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Charmed Life

Auction Hero

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By W.H. Earle | Posted 1/7/2004

Excited, anxious people crowd a conference room in the Holiday Inn Express in Timonium, and you are afraid to so much as scratch your nose. There's an auction going on, and bids for a handwritten letter from Benjamin Franklin are ricocheting off the walls. The bidding opened at $40,000, and should you so much as lift your head, you're afraid you might be dragged into the battle between a composed figure at the back of the room and an anonymous party whose bids are being relayed over the telephone.

The auctioneer's rapid-fire patter escalates as the price of the letter surpasses $50,000, past $60,000, up to $70,000. Then a brief pause before the telephone bidder ups the ante to $75,000. But the bidder at the back of the room is resolute: He goes to $80,000--and it's over. The crowd in the room finally exhales, and a modest round of applause celebrates the mere 45 seconds it took to move the item.

The winning bidder is certainly pleased, but no one in the room could be more happy than the man sitting at a table next to the auctioneer. He is Chris Bready, proprietor of the Baltimore Book Co. on North Charles Street, whose quarterly auctions of books, letters, photographs, maps, and prints have been attracting the attention of both dealers and collectors for more than 10 years.

"It's not the money," he insists. Items are offered through his auction house on consignment, and he dismisses the 15 percent buyer's premium tacked onto the purchase price of each item as a mere "keep-Chris-in-business tax." The real fun, he says, is "finding something really terrific and delivering it to somebody who really wants to have it."

The Franklin letter, the superstar in an auction Bready held last June, is a good illustration. Written after the death of one of Franklin's brothers, it turned up in a local autograph collection that Bready was asked to appraise. Most of the collection was humdrum, but the letter caught Bready's eye. His research later indicated that while the text was well-known to Franklin scholars, the existence of the original letter was not--until Bready described it in the detailed catalog he issues before each auction takes place. The letter attracted dealers and collectors from far and wide (though many were doubtless priced out at the very first bid), and the letter went to a dealer who had come from Maine specifically for that one item.

Most of the items on the block at Bready's sales don't attract the kind of attention the Franklin letter did. The hammer falls on numerous items that go for less than $100 and occasionally even as low as $15 or $20. The lots move fast--bidding is usually over in 15 seconds or less--but the auctions typically last between four and five hours and often involve 500 to 600 items.

Bidding that reaches to the tens of thousands of dollars, as with the Franklin letter, can last longer, but even superstar items can be snatched up quick. At Bready's recent December auction, the star proved to be four lots of 19th-century photographs of New York's Central Park. The consignor had told Bready she had modest hopes for the sale, and Bready's presale estimates reflected that--one lot he expected to fetch between $300 and $600, the other three even less. In less than a minute apiece, however, the four lots sold for $5,500, $7,000, $13,000, and $27,000 each--$52,500 total. After the last lot moved, Bready smiled and predicted that his consignor "is going to physically give birth to a cow when I tell her."

Several years ago, another consignor put up for sale a bastardized version of Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense--the pages were first-print originals, but they were attached to a title page that was not. The consignor wanted, Bready says, "at least a thousand bucks." He got that and more: Bready and others involved in that bidding can't agree on the exact price the bidding ended at, but they say it was at least $90,000.

Bready entered the book business young. The son of James H. Bready, longtime book review editor of the Evening Sun, Bready grew up in a book-oriented home. (The elder Bready, now retired, still writes occasional columns about Maryland-related publications for The Sun, and he assists at his son's auctions.) In 1979 Bready signed on to help out at the old Harris auction house on North Howard Street in the heart of Antique Row, which occasionally held book-oriented auctions. He calls his time working for Harris "my apprenticeship."

Bready eventually took over the book auctions for Harris before acquiring the rights to the enterprise as a separate undertaking in 1989. The business operates out of a nondescript basement shop on Charles above North Avenue. The shop is really just a staging area for the quarterly auctions; Bready gave up on keeping regular walk-in business hours years ago, so these days the open/closed sign almost always says closed, even if Bready is inside.

Bready says he gets the materials for his auctions "from the five D's--death, debt, divorce, displacement, and disinterest."

Bready rarely travels more than 40 miles from Baltimore to assess a potential consignor's collection, but his well-circulated catalog draws bids from a much wider area, including 35 states, Canada, and several European countries.

"This is a national business," he says. "It's just based in Baltimore because it's got to be somewhere."

Marylandiana is frequently offered in Bready's auctions.

"It's what people have on their shelves around here," he notes, adding that works by historian J. Thomas Scharf, photographer A. Aubrey Bodine, novelist Anne Tyler, and other local notables turn up frequently, as do maps, prints, and Maryland publications from the 18th and 19th centuries. He recalls a particularly noteworthy piece of H.L. Mencken memorabilia that came through an auction once as a portrait of sorts--it was an X-ray of Mencken's head that the sage had autographed.

For all the unique items he's handled, and all the attention his auctions have received from collectors and enthusiasts, there's regret in Bready's voice when he talks about items he wishes he could have sold. Somewhere in a Baltimore neighborhood not far from his shop, for example, there's a formal studio portrait of Robert E. Lee in Confederate uniform. When its owner asked Bready to appraise it several years ago, specialists in Lee memorabilia told him that they had never seen such an item and could hardly believe it existed.

Bready had held the extremely rare portrait in his own hands, but the owner decided not to part with it. He thanked Bready for his assessment, then took the picture home.

"I suppose he's still got it," says Bready, wistfully. "The great thing about this job is I get to look at some amazing stuff. The problem is, I don't always get to sell it."

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