When Tripp Kline formed Three Rivers Auction Co. 25 years ago, his plan was to help individuals and families who had lost a spouse or parent find a way to dispose of items often collected over generations that they could no longer manage.
But Kline, 57, said Monday that changing times – both in the way younger generations view family heirlooms and the proliferation of online services such as eBay and Craigslist – helped to shape his decision to exit the business.
While he’ll hold a liquidation sale June 17 to sell business-related items and a few antiques, Kline, of South Franklin Township, who is highly active in a number of local civic and charitable organizations, said the closure of the auction house doesn’t mean he’ll be backing away from those responsibilities.
He looks upon the years as an auctioneer as successful, both financially and in meeting his goal of helping people deal with the challenging decision of letting go of items often of historical and sentimental value.
“We’ve helped people who wanted to be helped … (and those) where the family sort of forced it upon them,” he said during an interview in his auction house at the corner of West Beau and Washington streets in the city.
Kline opened Three Rivers Auction in Pittsburgh but moved it to Washington in 2003.
“The business is changing,” said Kline, who as a 7-year-old was carrying items for display in his grandmother’s antique store.
The changes are both societal and technological.
Where mothers once handed down their fine china and expensive silverware to their daughters, he noted, now many in the younger generations say they don’t want items they’ll never use.
Whereas auctioneers like Kline were often asked to sell off the entire contents of a family’s house because surviving members were going off to a nursing home, now families often sell off a little at a time while they look to “downsize” by buying or renting an apartment.
Technology also has made the idea of a public auction seem quaint.
When Kline began his business in 1989, he noted there was no Internet, no eBay, Craigslist or Amazon.
“Years ago, people would call an auctioneer or have a garage sale” to sell items from a family estate.
“Now they can market things to the nation,” through the various online auction services.
It’s not that his business wasn’t successful, even with the competition from the Internet.
About a year ago, Three Rivers began holding online auctions of its own, with much financial success, but Kline said he missed the personal contact with customers and a roomful of people bidding.
“It’s impersonal. This is not why I got into this business,” he said, adding that it wasn’t always about making a sale or a commission.
One of his fondest memories is of helping one of the last surviving descendants of Col. Levi Bird Duff, a Civil War officer and Pittsburgh attorney, to dispose of many of Duff’s possessions that were stored in her Pittsburgh home.
In the process, Kline opened three wooden boxes in a dusty attic that yielded three years’ worth of highly literate, detailed letters between Duff and his fiancée, Harriet Nixon, all of which were placed in chronological order, including one dated July 3, 1863, and written from Gettysburg.
“They talked about the Emancipation Proclamation and slavery across the board,” he said of the correspondence between two well-educated people, an attorney and a schoolteacher.
While he immediately recognized the collection “could be worth thousands of dollars,” Kline ultimately received help in placing the collection with Duff’s alma mater, Allegheny College.
“It wasn’t about the money, but protecting a legacy,” he said of the Duff letters.
But Kline said he doesn’t want to stick around in a business that has become a shadow of what it once meant to him.
“It’s much like an athlete who stays for too long. I want to go out on top,” he said.
While he said he’s making plans to do other things, he said it was too early to discuss them.
But as a man who’s involved in numerous civic activities – from chairing the annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival to helping his wife, Suzanne Ewing, raise money for the Washington Farmers Market pavilion project – he’ll have plenty to keep him busy, including … auctions.
“I also will help local charities and nonprofits do auctions,” he said.
“We’re excited to be a part of the community, and that’s not going away.”