How Sir John A. Macdonald launched Little Britain’s Corneil Auctions

By Geoff Coleman

As a child, Don Corneil would pretend to auction off fence posts and mailboxes as he walked to school. The bug never really left him, and 12 years into his career at General Motors, he and his wife Sheila decided to play a hunch and enter the auction business for real.

It was 1975, and the Corneils felt an opportunity existed to help people who needed to dispose of estates. They held their first auction in the village of Columbus in Durham Region, a sale that featured books signed by Sir John A. Macdonald. In the 45 years since, two generations have seen changes in both the content and format of auctions.

Don has since died while Sheila has remained involved in the business. Their son Greg runs the day-to-day operations of the auction.

When asked how auctions have evolved, Greg said furniture is still a common offering, but that the sale prices have dropped significantly. Solid walnut dining suites for example, would realize $2,000 15 years ago, but they top out around $300 or $400 today. Similarly, since virtually every house now has closets, antique armoires sell for a small fraction of what they once did. The same goes for oak tables, dressers and wash stands.

On the other hand, LPs and advertising signs are doing well. Long-time Fenelon Falls antique dealer Bob Carruth chalks that up to the influence of television shows like American Pickers and Pawn Stars. He says items that those pickers perceive as having value during their mid-week episodes move well at Friday night auctions.

Tools, household goods and truly distinctive items have continued to sell briskly since the 1970s. Greg Corneil says Corneil’s Auctioneering Services in Little Britain has sold everything from authentic Group of Seven paintings to human skeletons to livestock. He identifies a Moorcroft vase and a peg top table (most commonly found in western Ontario) as among the more memorable items to cross the block. Both sold for more than $4,000.

Corneil observes that people today are not collectors like the previous generation, and that has also changed the business. With so much shopping done online, he reasons that many furniture purchases are made by people who don’t even enter a store, let alone an auction house. And he sees this as the impetus for another significant development in the auction game: the online auction. No longer the domain of eBay, virtually all smaller auction companies host sales online.

While Corneil’s will run Internet auctions, it is, by-and-large, a live auction venue. Greg Corneil’s regular customers often remark that they hope he doesn’t switch to online auctions exclusively. They point out there is no substitute for plugging in a radio to make sure it works, or examining a piece of china to make sure any cracks were not cleverly hidden in the photos from an auction site. Many also see live events as a social gathering as much as a business transaction, providing an opportunity to see neighbours and friends at the same time as nailing down a bargain.

Bob’s Auction Advice

With more than 30 years in the antique business locally, Fenelon Falls antique dealer Bob Carruth has some advice for people interested in feeling the adrenaline rush that comes with raising a bidding card for the first time.

  • Examine everything carefully prior to the sale for structural issues, but expect dents or scratches in something that is 100 years old.
  • Attend a few auctions before the one you want to buy at. This gets you accustomed to how things work, and provides the chance to recognize any pricing patterns that establish the current value of items.
  • Have a cost limit in your head for your item so there’s no buyer’s remorse.

Carruth says you don’t have to be an antique expert, just good at recognizing value. He adds that a quickly-growing segment of auction attendees is young people who are just establishing their homes. They see the dollar value in solid wood furnishings, and the added environmental value in reusing items.

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