Machinery Auctions Off the Stand, with Robert Levy (Part I)—EP. 145

By Noah Graff

Today’s episode is Part I of a two part interview with Robert Levy, President of Robert Levy Associates. Robert has been an industrial auctioneer for 44 years and knows more about the auction business than anyone I’ve met. Auctions are fascinating and sometimes mysterious to me, so my goal in this interview was to get a glimpse into the head of a person masterminding these events.

We first interviewed Robert back in 2018, our sixth podcast ever. After three and a half years and 139 episodes, it’s obvious that the used machinery market and the auction world have changed. Robert hasn’t been on the live auction stand in two years, that’s after over 40 previous years when he often averaged doing two live sales per week.

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When I spoke to him last Friday, Robert had just finished a successful online-only sale of Duffin Manufacturing, in which he partnered with Miedema’s Orbitbid. The sale was a sign of the times. People bid from the comfort of their living rooms, rather than brave COVID-19 and Ohio in January. Multi-spindle New Britains and Acme-Gridleys sold for half the price of Winter thread rolling attachments. On other hand, two 10-year-old OKUMA CNC lathes and two late model Tsugamis brought over $500,000.

Robert started the interview telling me about his father’s auction company, Norman Levy Associates, founded in 1951. Robert says his father, Norman, cleaned up the industrial auction business, which was marred by corruption. Norman wanted to create an auction experience where regular people had a chance at getting a bargain and where the auction process was considered a respectable way for legitimate companies to turn equipment into cash. 

Robert and his brother went into the auction business in the ’80s and built the family’s company into a global enterprise. Robert admits that back in those days, auctions were often dominated by dealers, like my company, Graff-Pinkert, who knew where all the sales were and had more ability to travel then many endusers. 

In the late ‘90s, with advent of the Internet, the auction world was turned on its head. Everyone with an eBay account considered themselves an auctioneer. People from all over the world suddenly could bid simultaneously on a sale in a remote corner of the earth. Endusers everywhere could be instantaneously notified when new interesting equipment went up for sale. 

Also, the resources necessary to become an industrial auctioneer became more accessible in the last 15-20 years. This led to many used machine tool dealers starting their own auction companies. Robert and other auctioneers often have told me that used machinery dealers who are also auctioneers run into conflicts of interest during sales. He believes that when bidders know a dealer is behind a sale, they don’t feel like they have a fair chance to get good deals, so the sale suffers.

I understand the theory, but as a dealer myself, I’ve often wondered if this is just a case of auctioneers trying to hold onto their turf. I understand the temptation of my peers to be both dealers and auctioneers. If Graff-Pinkert were to find a company that wanted to sell its assets and we had the resources to organize and advertise a sale, why would we want to give a piece of the action to someone else? Robert admitted to me that he could understand where I was coming from, and I will admit that Graff-Pinkert has been quite successful partnering with auctioneers, who have expertise, resources, and infrastructure that allow us to focus on what we do best.

It’s beautiful to observe someone so passionate about their craft, like Robert. I can spot a little smile when he talks about being on the stand, where he lit up shops for over 40 years. He says he sees himself as a kind of engineer when he makes a deal with a client and then conducts the actual auction. The night before a sale, he walks the shop, scoping it out, so he will be ready when he needs to improvise, perhaps combining items or changing the order of lots if he needs to shift the momentum of bidding. Still, as much as he misses the stand, for the Duffin auction last week, Robert suggested to his client that the way to get the best return would be an online-only sale.

What I found most interesting in this interview was how much purpose Robert says he has in his vocation. He told me several stories about how great he felt when helped good people maximize the value of their assets. Interestingly, he also talked about his desire to create fair opportunities for buyers. Balancing those two intentions seems like a difficult high wire act. Can an auctioneer really look out for both buyers and sellers? 

You will have to tune into Part II of this podcast interview to judge for yourself.

Question: What’s the best deal you ever got at an auction?

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6 thoughts on “Machinery Auctions Off the Stand, with Robert Levy (Part I)—EP. 145

  1. Steve Lochmoeller

    Many years ago, I bought an antique desktop balance beam scale at an auction but did not bid on it. A dealer by the name of Friedman was the only bidder and he bought it for $1. I knew he was a flipper so I offered to double his money in a couple of minutes and handed him $2. We were both happy. I still have and use that scale which is still quite accurate.

  2. Robert Ducanis

    Bought at auction a like-new Brown & Sharpe #585 master height gage for $5. The digital numbers did not work. All it needed was a small geared rubber band that was broken. Bought the replacement from B&S for maybe $10.

    Also, on an eBay auction, I purchased a 1 year old, PRAB self-contained chip processing system for $5100. We had priced the same system a year previously for approx. $92K. The system came out of a major hand-tool facility in the SE and we sent our own tractor-trailer rig and picked it up. Back in those days, others could find out who the winner was of the eBay auction. I had a guy call me up and offer $15K for the system. I told him no thanks. I was going to bid a max of $25K for the system. I was surprised I won it at $5100. Auction ended over the weekend, so maybe others were not at work to bid, but I used one of those ‘sniping’ services which would put in a last second bid up to your max amount. Bought a lot of tooling using that sniping system.

  3. Tom Hogge

    I purchased little over 50 gran at the Duffin Auction . I had called Mr. levy prior he came across on the phone just as you have written. Straight Forward , Gentleman.
    I was very pleased with the prices i paid on the equipment i purchased .
    Mostly New Britain Screwmachines Tooling for them. Some Centerless Grinders, Parts washer systems Etc.
    Due to the lousy weather. Ice storm , Power outages which is unusual in South Carolina. I did not get a chance to fly up and pre inspect .
    But Prices I paid regardless, still very content .
    That is until I got a quote on the rigging !!! Nearly as much as what I paid for the Machines . Still working on that .
    Plan B I may be in the market For a good Used 20,000 pound Fork lift . And with Proper Authorization Have it delivered to the auction site .
    Road trip with My Maintenance crew .
    So some advise if You plan to bid. Make sure You Get Prices on Rigging loading fees prior .
    I started to bid on the Late Model C.N.C. Machines .
    I thought they went very reasonable as Well. Glad I passed on them?
    Will follow up on the End result of my best purchase . T.B.D.

    1. Robert

      I remember speaking with you before the sale. I appreciate you being there and I am glad I could help. I do understand about the rigging prices and your suggestion about getting prices before bidding is a great suggestion. It seems that we (the auction industry) are experiencing a bit of a blip on removal pricing, as we are seeing prices on most things a bit higher than normal. Feel free to get more prices and we will be happy for you to remove your purchases as well. We just need proof of insurance, that’s all.
      Happy to help, so feel free to call me.
      All the best

  4. Rich Reitz

    Yes, For years we have had good success at auctions, and remember the day when buyers premium was 5% Then they changed it a touch higher. Once that happened the flood gates opened. Duffin’s auction was 21% with a 3% discount for cash / wire transfer.

    1. Robert Ducanis

      @ Rich Reitz

      Rich, you forget about the days when the ‘seller’ paid the premium.
      You have to have a calculator in your head these days to factor in the premium, the taxes, the rigging, the shipping….

      I would imagine 10 & 15 ton Acmes cost more to move than what they are worth. Heaven help you if you happen to bid on a 6″ RB-6. I think those big boys top out at around 70,000 lbs. But the majority of them probably ended up at the scrap dealers many years ago.


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