With the rapid-fire rhythm of an auctioneer’s chant, Ruben Balboa cajoles buyers to bid higher and higher amounts to acquire the merchandise up for sale. Whether selling a small piece of jewelry or a large antique chest of drawers, conducting a successful auction is an art form all its own.
Balboa Auction Company of San Benito primarily conducts estate auctions and sales, although the business also holds monthly general auctions. Owner Ruben Balboa, who launched the business with his wife Nancy, said they started out by conducting estate sales. “We had done estate sales for a long time and it has evolved into an auction company,” he said.
A number of businesses around the Rio Grande Valley organize and hold estate sales, whether it be for someone who is downsizing or for people needing to liquidate an estate after a family member has passed away. Balboa Auction Company is different from most because they also offer estate auctions.
“An estate sale is where everything is priced and we conduct those,” Balboa said. “In an estate auction, the items go to the highest bidder. We offer both because the auction may not be for everybody. Some of my clients prefer to have more input on the pricing of the items.”
The monthly general auctions held at the company’s offices also benefit people who are downsizing. Some of those are just trying to get rid of items for which they no longer have use. The auctions are on a consignment basis, where Balboa charges a commission based on the sale amount.
“If it fits through the door, we will sell it, any personal property,” Balboa said. “We specialize in antiques and collectibles, and I think that’s where we have a bit of an edge because that’s something that I have been involved in since I was maybe 8 years old, so I am really familiar with that market.”
Balboa said the heart of the family-run business remains estate auctions and sales. “The estates, the auctions that we conduct on site, those take priority because the family is usually in a situation where they are just ready, whether the house was sold or there was a death in the family.”
Estate sale companies work closely with the families and homeowners to assess the property they are selling. They also organize, set up and administer the sale so the family does not have to worry about the details. In Balboa’s case, he also helps the family make a decision. Is it best to hold an estate sale with fixed prices or to auction items to the highest bidder?
“It’s all about gross proceeds and if we think the auction is going to bring more, we will talk to the customer about that option and if we think the estate sale is going to bring more money, we will lead them in that direction,” he said. “Basically, nine out of 10 of our sales are conducted by live auction rather than an estate sale.”
The Balboas, who both work full time as counselors with the Brownsville school district, started the business as a part-time venture. “We do this part time on a full-time basis, that’s what it feels like,” said Balboa. “The auction company started out as a way to supplement our income, and we started thinking it could become a good retirement business. It’s not easy finding that balance between family and two jobs.”
A state-licensed auctioneer, Balboa gets pleasure from dealing with items where he also has a personal passion, like antiques. “I have a deep appreciation for early American craftsmanship,” he said. “To me, each and every piece is a work of art. It was made to get your attention, and it was made to last.”
Then there are the more unusual items that come along. “We sold a human skull that was actually from a nursing school,” Balboa said. The skull still had a tag with the college’s name. “Funny thing is, there was pretty good demand for that skull. Maybe a little bit morbid, but I looked at it more as a scientific piece.”
Based in McAllen, Estate Sales by Riverzedge is among the companies serving the Upper Valley. Andrew and Jane Smith sold antiques and collectibles in shops with vendor spaces for years and also made the rounds of major market days events in Texas. They migrated into the estate sale business about six years ago and went full time two years ago.
“It kind of evolved,” Andrew Smith said. “We have been doing this for at least six-plus years and every year it gets better and better.”
Smith said part of their success comes from the experience and knowledge they have gained over the years as antique and collectible dealers, and their efforts to do the homework to determine a fair value for sale items. “Whenever we do our estate sales, we are always looking up stuff and learning. Every estate sale is different and we learn more and more about things that you rarely see.”
The Smiths primarily promote Riverzedge through a website, social media and email blasts to build their customer base, one with a wide range of interests. “We have people that come for antiques, people that come for kitchen ware and people that come for tools and garage items,” Smith said. “Some people are interested in western-type stuff. There’s people who look for specific items and then there’s general shoppers.”
Conducting an estate sale usually takes about a week. The Smiths start by going through the house to determine the inventory and taking photographs. Then the process of sorting, pricing and set up takes a couple of days. “The sale itself typically runs Thursday through Saturday,” Smith said. “Around 90 percent is gone before Saturday, then everything that’s left goes to half price on Saturday.”
And the process most always brings surprises. The Smiths often come across items the families didn’t know where there or thought were lost. “We always find photographs that are tucked away, family memorabilia and sometimes we find valuables the family wants to keep,” Smith said, recalling a four-diamond anniversary ring and an 18-karat gold stopwatch as among some of the more valuable pieces they have come across.
In Harlingen, Jessica Kuykendall started Estate Sales by Jessica as a part-time business. “Part time was a hobby and then it grew into a full-time business once we started a website, which was a little more than 10 years ago,” she said. “We went from doing four to six estate sales a year to two to four a month.”
Kuykendall offers similar services as other estate sale companies. She said she enjoys helping people sort out and determine value of belongings and finding bargains for shoppers. She has furnished her own home largely with pieces she has purchased at estate sales. “Because we see the market for furniture from furniture stores, people are paying too much when they go to a furniture store,” she said. “So we tell people, if there’s a piece of furniture you like but you don’t like the color, it’s a better investment to have it reupholstered than buy new at a furniture store.”
Kuykendall also believes she should use her skills to give back to the community. She conducted a recent moving sale pro bono in Palm Valley, something she does at least twice a year. “There’s always someone needing to have it done and they simply can’t physically do it or afford to pay for the service and they just don’t know where to start,” she said. “So we will do two pro bonos a year and we kind of pick and choose what we want to do. There’s a lot of people that need a service like this. It’s overwhelming.”
Like her counterparts, Kuykendall enjoys discovering the unexpected rare and personal items like love letters, safety deposit box keys and historical treasures, such as a stash of old photographs in the home of a descendant of Lon C. Hill, Harlingen’s founder.
“We have found money for people, we have found jewelry, and we have found love letters or sweet things that a loved one has left behind and the wife or husband had not seen for years. We are so proud to find things for them.”