How Leland Little became one of the preeminent purveyors of fine antiques in the Southeast
By Jim Dodson • Photographs by Sam Froelich
Just before 10 o’clock on a cool Saturday morning late last spring, my wife, Wendy, and I dropped into the historic Hillsborough-based gallery of Leland Little Auctions for its annual spring sale with a trio of objectives in mind.
First was to attend my first live auction ever, something I’d never managed to do despite decades of snooping around other people’s historic estates and gardens across Britain, New England and my native South. Upon reflection, the sum effect of these domestic exposures was to awaken a passion for British and early American art, gardens and furniture that had evidently lain dormant in my bloodstream since the womb. My great-great-grandfather from Mebane, after all, was one of North Carolina’s celebrated 19th- century cabinetmakers, and so was my father’s father, for whom I’m named.
In addition, from knowledgeable friends of the Triad who share my love of All Things Old, I’d heard for years about the fantastic antiques, art and other collectible items to be found at a Leland Little auction — some at remarkable bargain prices. Just to be on the side of precaution, however, Wendy (a level-headed woman who grew up attending estate auctions on the Gold Coast of Long Island, New York) came along to ensure that her husband, the rookie auction-goer, didn’t drop the mortgage money on a Founding Father’s linen press or statue of Venus de Milo owned by a Venetian prince.
My prime working objective, however, was to find out about Leland Little and the powerhouse auction company he’s built into one of the country’s premier regional auction and estate-sale firms, averaging revenues north of $10 million a year, and dealing in everything from 18th-century American fine art and antiques to vintage automobiles.
Indeed, as we pulled into the already-full parking lot minutes before the official start time, there on the front lawn of the gallery sat a vintage 1968 XKE Jaguar in British racing green that all but whispered my name with a plummy Surrey accent.
Finally, aside from the action of the auction itself, I hoped to glean from Little valuable insights about the current (and maybe future) state of antiques, fine art and collectibles. Not long before this weekend outing, a leading Triad interior designer told me in no uncertain terms that “antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries are really kind of passé — Modernist design is where the action is.” Given the popularity of Mid-Century houses across the region, I wasn’t inclined to argue but curious nevertheless to know what this trend might portend for those of us who love traditional antiques and art.
Discounting the Jag of my dreams, the first surprise was the auctioneer himself — a trim, engaging fellow who looks a good deal younger than his 48 years age. Dressed in nice dark suit and red necktie, Little greeted us warmly at the door and provided a quick walking tour of the auction floor where a large crowd of early-arriving auction-goers had either claimed their seats or was jotting final notes on a broad array of more than 400 “lots” staged in “rooms” around the periphery of the floor. Along a rear wall were collections of rare books and historic maps that quickly caught my eye, particularly a pre-Revolutionary map of Colonial America drawn not long after Jamestown was settled. There was also a signed first edition of Robert Frost’s poetry and a first edition set of Audubon’s Birds of America. Early online bids seemed highly encouraging, for both were only in the low hundreds.
“This sale is one of our four major quarterly events we conduct in addition to our regular monthly and special sales in wine and jewelry and such,” Little explained as we passed an impressive collection of Modernist furniture and artwork that included a massive avant- garde white leather couch. Nearby was a group of finely wrought 18th-century china cabinets, exquisitely inlaid dressers and dining tables. “Our quarterly sales generate about a million dollars for our consignors, the vast majority of whom come from a 150-mile circumference that ranges from Richmond to the Piedmont and Charlotte down to Charleston and back up the coast.” He explained that having historic cities like Winston-Salem and Greensboro with their deep 18th-century roots and a resource such as Old Salem in the neighborhood are godsends to his research staff of 11 directors and staff experts who curate everything from important wine collections to estate jewelry and European art.
Over the decades he has been practicing his craft, advanced technology has radically transformed the art of selling fine goods at auction, a form of commerce that has been part of America since its earliest days of European settlement. In Colonial days, auctions were typically conducted at roadside taverns, in farmyards or town squares to attract the maximum crowds, a style influenced the British model that gave the world Sotheby’s in 1744 and Christie’s two decades later.
“During the time I’ve been doing live auctions, the business has undergone a radical transformation thanks to the development of the Internet,” Little provided, moments before he headed for the auction podium where the affair was set to begin at 10 sharp. “I actually began my career working in the farmyards of western Virginia and North Carolina. But as you will see today, all of that is largely in the past — the romance of a country auction. The spirit is still the same but the Internet has made auctions a global business.” To his point, we happened to be standing near a bank of tables manned by half a dozen of Little’s staffers, at the ready to receive bids via phone. “Maybe 150 people will turn out today to bid live in this room,” he said, “but we will have thousands more bidding online around the world.”
With tongue half in cheek, I wondered who those global bidders might be, picturing obscure Chinese billionaires searching for a lost Vermeer or a racing-green Jag in mint condition.
My host laughed. “Actually, all sorts participate. This is true working democracy. That’s one reason live auctions are so exciting and, well, even addictive,” he observed. “We’ll have all kinds of buyers today — collectors, antique dealers, folks buying for private collections, you name it, even lots of ordinary people like you. That’s one reason I became an auctioneer,” he added. “But it may surprise a first-time bidder how quickly things move. We shoot for about 80 lots and hour. So have your number ready!”
And with this, he was off to the podium to welcome the crowd — online and present — to conduct his big spring auction.
In a nutshell, what followed was five hours of watching one amazing auction lot after another come up for bid and disappear almost as quickly into someone’s grasp, present or global, the affair moving as smoothly as a well-orchestrated stage play. The action was indeed fast and furious at times, a duel of nerves between every sort of bidder.
A Robert Motherwell–signed screened print from a Davidson College collection went for $1,400 to a woman who looked like a silver-haired college professor, outbidding some unseen collector online. Durham artist John Beerman’s painting of Smith Mountain Lake netted $3,800 from someone in the ether of the Internet. Maude Gatewood’s Old Barn — Kennedy went for $14,000 to some discreet and unknown bidder. The woman seated next to me, who happened to be my wife, guessed it might be someone buying it for a museum.
Tellingly — proving my designer pal’s point — a beautiful Thomas Day table from the Caswell County cabinetmaker went for just $1,500, while a vintage Hermès shoulder bag from the Kennedy Administration–era fetched $3,200.
A lovely pre-Revolutionary era Chippendale oxbow chest sold for just $600, an extraordinary deal, while a Modernist Arne Jacobsen “Egg Chair” fetched three times that. The aforementioned Adrian Pearsall white leather couch claimed a cool $2,100 for its new owner. Milk glass, silver and estate jewelry, plus contemporary artwork, excited equaly big sales.
By that time in the affair, both Audubon’s Birds of America and the map of Colonial America I had my eye on were long gone, the former for a nimble five figures, the latter for a mere $1,600.
Yet I still had my eye on two remarkable items. One was a large bronze statue of an Indian in a canoe, the other a stunning oil painting of cows standing in a pasture at dawn by a Philadelphia artist named Thomas Craig. The painting was named Upland Pasture (Morning) and dated 1892. It had first been exhibited, I learned from Little’s online catalog, at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. It was in an original heavy gilt frame and from the artist’s own estate, estimated to go for between $2,000 and $4,000.
Though the painting’s appraised value and its projected sale price were well beyond what my auction-minder and I had agreed upon, my eye kept returning to those luminous cows. The bronze Indian went for seven figures. But those cows seemed to be looking straight at me, reminding me of my late grandfather’s home place in southern Orange County. As the painting’s lot number rapidly approached, my wife sensed a powerful bovine connection, leaned over and whispered that we could possibly go as high as two grand, if I really had to have the painting. She pointed out that we most likely had one formidable rival in the form of an older chap in rumpled corduroys who had been sniffing around the painting all morning.
“I’m sure he’s an antiques dealer,” Wendy quietly explained. “You can always spot them. He’ll have a much firmer ceiling than ours.”
I saw steel in her eyes and wondered what this lingo meant. “It means he’ll only bid as high as he thinks he can sell it for, typically twice what he paid for it. Otherwise it’s not worth his time and investment.”
I handed her our registered number and sat in a kind of buck-fever daze as Lot 356 suddenly came up and the bids flew — rising from opening at $300 to $2,000 in a matter of seconds. True enough, the contest came down to just two bidders. As Leland Little’s head swiveled between my bride and Mr. Rumpled Pants for several moments, the room fell completely still. When the bidding war reached $2,200, the auctioneer looked at us and evenly warned, “Fair warning. The bid is currently $2,200. . .”
And a second later it was over. Wendy lifted her hand and the closed the deal at $2,300. Thomas Craig and his luminous cows were going home with us to the Triad. There was a tiny smattering of applause.
“You’ve got your painting,” Wendy said with a wry note of triumph. “Guess you don’t need that Jaguar out front.”
For the record, the Jag went for a modest $21,000.
On the way out, Leland Little inquired how I’d enjoyed my first live auction. I admitted that I was drained and wondered how exhausted he must be after five hours of rapid-fire auctioneering with only a few breaks.
“I’m always weary,” he conceded. “But it’s always a happy exhaustion. And after a day or so of rest, I’ll be ready for our next sale. It pleases me to see people find something they really love — as you did today with the Thomas Craig painting. I get as excited as our customers. We’re already busy cataloging and getting ready for the big summer and autumn sales, not to mention the big wine auction coming up in a couple weeks.”
Oddly enough, what Leland Little originally planned to become in life was a musician, possibly a conductor of symphonies.
The son of an Air Force personnel officer, he was born in Sumter, South Carolina, but lived on a military base in Iran before coming home to attend high school in suburban Washington, D.C.
“In those days I was into girls and playing sports, and had not the slightest interest in antiques or fine art,” he explained a few weeks later when I dropped by the gallery during a quiet preparation day to find out more about the auctioneer and the state of public tastes in antiques. As we strolled through the cataloged storage areas where recently consigned estate items were already tagged for upcoming monthly and quarterly sales (highlighted by impressive temperature-controlled wine cellar that holds up to 15,000 bottles at any given moment) he told me about the music classes at Radford University that sparked his desire to earn a degree in music. “I found that I had a real aptitude for music and loved studying it — not quite imagining where that might lead.”
To earn a few bucks on weekends, he found a job working as a furniture mover for a local auction company. “This may sound a little odd, but when you begin studying classical music, it’s not that far a leap to architecture and furniture, which, in time, became my first love and area of expertise. Classical pieces of furniture and design share creative traits with music, which is all about form and function. They are sympathetic disciplines. A beautiful hand-carved piece of 18th- or 19th-century piece of furniture is like the Baroque movement come to life. In short, music and the decorative arts flowed together in my case. It wasn’t a big leap to make. Plus, there was the rhythm and wonderful romance of a live auction.”
He remembers one auction in particular, a homestead being sold off in Floyd County, Virginia. “We arrived early, well before 5 a.m. to move the household pieces out onto the lawn, the traditional way such affairs were conducted in those days. Lots of motion and activity. Lots of energy and excitement setting things up. The auction was at 10 o’clock and bidders arrived as the sun came up. There was coffee and food from local church ladies, neighbors greeting each other, real Americana. I realized that I loved being part of this scene. It reminded me of an orchestra setting up for a performance.”
By the end of college, Little decided to forgo the classroom and stick with auctioneering. “I learned from watching some very fine auctioneers in the Shenandoah Valley, took my auctioneer license and really never looked back. I learned the business, in more ways than one, from the ground up.”
Around 1997, friends from Hillsborough invited him to relocate and base his own auction company in the historically rich Orange County town. “I took several part-time jobs and was willing to do anything to keep my dream of having my own auction gallery alive. I did jewelry trade shows and weekend auction jobs around the Piedmont, building a network of great resources and people. At that time, tag sales were the thing and the antiques market was still pretty strong. Timing in life is so important. Things began to happen quickly.”
In 2000, he was able quit his part-time jobs and work full time on building his own auction gallery. That autumn he hired a young woman named Beth, who two years later became his wife. “We never had to go find extraordinary people. They seemed to find us — folks who were experts in art, furniture, jewelry, the whole range of items,” Little recalled. “We were fortunate that they found us.”
In time he rented a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in neighboring Efland. “It cost $500 dollars a month. I wondered for the longest time how we would pay for it. But antiques were still hot and older collectors were driving the market. Things just began to fall into place.”
The next move a short time later was to a larger former textile building in Hillsborough, where a helpful landlord named allowed him to expand until Little’s auction company took over the entire building. In 2007 came his most dramatic move — a bold purchase of land off N.C. Highway 86 that led to the custom construction of a 10,000-square-foot gallery that opened in April of 2009, six months after the start of the global financial crash. “Talk about potentially terrible timing,” Little said with a rueful smile. “I had plenty of worries, let me tell you, but I never felt we were in trouble because the key to success is being in tune with changing times and the buying public’s tastes.”
By then, he said, the traditional antiques market had indeed softened considerably. “People had other priorities — mortgages, families to feed and kids to educate. Even veteran collectors weren’t eager to expand their investment portfolios as they had in decades past. A paradigm shift in our collective values was clearly underway. Times change and so do people’s tastes. The point was to diversify and respond to the market place without rejecting the beauty of the past.”
This was a timeless wisdom he early in his career from a veteran dealer. “‘Son,’ he told me, ‘people have been saying antiques are dead for as long as I can remember. But it isn’t true. Folks will always want fine old things. The trick is to know the proper value of those things and put your heart and soul into the auction business and you’ll be just fine.’ That’s exactly what I’ve done, too.”
As he said this, Leland Little, now a father of two beautiful young daughters, was sitting at his desk beneath a print of a classic country auction .
“It’s only real value is to me. I look at that print every day because it grounds me, reminds me of the little things I’ve learned along the way about people and what we hold as valuable. Next to my family, the people who work here are so special to me. I can’t imagine any other kind of life.” He went on to explain that part of his mission is “re-educating clients and customers about the fair values of things. That Thomas Craig painting you bought several weeks ago, for example, could easily have sold for two or three times more than you paid for it back in the 1980s. Maybe more. But the fact that you got it for considerably less seems like a bargain. The truth is, its real value is personal, how you feel about it. Sometimes — like my office auction print — that doesn’t have a price tag.
“An auction by its very nature is an emotional experience for many people. Some buy purely for investment but most people who attend auctions, I’ve found, are buying something they love. It has a lot to do with personal feelings about time, place and memory.”
Over the past decade, he added, as popularity of 18th- and 19th-century furniture and art has waned, areas like rare books and maps and coins, couture, contemporary art, fine private estate wine collections, jewelry and Modernist furnishings have brought the biggest sales.
“Part of it is obviously the changing tastes of America. Older collectors who drove those big antique markets have died off and younger people — many who connect with the Mid-Century culture of their childhoods — are now driving the values up of certain items. What will my children find so compelling down the road?” he muses. “It’s impossible to say. An auction is a living snapshot of the now.
“We can’t worry about the past,” he added, “we can only stay on top of what is current and invest in our talented people, the human energy that curates a modern auction like ours, not to mention the custom digital software that makes the world of auctioneering an exciting a global experience. We now have regular bidders from all over the world — and a full concierge service that makes customer service a priority for us.”
These days, two expansions later, Leland Little Auction Gallery now occupies 21,000 square feet. “We’re so grateful for the growth we’ve had. So man of our customers are like neighbors. But the spirit and excitement of a traditional country auction is still central to who we are every day. When I look at that simple print above my desk, I am reminded of how far we’ve come — and yet, how the thrill of a live auction never gets old.”
To find more about upcoming auctions, including online catalogs for the November 4 sale of the Keith and Caroline Gray estate in Charlotte, and Little’s Quarterly Winter Sale, check out the gallery’s website at www.Lelandlittle.com