Head of the House
Photos courtesy Morphy Auctions
Dan Morphy had the good fortune to grow up in a collecting family. His physician father, Dr. John C. Morphy Sr., and his mother, Janet, took him along on the antiques trail, and Dan began acquiring and dealing his favorite specialties as a very young man. Contemplating a career in pharmaceutical sales, he graduated from Penn State in 1995 with a B.S. in biology and a minor in business. But he soon found himself the owner of his own antiques gallery, fully engaged in the trade. Today, as president of Morphy Auctions, he oversees 36 sales a year at full-service facilities in Denver, Pennsylvania, and Las Vegas, Nevada.
What did you start out collecting?
“Actually, at a young age, I got into coins—that was when I was eight or nine years old. Then into baseball cards at ten, eleven, and twelve. Then into marbles, fishing lures, and banks. I started with still banks and went into mechanical banks. By the age of sixteen, I was brokering collections for numerous collectors in the Pittsburgh area, and from there I branched out into many different arenas.”
Antique mechanical and still banks were one of Dan Morphy’s earliest collecting interests and remain an important element in his toy auctions. This example of a cast-iron Mikado bank by Kyser & Rex sold for $287,500 in the auction of the Steckbeck collection in 2007. A blue-base variant of the bank brought $198,000 in 2012.
When did you begin setting up at shows?
“I was setting up at the Antiques Fair in the Meadows in Washington, Pennsylvania, at the age of twelve or thirteen. It was an outdoor show—my dad would drop me off at five a.m. before he went to the hospital to make his rounds. The Atlantique City show, run by Norm Schaut, started in 1986, when I was fourteen or fifteen, and when that show began, that was it. I did it from the first year with my parents, and we were off and running. The game was, who could buy the most on the floor and sell it the same day. To this day, the Atlantique City antiques show—in my opinion—was one of the greatest shows. Norm was very particular about his dealers and ran a tight show, and because of that, it was a fantastic venue. Atlantique City helped make a lot of people what they are today—good dealers, collectors, and knowledgeable buyers. I looked forward to every show.”
When did you open your own business?
“We opened the Adamstown Antique Gallery, an antique co-op, in 1997. I stuck with quality only, and after being open one year, I think I had one of the best antiques shops in the country. We had a very good name for ourselves; business was fantastic; we were fully rented. I was still buying and selling—early advertising and toys were my favorite categories—but I dabbled in everything. I would act as a broker for Kentucky rifles or stoneware or marbles. I brokered the largest head vase collection ever—2000 examples. I sold it for $150,000—they were really hot back then.
“Then, three years after opening, eBay hit the platform hard around 2000; it really hurt the co-ops. So, what I did, I listed three pieces a month for my dealers on eBay. I hired high school kids to come in and do the listings. Soon, we were doing a thousand pieces a month; we were one of the biggest names on there. Then eBay started raising their fees, and I saw many of the collections I’d helped build over the years going to auction.
“So we decided to open our own auction house in 2004. We did two sales the first year. Our first auction was a toy sale that did a little over a million dollars, and that got a lot of publicity. From two sales in 2004, we now do thirty-six events a year, and they’re all hardbound catalog premier sales. My first year, we did $2 million in sales; five years ago we did $20 million; last year we did $40 million.”
Morphy Auctions now has two sales venues—the original headquarters (shown here) in Denver, Pennsylvania, and a showroom in Las Vegas, where the firm holds sales in coin-op, gambling, advertising, and auto-related fields.
You now have many different specialized departments—when did you add automobilia and petroliana?
“Four years ago. I’ve always said, a division is only as good as the expert you have to head up that division. So one of the things that I really keyed in on is bringing in what I consider the foremost experts within those different categories. In the gas and oil division, I have John Mihovetz and Chris Hall, who are highly respected guys in the industry. In my firearms division, I have Dave Bushing, David Geiger, and Scot Kauffman, who are the top guys. I just opened a sports memorabilia division this year with Kevin Bronson and Tommy Sage Jr. These are all people who work for me full time, but in special categories, I’ll also bring in respected authorities in those fields on a subcontractor basis to do the descriptions, condition reports, and estimates.”
A dapper Dan Morphy stands beside the 1929 Duesenberg Model J convertible coupe with rumble seat that sold for $2,530,000 in the October 2015 automobile sale.
This porcelain Kelly Tires sign (42" diameter), featuring driver “Lotta Miles,” sold for $88,450 in the July 2016 automobilia and petroliana auction.
What are your strongest departments right now?
“I think the top three would be firearms, petroliana or oil and gas advertising, and then coin-op and gambling. We have a second location in Las Vegas, and we’re the only show in town for those specialties. I purchased my biggest competitor, Victorian Casino Antiques, merged them into our operation, then took that specialty to the next level. We’re doing $10 million a year in coin-op and gambling in Las Vegas. Some guys only collect penny arcade, some only collect gambling, some only collect music boxes or jukeboxes. We sold an early roulette slot machine for $300,000. We sold an orchestrion music box for $1.02 million last year. That was a world record. Here in Pennsylvania, we sold a 1929 Duesenberg Model J automobile for $2.5 million, the highest-selling lot since I was up and running.”
This bowie knife from the 1860s, made by Samuel Bell of San Antonio, brought $113,775 in the June firearms, militaria, sporting, and fishing auction.
Top lot of the January 2017 Las Vegas sale of the Barry Goldfarb collection of coin-op and gambling was this Mills 5¢ floor model roulette slot machine, which brought $289,050.
This pocket watch with decorative additions of gold quartz brought $45,510 in the January auction of Western gold rush material.
Morphy also holds traditional fine and decorative arts auctions at the Pennsylvania location. A group of Tiffany Studios lighting offered in September 2016 included this Dragonfly lamp, marked on the shade and tree trunk base, which sold for $153,750.
This completely restored 125-key dance organ made in the 1920s by Gaudin & Cie. of Paris sold for $1,020,000 in the October 2016 coin-op and advertising sale in Las Vegas.
What do you see developing in the future?
“I’m a glutton for opportunity, if that makes sense. In a nutshell, I have the best staff in the world. I have sixty-five of the most devoted, most positive employees that anybody could ask for—they’re my extended family. I owe it to them to continue to grow and prosper and do it right. I see opportunities in other categories that I don’t see being represented properly. My greatest enjoyment is going into these new categories and bringing together the right team to build it and represent it. I enjoy that, and there’s enough out there for everyone in all categories.
“We are a true auction house when it comes to representation and promotion. I enjoy the marketing aspect of it. People like how we do things, plain and simple. I spent tens of thousands of dollars developing my customer service department. I sent multiple employees, including my COO, to the Disney Institute, to their school of customer service—it pays off. The other big factor is the role of the Internet in today’s auctions. We have a very big Internet presence. We use four different live bidding platforms in all of our sales—I don’t know anybody else who does that. That said, people depend on the accuracy of your descriptions and condition reports, more so today than they did five years ago, because they’re not coming to examine things in person. The photography and descriptions must be accurate.”
Since your auctions are live as well as online, who’s on the podium?
“I do have my license, and I’m up there from time to time, but I have two people in house. They’re still apprentices working under me—Shaye Krispine and Aidan Heining. They’re fantastic; they’re better than me. They keep a good pace; they’re easy to understand; they’re great auctioneers.”
Where would you like to see yourself five years from now?
“On a beach? I do travel a lot, and travel is tiring. Every time I travel, however, I get deals and build business, so there’s pressure on me to continue to go out there. For example, today I left at 5 a.m., drove to Pittsburgh, met with a consignor, and got back at 7 p.m. But I love doing the deals. I’m addicted to the business. Collectors in different fields have distinct personalities, and certain categories draw very interesting, energetic collectors. I always tell my potential consignors that we do not guarantee prices, but I guarantee them that anybody who collects—let’s say—fishing lures worldwide will know that fishing lures are being sold. That demonstrates our marketing, and that should be the consignors’ principal concern—we put the lots in front of the right set of eyes.”
“Head of the House”explores the founder, forte, and future of major American auction houses. In his or her own words, the current president explains how the business began, which specialties have been most successful, and what new trends are influencing the marketplace.
Originally published in the November 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest