Johnny and Ann met on a blind date at Christmastime, 1955. Was it love at first sight? “I’m not sure,” Ann answered, a smile crossing her face “He was cutting up that entire night.” As it turns out, love was waiting just around the corner. Sixty-one years later, nothing has changed.
Early in their marriage Johnny took over his father’s buying/selling antiques business on Craven Street in Asheville, Four years later, he turned the location into an auction house. Ann soon joined him as a partner.
It turned out to be a tough, but rewarding way to make a living. All sale items needed to be delivered to the auction house, catalogued, displayed, and in the past several years, photographed for an online presence. Add to that a mountain of paperwork and there was a need for more than two workers. Fortunately, friends and family have always been around to lend a helping hand.
With the exception of rare and extraordinary pieces, or those controlled by legal dictates, all auctions have no minimum and no reserve—which means that an item can be sold for as little as $1.00.
I asked Johnny a question he hears often—what was the biggest surprise he’d encountered?
“That’s easy,” he replied. “An unrecognized Jan Steen painting by the renowned Dutch artist. A woman friend of ours brought us the portrait wanting to sell it. She was willing to take $100, even $50. I’m not an expert, but the work appeared valuable.”
Johnny contacted Christi’s in New York, then with the portrait in hand, drove to Manhattan and delivered it to one of the auction house’s specialists. Several months later— after the painter’s signature had been authenticated—Christi’s contacted Ann, Johnny and their friend just five minutes before the portrait was to be auctioned. The bidding opened at a heart-stopping $100,000 and proceeded upward until the gavel finally hammered down at $360,000.
“It’s like one of those stories you read about,” Johnny said. “Incredible. Ann and I were pleased that we were able to help a friend.” Left unsaid was the thought that an unscrupulous dealer could have easily taken advantage of the situation.
In another surprise, while cataloging items for trustees of an estate, Johnny opened an old trunk in the house cellar. Below a layer of oily rags, he discovered a group of antique weapons. Most were valuable, but a pair of pistols covered with gold figures seemed special. After further investigation, the two were recognized to be from the 17th century. Johnny fielded calls from around the world and eventually sold them for $123,000 to an antique weapons collector phoning from Jamaica..
Currently, antique furniture is not as popular as it once was, with prices declining over the past decade. A cherry chest that would have sold for $1000 ten years ago could now go for as little as $100. The value of a set of Waterford glasses, or a collection of china, has been reduced by as much as 50 or 60%. Sometimes more.
On the brighter side, almost anything mid-century (1950s) is in high demand along with gold, guns, silver, and silver coins.
Changes have occurred over the past two decades. Several years ago, the auction house on Craven Street site had to be leveled to make way for the New Belgium Brewing brewery. Along the way, Johnny and Ann sold the business to their daughter Beth and her husband, Tommy. The name was changed to Tommy Tuten & Johnny Penland Auctions though the players remained the same. Ann still helps Beth in the office and Tommy does the auctioneering while Johnny works the floor—holding up or pointing out items up for bid. The two men are well known for their lively banter back and forth with each other during the process. On a good night, when they’re on a roll, they can be as entertaining as the auction itself.
There’s little doubt that it’s the people that make this auction house unique. Ann will help an elderly woman to her car while offering advice on how to handle a particular matter that is troubling her. Johnny and Tommy always acknowledge the most minor flaw on an item to be auctioned.
It’s who they are.
Treasures can be bought and sold in Asheville, but nothing is more valuable to the fabric of the community than folks like Johnny, Ann, Tommy and Beth. In their world, every newcomer becomes a friend, every friend, a family member.
The auction begins each Friday night at 6:00 p.m. in Swannanoa, right off Route 40. Stop in. Feel the warmth. Join the family.
Ted Alexander lives in Asheville. His two novels, The Fall of Summer and After and Before are available at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe and Amazon.com. He can be contacted at TedMAlexander.com.