedy and a plate of jewelry — part of the 250,000 items they hope to sell in a year — I wondered whether I was talking with “The Millionaire Next Door.”

I don’t know, but he sure seems happy.

Follow me on Twitter at @addedvalueth.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade.
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