A knack for sales, from pots to pigs

Entrepreneur: A woman who left real estate to become an auctioneer has been named "Woman Business Owner of the Year" by a Baltimore County agency.

July 26, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

A few moments after opening the bidding, she sounds the auctioneer's signature call. "Sold," Ann von Forthuber says. Then she turns to the next knick-knack - an old picture frame, vintage lunchbox, souvenir postcard, it doesn't matter - for another round of rapid-fire bidding and another declaration, "Sold."

This will be the 10th year of auctioneering for Ann von Forthuber, and she still gets excited by concluding a bid. "My favorite four-letter word," she says, ruminating on a second career that has found her hawking everything from slop bowls to presidential china, and recently earned her "Woman Business Owner of the Year" in Baltimore County.

A Baltimore native, von Forthuber, 52, stopped selling real estate after 23 years because she didn't want to work for a large firm anymore. She carved out her own business auctioning property instead. She said it took off after the savings and loan crisis in the early 1980s showed that auctions could generate sizable returns.

"Everybody said, `Oh, you can't do auction work,'" von Forthuber says, but she clearly has done so. At the Jarrettsville Volunteer Fire Company hall in Harford County, dozens crowd around her as she hawks everything from porcelain mugs to lace place-settings. "Kerosene heaters - you'll thank me this winter," she says. "Sold."

"She's just a nice lady," says Anna Suepoole, 70, of Bel Air. "You feel like you're welcomed to the auction when she auctions stuff. We were here yesterday at the preview, and she said, `Welcome back. Good to see you.'" Suepoole adds, "And she's got a nice voice."

Von Forthuber has built a business that specializes in the wares of people moving, people retiring, empty-nesters downsizing, couples divorcing and heirs selling estates. After starting with an office in her house, von Forthuber now has two offices - one in Towson, and a satellite in Chestertown - and five employees.

She built the business by marketing the viability of auctioneering - volunteering to serve as host of auctions for women's groups, giving seminars, even presenting a radio show. She gave up the radio show, and says she serves as host of up to a dozen auctions a month, selling everything from live pigs to a locket containing George Washington's hair.

The Baltimore County Minority Business Enterprise Office, Commission for Women and Office of Fair Practices and Community Affairs selected von Forthuber as businesswoman of the year.

Given von Forthuber's family history, it's almost surprising that she waited nearly a quarter-century before gravitating to auctioneering. "My mother was from New England, and I like to say she knew a good bargain," von Forthuber says. Her mother dotted their house with artifacts - first-edition books, china, silver, a cranberry scoop.

Her father, a florist, taught her how to package bouquets in attractive bows and design floral arrangements. "I appreciate pretty things. I have a good sense of color, design," she says.

Those qualities serve von Forthuber well when it comes time to assess property up for auction, one of the most important tasks of an auctioneer. It also helps that von Forthuber consults appraisers and reads books about pottery, porcelain and other decorative arts.

All that study preceded von Forthuber's recent visit to the Jarrettsville fire company, where she stood amid a horde of bidders, raising the bids as she gestured at the items on tables in front of her, and where she declared time after time, "Sold."

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