2016-01-01 / Up Close

Fast Talk

with Auctioneer Ron Gilligan
Maggie Anderson | photos by Matt Fern

Ron Gilligan still remembers the first thing he ever sold. It was a little oil lamp.

“I hadn’t even gone to auction school at that point, but I got up in front of the crowd and I looked out there and it was like looking at Beaver Stadium,” he says. “Who’s going to bid, who’s going to do what and how are they going to bid?”

The buyer was antique dealer Craig Taylor. “I’ll never forget this.” says Gilligan. “He wouldn’t have cared what it brought. He wanted to buy the first thing I ever sold. He bought it, walked up, gave it to my mother and said, ‘I want you to have this.’ Craig the foresight to see that this was going to work out.”

More than 20 years after that first $17.50 sale, Gilligan is one of the most sought after auctioneers in central Pennsylvania, doing almost 100 auctions a year. Though his great- great-grandfather, great-grandfather and father, Ron Sr., were auctioneers, with Ron Sr. starting the current business, Ron Gilligan Auctioneering, in 1969, it wasn’t until after earning his bachelor’s degree from Penn State in commercial recreation that he decided to join the family business. “I called up mom and dad and said, ‘You guys care if I to Pennsylvania and work with you guys?’” he says.

“We were really shocked because we didn’t think he even ever really thought about it,” says his mother, Mary Lou Gilligan, who has worked full time with her husband since he started the business 46 years ago. “It’s been a good life,” says Gilligan Sr.

It’s also a busy life. Getting ready for an auction — going to check out the items or piece of real estate, writing up and photographing each item, creating ads and flyers, updating the website — can take months, depending on the size of the sale. “Going to do the auction actually might be the easiest days,” says Gilligan.

A young Ron Jr. gets his start alongside his dad. A young Ron Jr. gets his start alongside his dad.

That fast talk — the auctioneer’s chant — might not seem easy, but Gilligan says growing up hearing it helped him learn. Plus, there are some tricks to the trade. “Say you have a 14 karat gold necklace coming up for sale,” says Gilligan. “After doing this for a while you get a pretty good idea of who’s going to bid on it to start with, who’s there, who buys jewelry, who buys 14 karat, and that narrows it from 100 people down to about five people before it even gets put up for sale.” After that, it’s just checking in with those people and scanning for anyone else while running the numbers up, he says. 

“When it’s hardest is when you’re selling something you think should bring $250 and you’re stuck at $130 and no one is bidding and you’re wondering why.” Some things — coins and guns, mainly — have always sold well and always will, says Gilligan. But other items cycle in and out of popularity, just like fashions. “Antiques probably don’t bring as much as they used to,” he says. “Oak furniture when I started was selling for a lot of money; now it’s half of what it used to bring.”

Every once in a while, though, the Gilligans see an item go for way more than expected, like a Stickley corner cupboard that sold for $390,000 — almost 100 times more than projected. And then there’s the Mustang. “That was pretty unique,” says Gilligan. “That was the only auction in my life I was worried about how many people were going to come instead of worrying about getting enough people to be there.”

Father and son pose in their barn. Father and son pose in their barn.

The 1969 Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500 428 Cobra Jet was a seldom driven, largely untouched relic that attracted buyers from all over, crashed Gilligan’s website and garnered national attention. Diane Sawyer did a 36- second piece on ABC World News, and WTAJ-TV reporter Mallory Lane led into the news at noon with an interview with Gilligan, who couldn’t pass up the opportunity and had his dad sell the house he was supposed to sell at noon. “It was unbelievable the number of people there,” he says. While some just came to watch, many were there to bid, driving up the price to the eventual $280,000.

Selling that one-of-a-kind car was fun, but what Gilligan probably likes best, he says, is selling real estate. “We auction an awful, awful lot of real estate around here,” he says. “That’s our bread and butter,” to the tune of $5 to 6 million worth every year. “I really enjoy getting a place to sell, the challenge of selling it, the challenge of having an open house, getting people there, and dealing with the questions. It’s not just holding up a $10 plate and getting $11 for it.”

Part of that challenge is getting people to show up, and that’s not just for the real estate auctions. “The people that were growing up going to auctions as a recreational thing and to buy some things and to eat some pie and talk with the neighbors, they’ve died,” he says. “That’s a shame, but that’s just a fact of life.” He says online auction sites haven’t cut into their business — after all, a local auction offers something different. “People can come, get their hands on it, enjoy their day, get something to eat, take it home, and it’s all done.”

Gilligan travels all around Centre County, and sometimes outside of it, but because of the family’s reputation, the business is personal. “It’s not like we just rolled in from out of town,” he says. “We’ve been here a long time and people know us.”

His parents are lifetime State College residents, and now his two sons, R.P., 7, and T.J., almost 3, with wife Megan, are part of the legacy. “The little elementary school here in Pine Grove Mills, my dad went to it, I went to it, and my son goes to it. It’s great. We’re a family business, we’re local, and people trust us.” •SCM

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