Sam and his wife Cindy run Cottone Auctions in Geneseo, NY. Off the beaten track, Cottone’s is the Christie’s in cow country, our areas successful answer to the auction houses of New York City & London. Treasures long tucked away in local homes have yielded big bucks – nearly 1.5 million for marble busts by Jean Antoine Houdon last year, $138,000 last month for a Tiffany lamp. “We’re under the radar,” says Sam Cottone. “It’s amazing we can make it all happen here”. And it’s still happening despite Covid19 and setbacks spurred on by the pandemic.
In 1979, Sam Cottone started a small furniture refinishing business in Mount Morris, NY while holding down a second job, bagging salt at the nearby mine in Retsof. He was a regular at area farm and estate auctions, training his eye while scouring the sales for antique furniture and works of art. Soon after, he decided to go to auctioneers’ school in Massachusetts and would start running his own auctions in 1985.
Cottone would drive all around western New York collecting pieces from prominent estates that had stayed in families for generations to bring back to his shop. Initially, he would rent space from a local party house to run his sales. Later he purchased a defunct car dealership in Geneseo, New York, that he would remodel and repurpose as his new auction house and gallery.
“You’ve got good things going for good money,” says Michael Watts, an antique dealer from Big Flats, near Corning. “In upstate New York, no auctions have the quality Sam puts together. He’s the man.”
Kelly Schultz, a dealer from Clarence, agrees. “Sam has built up a good following,” he says. “He’s a straight shooter and he’s very knowledgeable… Sam’s a 100 percenter. If he tells you something, you can count on it.”
Auctions aren’t market proof, but in Schultz’s opinion, downturns in the economy hurt the low end of the business more than the high end.
Prior to the pandemic, there were usually between 200 and 300 people in the room at Cottone auctions. Some bid, some just watch. Bids also come in by way of phone and internet. “It’s a spectacle,” Cottone says. “They’re just here to see the excitement in the air and to see these great objects that never pass through this area again. It’s like going to a museum where everything is for sale.”
It’s exciting, but low-key and understated, as well. “People are very unpretentious in this business. But, knowledge is power. You come in blue jeans but you know what you’re looking at.”
“Part of the excitement of an auction is getting into the horse race of it” Cottone says. While Cottone is the face of the auction, his wife and their children and other people from the area usually work the phones, relaying bids from out-of-town buyers. Son Matt, is a full-time employee of the business, having gone along with his dad on trips since he was a child. He now goes on many of the house calls and closes deals on potential consignments.
Sellers could go elsewhere, to the bigger auction houses, but Cottone notes that the same customers who search the catalogs of those in internationally known auction houses also search his. “The world is flat. It’s a different ball game,” says Cottone. If the world is flat it’s also strapped. People who had money now need money, which might prompt more people to decide to sell their art and antiques. But will there be buyers?
There was last March. The economy was on life support, but a relatively routine Cottone Auction took in $1.5 million.
“There are people who are passionate about collecting,” Cottone says. “They seem to always have money. Good art objects don’t go out of style”