Auctioneering the ‘second oldest profession’

Resident describes advantages, history of service 

by BETH ALTENA

Every piece tells the story of its history—Jack Robillard, auctioneer, can tell you if what you have is worth what you hope. Now a Rockford resident, he shared secrets with the Squire staff. One secret was kept by a husband and wife after a brutal murder in the heat of passion.

Auctioneer and Rockford resident Jack Robillard can talk all day about the history and value of a Chippendale chest, but it is his fast talking that is his profession. An airline pilot first, Robillard was restless during the days between flights and heard about the Missouri Auction School. He had attended only a few days when he was mistaken for a seasoned professional in the field. Turns out he is a natural fast talker.

Now Robillard has been an auctioneer for over 30 years mostly in the eastern side of the country, and has recently returned to his wife’s native Rockford. She long wanted to return to this town, where her family ties are and many people knew her mom Corinne from Corinne’s Beauty Salon, operated out of a residence on Fremont Street.

Robillard’s years in his job have given him countless stories, including one that involves a murder, an attic, and a secret kept through two generations.

Robillard called auctioneering the “second oldest profession.” The other isn’t legal in Michigan, although it is in Nevada. He said back in the times of the Roman Empire, auctions were used when people owed money. Since the age of computers and video technology—both of which Robillard uses in his business—the science of auctioneering has changed, but the basic concept remains the same.

“One call sells it all,” Robillard said of his job.

Out east, Robillard said, people often bring auction items to his warehouse and one item or an entire estate can be auctioned. Here in Michigan, that style of auctioneering is less typical and people are more likely to auction an estate, including the home itself, on site.

A good auctioneer knows what he or she is selling, and Robillard has researched extensively and is qualified as a court appraiser. He is called in when someone is being sued for misrepresenting the value of an item.

“People don’t realize when you look at a piece of furniture, it tells a story,” he noted.

Being able to identify the age of an item, as well as where and by whom it was made takes into account countless details. A piece of furniture made by a certain shop can tell its age because the cuts of the wood are sharper that other works by the same craftsman. That detail could show the piece was made after the year the furniture maker suffered a fire in his building, causing him to buy new—and sharper—equipment. It’s the devil in the details, but it makes a world of difference in the price a piece can bring.

Robillard is skilled in pricing paintings, textiles, furniture, silverware and many other items. He said it is a useful, even vital, skill when families come to him to estimate the value of an estate.

“When a parent passes away, the kids often don’t have a clue what is valuable,” he said.

An example is precious stones. During World War II the country needed gold and platinum for the war effort and it was common for women to take the stones out of their rings and give the metal to the war effort. A dingy, white-colored stone tucked in the back of a jewelry box may well be a diamond.

Other commonly overlooked valuables are old guns. Robillard said this area is rich in valuable furniture because during the Great Depression many people came from the east coast—home of many furniture craftsmen—to work in the auto industry in Detroit. He said older dolls, toys, nautical models, antiques from the Spanish American War and Civil War are all good potential high ticket sale items.

As in life, there are no guarantees. Among his interesting stories is one of a man who had a 1929 Rolls Royce. Turns out, the man wanted a convertible and simply cut the top half of the car off. It went from a $100,000 value to around $10,000.

A profession with a romantic reputation, auctioneering is actually tough, hard work. “You have to go in, clean out a house. It’s dirty, it’s ugly. I’ve had lots of $4,000 and $5,000 auctions,” he said.

It’s also work he loves—a job where you are onstage and working the crowd for the customer. “You’ve got to be a showman. You are selling yourself as much as you are selling a thing,” he said.

Robillard will give free verbal appraisals of room contents and said during an auction he typically sells about 100 items an hour—perhaps the fastest way to turn over many items.

Among Robillard’s best stories is the one with a body in the attic. He had been commissioned by the grandchildren to auction the family estate and in an eave in the attic found a rolled-up carpet. There was a skeleton inside with an engraved bracelet. After the police investigated, they identified the body as a man gone missing in 1910 and never been found. The best guess was the husband had come home to find the man and his wife in a compromising situation and shot the guy in the head. After the heat of the moment, the couple must have decided to hide the body and keep the murder a secret.

To find out more about Robillard’s business, give him a call at (616) 884-0567 or go to auctionzip.com and put in Jack Robillard in the section for auctioneers of West Michigan.

Robillard—a professional pilot who first earned his wings in the Marines, where he served 27 years, flew 900 missions and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross in Vietnam—may not find a skeleton in your attic, but is more than ready to tell you the value of what he does find there.

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