Traveling through Nebraska, especially during the fall, it quickly becomes apparent its residents are preoccupied with one thing: Cornhusker football. Auctioneers think twice before scheduling a sale on a Saturday afternoon when the University of Nebraska football team is playing. The Huskers are always tough competition.
“You can’t be one of 1.8-million people in Nebraska and not be a fan of the Cornhuskers, you understand,” said Don Ficke of Ficke & Ficke Auctioneers in Lincoln. Before joining his father, E.W. Ficke, in the auction business in 1959, Don attended the University of Nebraska on a track-and-field scholarship. Coach Frank Savigne, who built the Huskers’ track program into a national powerhouse, recruited Ficke to run the quarter mile. “So I got myself through school on an athletic scholarship, which I’m very proud of,” said Ficke, who earned varsity letters in 1956 and ’57.
Ficke’s association with his alma mater continues as he regularly conducts auctions of surplus equipment for the university. His business associate, auctioneer Bud Callahan, is also a University of Nebraska graduate, but no relation to Cornhuskers football coach Bill Callahan. Ficke and Callahan occasionally travel to neighboring states to sell real estate and personal property, but conduct the bulk of their auctions in eastern Nebraska.
“There are a lot of strong buyers in this area. Collectibles and antiques of all kinds sell pretty well here,” said Ficke. An example he cited was the auction last summer of the Luther Ribblet estate. “He was a single guy who never married and developed a taste for antiques — art glass, art pottery — just some interesting items,” said Ficke.
“When he died he left word for his personal representative to contact our office to liquidate what he had, except for about 90 of his best items, which were placed on consignment with a concern in Ohio. The 90 items consigned to Ohio did well, but the personal representative told us later the way the estate sold here in Lincoln, those 90 items would have done just as well here. It was quite an auction, one of the finer sales held here in a long time,” said Ficke, who figures he has conducted approximately 5,000 auctions over the past 45 years.
Another auction company that has become a fixture in eastern Nebraska is Omaha Auction Center. Joella Cohen established the company in her hometown when she tired of running the show circuit. “I used to have an antique shop in my house and I did the big antique shows around the country. I got too old and too tired to do that by myself,” she said.
With assistance of longtime associate Rodney Crawford, Cohen has operated her antique shop and auction gallery at 7531 Dodge St. in Omaha for 28 years. Omaha Auction Center conducts monthly antique auctions, but only as the quality of merchandise warrants. “We try to keep our quality levels high, at least for this area, because our shop has high-end stuff,” said Cohen. Her two-day auction in December featured a large collection of antique advertising signs. Two household auctions a month, the first and third Wednesday, dispense used furniture and other commonly found furnishings.
With membership in two national associations and more than 30 years of experience, Cohen is one of the foremost appraisers in Omaha. “All my staff are knowledgeable and nice. We started out as the new kid in town and now we consider ourselves the patriarchs,” said Cohen.
Russ Moravec of rural David City has been an auctioneer for 25 years, auctioning automobiles during the week in Omaha, and teaming on weekends with veteran auctioneer Rick Grubaugh, a full-time real estate broker in nearby Columbus. Moravec got his start as an auctioneer working for Grubaugh’s father, Marv, in 1981.
“Marv and his brother, Dick, were in the auction business since 1946,” said Moravec, now the head of an auctioneer family. His wife, Diane, is an equal partner in Auctions by Moravec-Grubaugh. Their oldest son, Matt, is an auto auctioneer, who has worked for Mecum Collector Car Auctioneers and done benefit auctions for the Juvenile Diabetes Association. Middle son, Jon, is the head clerk and cashier. Trev, their youngest son, is a recent high-school graduate and auctioneer. Both Matt and Trev were finalists in the International Auctioneers Championship at the NAA conference last summer.
Moravec said the number of auctions they conducted in 2006 was down slightly from previous years, but only because they were more selective. “Rick once in a while would sell a house and the people needed to have an auction real quick just to clean up things. We got out of doing that unless it was an auction worth doing,” said Moravec. He said their last major collection of antiques came from an estate in Spencer, a small town in northern Nebraska, in 2005. The estate took four days to sell. Moravec and Grubaugh’s next big auction will be for Grubaugh’s uncle, the former auctioneer who has moved to a care facility. The sale will be Feb. 24-25 in David City.
Large antique malls have flourished along Nebraska’s lone interstate highway, I-80, especially near Omaha and Lincoln. Miriam and Ron Simpson constructed a large building adjacent to Exit 420 for their Platte Valley Antique Mall, which they have operated for 11 years. Their 180 dealers stock only antiques and vintage collectibles — no reproductions, new collectibles or new crafts — “because that’s what an antique mall should be,” said Miriam.
“I have a professional staff and we specialize in old-fashioned service. All my gals are interested in antiques. As they walk around they know where things are so they can help customers find what they’re looking for,” said Miriam. Booth spaces are 10 by 10 feet and 8 by 10 feet, which are well suited for furniture and attractive displays.
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Platte Valley Antique Mall even has a cafe and pub, which serves homemade sandwiches along with beer, wine and mixed drinks. “We’re out in the country so we like to keep our customers here longer,” said Miriam.
Aardvark Antique Mall, 5800 Arbor Road, one block south of the Exit 405 off I-80 in Lincoln, celebrated its 10th anniversary in November. Managing owner Mary Essink said the milestone capped a successful year.
“We had an exceptional year. Several years ago when we had a spike in gas prices, we could tell it. This past one last year seemed like people didn’t even care. It was like, ‘Whatever, we’re going out and having fun and buying what we want,'” she said.
Selling strictly antiques and vintage collectibles, Aardvark Antique Mall has about 250 dealers and 25,000 square feet of showroom space. “It’s a large antique mall, but we have a hometown antique shop atmosphere,” said Essink. “It’s exceptionally clean and we have a knowledgeable staff that’s eager to help customers.”
While many dealers from California, Oregon and Washington regularly shop at Aardvark Antique Mall to take advantage of favorable Midwest prices, Essink said the mall has steadily built a loyal local and area clientele. “Even when it’s 10 below zero we have customers in here. They’re nuts. What can I say but we love them,” said Essink during a mid-January cold spell. Aardvark Antique Mall is open daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Dan Benes, a third-generation antique dealer, bought Q Street Antique Market, near downtown Lincoln, shortly after it opened in 1992. Located in a large brick building that was a food bank during the Great Depression, the mall’s more than 100 dealers dispense antiques from that era and earlier, everything from Art Deco to vintage fashions. “We’re one of the largest and longest-established malls in Lincoln,” said Benes, whose mother, Jo Ann Benes, owned an antique shop in Lincoln for 14 years and sold at shows. His father, Eugene Benes, is better known as Bobby Layne, leader of the Bobby Layne Orchestra, a popular dance band that still tours.
Open daily, Q Street Antique Market is l ocated at 1835 Q Street. “We take busloads of people and they can park across the street in University (of Nebraska) parking. Buses are welcome and private appointments are as well,” said Benes, who remains guarded about the economic climate in the antiques trade.
“2006 was not too bad; better than the previous years. Antique malls come and go real quick,” said Benes. “If we hadn’t been so well-established I don’t think we would have ever made it.”
Kristi’s Antiques in Lyons offers some of the finest Victorian furniture in the country for those willing to drive a few extra miles. “We’re out in Timbuktu. You can run a shop inexpensively here,” said Kristi Bacon, who with her husband, Gary, started their shop more than 30 years ago. “We started buying junk and cleaning it up and it evolved into quality antiques,” she said.
Lyons is 60 miles north of Omaha and Kristi’s Antiques is at the intersection of Main Street and U.S. Route 77 in a former service station the Bacons have expanded. In fact, they have five warehouse buildings filled with “as found,” but not rough, furniture, mostly from the 1860s to the 1920s. “It’s ready for the home, especially if you like original finish,” said Kristi. “I always tell people we deal in stuff from a hundred dollars to $20,000.” The shop is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; and open anytime for dealers, who account for about 80 percent of Kristi’s sales.
Jeanne’s Antiques near Crofton is another traditional mom-and-pop antique shop even farther from the state’s most populated region. Jeanne and Donavan Schmidt, lifelong residents of northeast Nebraska, have operated Jeanne’s Antiques for about 40 years.
The shop is contained in a large insulated steel building along State Route 12, about two hours north of Lincoln, 70 miles west of Sioux City, Iowa, and 13 miles south of Yankton, S.D.
“We like really good furniture. In the first 20 years in business we bought only furniture,” said Jeanne. Eventually the Schmidts sold smaller antiques as well. Last year Jeanne began selling sets of silver flatware they had accumulated. “I probably have 80 full sets of silverware and have identified about 500 partial sets,” she said.
A major antique show promoter in Nebraska is CAS Productions, formed 14 years ago by longtime dealer Cynthia A. Svarvari. “I was born in Kearney, raised in L.A., and lived in northern Wisconsin for 20 years. I moved back home to be with my family,” said Svarvari, whose grown son, Sage, and daughter, Cameo, help manage a slate of seven antique shows per year in Columbus, Lexington, Grand Island, Kearney and Hastings. All the shows are held indoors at fairgrounds. Additional dealers set up outdoors, weather permitting. Merchandise ranges from antiques of the early 1800s to 20th century collectibles, but no flea market fodder or new crafts. Up to 50 dealers will set up at the March 17-18 show in Columbus. One of the larger shows is Memorial weekend, May 26-27, in Lexington, where more vendors set up outdoors.
CAS Productions’ newest show is at Grand Island, the start and finish to Nebraska’s Junk Jaunt, a 220-mile excursion encompassing the entire Loup Rivers Scenic Byway and portions of the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway. The route passes through 20 towns and villages. From the inaugural Junk Jaunt in 2004, the extended yard sale has spread like a prairie fire. This year’s Junk Jaunt will be Sept. 22-24.
Threshing bees dot the Nebraska countryside in late summer. In addition to the requisite antique farm machinery demonstrations and parades are various sidelights of interest to antiquers. Among the events at the Pierce Old Time Threshing Bee at the county fairgrounds in Piece is an antique auction on Saturday morning. The 31st annual event will be Sept. 15-16.
The Old Trusty Antique Engine Show in Clay Center will celebrate its 25th anniversary Sept. 8-9. In addition to hundreds of vintage tractors, steam engines and gas engines on display, the event features a large flea market that attracts about 250 vendors.