Houston is the epicenter of Texas' auction world. But buyer beware -- some auctioneers may only be selling a bill of goods.

Just west of the Galleria, where all the merchandise is new and the prices are fixed in computers, shoppers can enter an altogether different world at a store called Texas Rich and Famous. On a recent winter Saturday, a dozen or so bargain hunters were seated on folding chairs waiting to participate in what is thought to be the oldest form of capitalism: an auction. At auctions, the theory goes, the true market value of an item is determined by the bidders in the room, and not by the seller. And for some items sold at large scale auctions -- such as livestock and used cars and soybean futures -- this theory probably holds true.

But when it comes to jewelry and antiques and furnishings, each bidder holds in his heart, along with the numbered bidding card in his hand, the hope of buying something for less, maybe far less, than retail. An aura of distress hangs over auctions. Often they are prompted by deaths and bankruptcy, and the goods in question have typically been used. Auctions also offer something that no department store can sell: a story.

Texas Rich and Famous is crammed with dozens of wooden bureaus and antique tables, and every horizontal surface is laden with bronzes, vases, crystal bowls and other knickknacks. The walls are hung with oriental rugs and gilt-framed oil paintings. At one end of the store, a large assortment of jewelry is displayed in wooden, glassed cases. At Texas Rich and Famous, bidders are encouraged to select pieces they like, and then those pieces will be put up for auction.

Behind a podium flanked by television monitors for displaying the jewelry stands Marian Voss, the proprietor of Texas Rich and Famous. Wearing an electric-blue, double-breasted suit, his dark hair slicked back, the Romanian-born auctioneer looks and sounds like Bela Lugosi.

The crowd must not be very interested in the furniture or the bronzes or the paintings, for Voss is mostly auctioning jewelry. He picks up an emerald and diamond ring for bid and pronounces it "very very bee-you-ti-ful." He holds it up to his eye and examines it. "The stones alone are worth about ... $4,000," Voss declares. "Wouldn't you say?" He's addressing a young woman advertised as a "G.I.A. certified appraiser" who's standing at the back of the chairs. Yes, she replies, about $4,000.

So what am I offered for this very marvelous ring, Voss asks the crowd. One hundred? Do I hear $150? After only a few bids, Voss knocks down the ring for $400. There's a stir among a group of well-dressed Mexicans at the front of the house. A woman who appears to be in her early 60s turns around in her chair and says to a companion, "There are really some bargains!"

And so it goes for an hour or so. Rolexes are knocked down for a few hundred dollars, an old-fashioned bracelet said to be worth several thousand dollars goes for a tenth of that.

During a break in which they have been encouraged to select something on which to bid, the bidders have time to contemplate the assembled goods and muse upon the origins of the store's name. One clue is found in the anteroom to the spotless restrooms, where hang letters from an agent of a maharajah asking Voss to sell the potentate's art collection. And just before this weekend's sale Voss had advertised that he would be offering goods from a Tanglewood woman desperate for money. She had been beaten by her wealthy husband's bodyguards, the ad noted breathlessly, and her children had been kidnapped to a foreign country. Her name could not be revealed, one assumed, because aside from being rich (if troubled), she was, well, famous.

But if her goods are mixed among the offerings on view here today, they're hard to pick out. There's not really a lot being displayed that seems that Tanglewood-ish. The Remington bronzes that crowd the tabletops are mass reproductions. And the bright, fresh surfaces of the oil paintings seem almost new. It's all a bit puzzling. Can these really be the heirlooms of Houston's well-to-do and desperate?

The asking of that question -- if not the answer -- may be one clue as to why auctions pervade the city's economy. Actually, given that Houston, more than most cities, prides itself on its free-enterprise ethic, it's not surprising that our town throngs with auctions. Every week, week in and week out, auctions command a sizable section of the Post's and the Chronicle's weekend classified ads. They're held all over town, in warehouses and storefronts, in elegant auction houses and flea markets.

Indeed, Houston seems a community designed for the auction aesthetic. It's a place where the notion of boom and bust is an integral part of the urban soul. When you boom, you need the accouterments of the next step up the social ladder quickly; and when you bust, one way you can recoup a bit is to pass on the collected detritus of your former status to the next person in line. Daily, Houston's 400 or so licensed auctioneers sell just about everything imaginable. There are auctioneers for livestock, oil field equipment, barges, restaurant equipment, financial instruments, oil and gas leases and office furniture. There are auctions for used medical equipment to licensed buyers who ship it to foreign countries. There are specialists in liquidating estates and bankrupt businesses. Wholesale auctions of used automobiles determine the so-called "blue book" value against which banks will loan money. And for thrift-shop buyers, every Monday through Friday morning the Salvation Army auctions surplus items that have been donated to it.

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