It's not even 9 a.m. on an otherwise sleepy Atlanta Sunday in early summer, but already a healthy line is forming outside the yellow warehouse that houses Gallery 63 in the city's Buckhead neighborhood. As parking attendants wrangle the growing swell of cars in the adjacent parking lot, the crowd is buzzing with happy anticipation, suggesting a sporting event, not an auction, is in the offing.
Welcome to the world of "Auction Kings," the hit Discovery Channel reality series that starts its sophomore season on Tuesday, Aug. 9. Tapping into America's growing fascination with bidding and selling, especially with the kind of quirky and distinctive items gallery owner Paul Brown specializes in, the show was an instant success when it premiered last October, moving Discovery to order 26 additional episodes for the new season.
Inside the building, just minutes before the doors open, Brown and his staff make last-minute adjustments to the auction room, which looks like someone's improbable fantasy hoard. A hot-air balloon hangs from the rafters, and hot rods sit on a loading dock just outside. Vintage movie posters are prominently displayed, and on this particular Sunday, several items from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. -- including Russian cosmonaut suits and an autographed poster featuring some NASA legends -- await their moment under the hammer.
"A gallery tends to take on the personality of whoever is running it, and I, for whatever reason, am drawn to quirky, oddball things," Brown explains. "When you begin selling something like African tribal art or antique ivory -- really cool stuff -- word starts to get out and then builds on itself. Soon you're the go-to guy for weird stuff, and there really aren't a lot of outlets, or even book value, for a lot of the stuff I sell."
That's certainly true of three items spotlighted in the season premiere: a Ty Cobb tobacco tin dating from the early 1900s, one of only 10 or so in the world; a vintage 1943 Harley-Davidson motorcycle; and a 19th-century lady gambler's watch with a concealed pistol.
The doors have opened now in advance of the 11 a.m. start time, and the crowd, definitely dressed for comfort over style in most cases, surges inside to claim preferred seats, either on the floor or in a bank of bleachers toward the back. There's food on hand ranging from shrimp and grits to barbecue and hot dogs and Gallery 63 T-shirts for sale, but many visitors are focused on getting their pictures taken with an accommodating but mildly stunned Cindy Shook, the tough but friendly office manager.
"It's been a shocker when people recognize me, and it has taken some getting used to, because I am just a normal person, just like anybody else," she says later. "They like to see that you are just the same as you are on TV, because I'm not an actress. I end up giggling and tell them they're crazy. It's hard to get used to, because I've always been in the back, doing the work. Now that they see what I do, they kind of like it, and I hope that will be good for auction houses everywhere and it gets people interested in antiques again."
It's that passion for these items that has kept Brown working in a field he entered "temporarily" 18 years ago, when he had to abandon his graduate-school plans to be an English teacher and novelist to earn money for the baby he and his wife were expecting. Starting out in his father's business at Atlanta's Red Baron auction house, he eventually branched out on his own with Gallery 63 in 2005.
His success caught the attention of Authentic Entertainment, a California-based production company that was considering doing a reality program set in an auction house. Discovery bought the show, then quickly expanded the first season episode order from two to 20. After "Auction Kings" premiered last fall, Brown and Shook realized their lives had undergone a major change.
"We had our next auction about three weeks after the show hit," Brown says. "I come bopping in about 9 a.m. as usual and turn into our driveway and there were literally -- if I am lyin', I'm dyin' -- about 500 people lined up all the way from our building, at least four or five wide, all the way to Roswell Road, and then it T's off and goes north and south, all people waiting to get in. I am sitting there in the car with my mouth down around my kneecap."
"When I walked outside at 8:30 and saw that line, I just started crying," Shook recalls. "A good cry, a happy cry, because I could not believe it. I felt overwhelmed that the show had affected our business so overwhelmingly. The original spirit is still there, because it's always been like putting on a show anyway. You have to keep the audience busy, and when there are more people to play, it makes it twice as much fun."
Tracking this fun can be a challenge for executive producer Jeff Weaver, who routinely keeps up to nine cameras running to capture the action.
"(The auctions) are fast and furious and exciting and confusing and at times overwhelming," he explains. "A lot of auctions only last for one or two minutes, some even less than that, so we have to make sure we have enough footage to be able to edit together that story and tell it well. I have seen our camera teams and assistants and our audio guys holding a tripod handle with one hand and having a sandwich in the other. It's sort of like a giant boulder rolling downhill that can't be stopped."
But Brown knows the secret to his success is giving his crowds a good time.
"The atmosphere that we try to create is a party. We're not conservative or stuffy," he says. "I wear shorts and a T-shirt, as does my staff. We want people to be comfortable and engaged in a social situation. I went to an auction at a well-known New York auction house where there were paintings selling for up to $6 million, and there was property from Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. This was ultra-ultra-high-end, and do you know how many people were in the room? Seventeen. It was snoresville, with no one really paying much attention. They made a lot of money, but it would not have made good TV. It was like watching paint dry."