STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) – A slow economy and changing tastes are resulting in smaller crowds at auction houses and more conservative bids from buyers of antiques and collectibles, the operators of several facilities say.

Although high-end items such as rare paintings and furnishings still draw big bids – particularly from well-heeled European and Asian buyers – the auction house operators say interest in mid-level items is lagging.

Some attribute it to the weak housing market, competition from online sellers and higher prices for everything from food to fuel.

“People aren’t out spending like they used to. Decorative items are selling for a fraction of what they have in the past,” said Gary Braswell, owner of Stamford Auction Gallery in Norwalk.

An item that sold for $1,000 last year might fetch only $400 this year, he said.

Some auction houses in lower Fairfield County say they have cut back on their auctions, while others say they are offering incentives for bidders such as removing “reserves,” or minimum acceptable bids.

As the economy improves and gasoline prices drop, though, auction houses should see improved business, said Nick Perna, economic adviser to Webster Bank and lecturer in economics at Yale University.

“The economy is going to affect your business if you sell stuff that’s pretty discretionary, and your customers may have limited funds,” Perna said. “People may ask, ‘Can I afford to spend $200 on an antique wash basin when I just got my contract from my oil company?”‘

In wealthy areas of lower Fairfield County, demographics also may be contributing to the auction house malaise.

“Young people aren’t going to auctions to buy items to furnish their homes,” said James Lipton, owner of Appraisers Associates of New York and Connecticut Inc., which has offices in New York City and Easton.

Instead, they are shopping at mainline retailers.

Travis Worrell, who runs Westport Auction with partner Kate Wanamaker, said summers usually are slow, but that gas prices have exacerbated it by cutting down on out-of-state visitors.

However, some items are commanding higher prices and attracting enthusiastic bidders, he said, particularly 1950s-era furniture and vintage industrial furniture.

“It’s going up every day,” Worrell said.

Christine Downing, who operates C. Downing Antiques in Norwalk, said not all items at antiques auctions are producing disappointing numbers.

“The art market is very strong. We sold a painting for $36,000 and another for $22,000,” she said, adding that unusual items are finding buyers. “Things that are easy to find are suffering from globalization of our industry.”

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