COVINGTON COUNTY — Twice a month, hundreds of antique dealers and individual buyers with open checkbooks and trailer hitches clog the rural highways and back roads emanating from the tiny town of Seminary to bid on antiques and furnishings from Europe.
This unlikely destination is the site of arguably the state’s largest antiques auction. Six containers a month are shipped from England and France; four full-time drivers deliver the goods throughout Mississippi, southern Louisiana and western Alabama. And even though European Antique Auction Gallery owner David Anscombe has built this business from scratch in only five years, he promises there’s more to come.
“I won’t tip my hat, but we’re not done by a long shot,” said Anscombe, in a British accent that sounds out of place in the land of “y’alls.”
Anscombe’s improbable journey to the outskirts of Seminary, located between Jackson and Hattiesburg on U.S. 49, began in the countryside of Sussex, England, where he worked on various farms as a teenager cutting pulpwood by hand.
By the time he was 19, he had his own business, and within a year, 10 guys were cutting pulpwood for him. He acquired a rundown sawmill and equipment to produce fencing material, and the business morphed into a fence erecting company. “I cut out all the middle men,” he said. “I bought the trees, cut them and hauled the logs to our saw mill, manufactured the posts and erected the fences on site.”
Soon, the company had quite a few road contracts, which attracted the eye of a larger firm that snapped up the business when Anscombe was 27. He parlayed that money into a farm equipment trading business. “I bought used and very nearly new shop-soiled tractors and sold them to farmers and dealers all over Europe,” he explained. “The poor quality ones, I shipped to Malaysia and Thailand.”
In the fall of 1999, tired of doing business under strict English laws and itching to travel after enduring a divorce, Anscombe headed to the U.S. and began touring the Deep South. He targeted four states — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas — without having a clue what he planned to do or where he wanted to settle down.
“I checked into the Cabot Lodge Hotel in Hattiesburg for the weekend and stayed four months,” he said. “I got to know a lot of people during that time and heard about a two-year-old house and 12.5 acres for sale outside of Seminary. I came over here on a Saturday morning, looked at it, liked it, negotiated a deal and bought the thing.”
That was in November 2000, when Anscombe still wasn’t certain what he planned to do. Mad cow disease had ravaged England and a one-year ban had been placed on all used farm equipment there. Then he spoke to an auctioneer who told him, “If you could get your hands on some of this furniture over here, you could sell it to dealers over there and have yourself a good business,” he recalled.
Initially, Anscombe traveled to Europe, bought furniture at auctions, loaded the containers himself, and then hopped on a plane to await the container’s arrival. In 2001, he built an auction house to accommodate the increasingly voluminous inventory being imported.
Now, three or four people buy antiques for him in England. His auctioneer and appraiser, Jennings Gilmore, travels to France every two or three months to handpick furniture from the French countryside.
“I send Jennings over there with a note and a check and I never see what he gets until the container arrives some weeks later,” said Anscombe. “But I’ve not been disappointed yet. I trust these guys. The boys in England worked for me in the tractor industry and we’ve learned about this business together. We were complete novices when we started.”
Weekly shipments from England and biweekly shipments from France include just about everything needed in a house, from cupboards and sofas to dinnerware, ottomans and occasional tables. Antiques primarily range from the late 1800s to 1920 and a few gems date to the early to mid-1600s. Business has been exceptionally brisk during the post-Katrina recovery phase.
“Our objective was to supply affordable antique furniture to the everyday person,” he said. “And that’s what we do. Our furniture is solid wood, not stuff made out of sawdust. It’s going to last and probably go up in value.”
Every other Saturday, Anscombe holds an auction at 4:30 p.m., opening the doors at 9:30 a.m. to give the hundreds of antique dealers and individuals an opportunity to peruse each item. (Dealers only may shop in an adjacent sale barn that features imported quality household furnishings but excludes the finer antiques.)
“I want people to examine the pieces and make sure they’re happy, and if something’s got a scratch on it, I want them to know it before they buy it,” he said. His method of sealed bids includes giving customers a lower price if the bidding stops early. “If I have a sealed bid for $1,000 and Jennings stops the bidding at $500 in $50 increments, then the price would be $550. That kind of thing happens at every auction, not just for dealers, but also for individuals. That’s trust.”
Anscombe offers another popular service that’s rare among auction houses. He delivers goods free to all dealers within a 150-mile radius, and charges only $50 to individuals for “anything from one piece to 20,” he said. And because antiques dealers and individual buyers are primarily women, his delivery team arranges the furniture onsite at their direction. “We don’t mind doing that because we don’t think ladies should have to struggle to try to move things around, especially when our guys are trained how to handle these pieces,” he said. “Our customers are very loyal, and even with high fuel prices and the extra time involved, it’s worth it.”
Barbara Cranford, who owns Barb’s Antiques in Seminary, said she opened a store on Main Street “only because of David.”
“I started out buying a few items and selling them from my carport in Seminary,” she said. “Then it made sense to open a store on Main Street, which is on Highway 590 that leads to David’s place. Having him close by is so convenient, and the way he takes care of us makes it easy to do business. Now I buy everything from him, plus I catch customers on their way to the auction who like to drop by and see what I’ve got. David’s helped me in business from both ends.”
Anscombe’s perspective on female dealers might be linked to his wife, Sally, whom he met in January 2001 and married six months later. The couple operates European Auction as a team; she handles the administrative duties “and sometimes I interpret his English for us Southerners,” she said, with a chuckle.
Last July, he opened a location on U.S. 61 in Woodville, and rotates Saturday auctions between the two sites. This year, he expects to accrue about $3 million in sales, which he noted “isn’t bad from a cold start.”
‘…prepared to work, you’ll succeed’
Doing business in the U.S. is much easier than in Great Britain, Anscombe pointed out. “People don’t realize how difficult it is to do business there,” he said. “Even with the high gas prices at the moment, the government and tax laws here make it so that if you’re prepared to work, you’ll succeed.”
Concerning doing business in a very rural location, which requires traveling down winding country roads that seemingly have no end, Anscombe laughed and said, “I love it here. I’m in awe of the place. The roads are good, the people are nice, and business is good. It’s just a bit too hot three months of the year, but for nine months of the year, it’s heaven on earth.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.