There's Nothing Like Buying From a Fast-Talking Man
My parents' upstate New York home is dotted with my grandmother's auction finds, not all as valuable as the china closet, but equally handsome and distinctive--a rolltop desk here, a set of glass-fronted barristers' bookcases there. In a corner of my kitchen in Baltimore stands a lovely wooden "youth chair" the grandfolks gave me on my first birthday. And we wouldn't have any of these things--or a particular store of summer memories--if my grandfather hadn't had his appendix out in 1949.
When he was hospitalized, my grandfather was a tenant farmer in his mid-40s, with only one of his three kids still left at home (my father, then in junior high). The experience triggered a mid-life crisis of sorts. "He got to reminiscing with my mother about what he
should've done," my dad recalls, "and he mentioned that he'd always wanted to be an auctioneer. Mom later said that was the first time he'd ever mentioned it." My grandparents investigated how auctioneers were trained, and in early 1950 my grandfather was off to the now-defunct Reisch American School of Auctioneering in Mason City, Iowa, where $100 and two weeks bought him a whole new life.
The auction business was booming along with the postwar American economy, and recovering from the less-than-savory-rep it had among farm families in the Depression era. The Reisch school brochure, titled "A Word to Parents," sought to reassure those who feared what awaited their "sons"--it was always sons in those days--in the auction biz: "The public demands that the successful man shall be a gentleman, sober, upright, and honest. Should your son become a successful auctioneer it will be because he is a gentleman as well."
My granddad's gentlemanliness--as well as his quick wit and theatrical flair (and my grandmother's growing knowledge of antiques)--made him successful. His first auction, held after his landlord's death, sold the farm his family rented. (My grandparents later bought their own.) My grandfather was a popular seller--racking up as many as 30 weekend auctions during the brief annual warm spell in northern New York state--because he "had a nice patter, he was funny, and he'd joke with people," Dad recalls. Grampa always wore a cream-colored Stetson when he stood on the auction block, and his chant, my mother says, "was just like singing."
On auction days, "Mom would always pray for good weather so a lot of people would come, but Dad knew better," my father says. It was the quality of the crowd, not its size, that mattered. "I've seen people sit on lawn chairs on a sunny day and my dad would have to work his butt off--he'd have 200 spectators but no bidders. And then he'd have a handful of people and it was raining, sleeting, cold--but they were bidding their asses off . . . for junk, antiques, second-hand furniture, anything. The size of the crowd had nothing to do with it."
My grandfather loved wheeling and dealing, and he had fun with the psychology of a bidding crowd--especially a small-town crowd in which the competitors knew each other. "Sometimes, someone would pay an outrageous amount for something if someone they hated was the bidder. I used to get a kick out of that," says my father. "Dad would sit there and run ‘em both up."
The auction biz became a family affair: My grandmother handled the pre-auction item cataloguing and bookkeeping; my father and his male cousins assisted my grandfather by holding up items for sale, carrying them to their buyers, and guarding the goods. Security was tighter than you might think in farm country in the relatively innocent 1950s and '60s.
"I knew this one antiques dealer--he was as crooked as a dog's hind leg," my dad recalls. "He had a thing for old mechanical banks, and he'd steal a piece from one so it wouldn't work properly. And who wants a bank that doesn't work, because it's 100 years old and where are you gonna get a piece for it? So he'd buy it for nothing. When we held our auctions, that was one of my jobs: Don't let [him] put his hands on the banks."
My mother first spied my father attending one of his father's auctions. After Mom and Dad got married, she helped my grandmother prepare items for sale, learning many of the trade's tricks. ("You always put something cheap in a [box lot] with something valuable, so it'll sell," she tells me.)
When my brother and I came along, we spent many a summer day sitting on a green lawn, watching my usually laconic granddad speed into his auctioneer's chant. I thought it was glamourous to see this man--who I knew as an easygoing guy who drove at a funeral-motorcade pace to avoid accidents and fell to snoring in his rocker right after Sunday dinner--dynamically commanding a crowd. I learned to keep my hands to myself at public sales the way most children learn to watch both ways before crossing the street; I feared scratching my nose at the wrong time and accidentally buying a lamp.
"It was a nice life for them," my dad says of his parents' auctioneering business. My grandfather worked until May of 1972; one Saturday that month, he presided at an auction, went home, went to sleep, and never woke up. My grandmother, who lived for two more decades, remained fond of antiques, but my grandfather's passing took the fun out of auctions for her; she never attended another one, my dad says. Once a friend persuaded her to let him take her to a sale, and she got dressed and ready but turned him away at the door. "I'm sorry," she said. "I just can't go."
There's nothing more fun than the way your grandfather used to sell. I'd do nothing but on-site sales if I could," Richard Opfer tells me after I spill a little family history. Opfer, a Timonium-based auctioneer who's been in business 30 years and does at least 75 auctions a year, does mostly weekly estate sales at his own auction house (see "Going, Going . . .," below). On-site auctions are troublesome, he says, because theft is a bigger problem these days, as are the perennial bugaboos of logistics and weather. As a result, many sales of antiques, furniture, collectibles, books, and other things casual auctiongoers might be most interested in take place in auction houses.
On-site estate sales are becoming less common in the '90s, says auctioneer Phil Gregory, another three-decade veteran who presides at up to 80 sales annually. "It's harder to do now because the houses are so close together," making parking, security, and crowd accommodation tougher to manage, he says. "On-site sales are very down."
"There's more marketing that goes on today than in the old days," Opfer says. "We advertise nationally or internationally. We use big-screen TVs and video cameras to show the items. And we have phone bidding." Opfer's company, Richard Opfer Auctioneering Inc., is in the process of going online. (Some local auction houses, such as Harris Auction Gallery in Mount Vernon, place their catalog online and take e-mailed bids).
But some things haven't changed much since my granddad's day. It's still largely a multigenerational trade, unusual in these days when small family businesses of all kinds are falling by the wayside. Gregory, for example, works with his wife, son, and daughters. In "these businesses," he says, "you have to grow your own help." (More of that help is female than it was in Grampa's time. A 1993 Gallup survey commissioned by the National Auctioneers' Association reported that 11 percent of the auctioneers who responded were women.)
And as in decades past, auctioneers experience the unpredictability of the sale, and a strong seller-to-buyer connection with a wide range of people. Opfer has auctioned such odd items as a raccoon and, during a livestock sale, bull semen. He once sold a painting for $250,000 man who was stuck in New York City's Lincoln Tunnel and called in his bid from a car phone.
ýhough Opfer says on-site sales usually draw a bigger and more diverse crowd than an auction-house sale--"You'll get more John Q. Publics" at an on-site estate sale, he says, and the prices are usually better--T.R. O'Farrell Inc., a 28-year-old Westminster auction house that hosts weekly day-long sales, routinely draws up to 400 people, including more than 100 "regulars," says Mary Conover, O'Farrell's secretary and treasurer.
"Nothing draws a crowd like good antiques," Conover says. But antiques--defined as items 100 years old or older--are getting harder to come by, she says; more common is oak or mahogany furniture from the '30s and '40s. (Opfer attributes the antique shortage to "so many families keeping things today" when a relative dies.)
On a May evening, O'Farrell's auction house is swarming with buyers--many of them dealers in collectibles, antiques, or used furniture on the lookout for bargains, with a few of those John Q. Publics milling about. A huge, working air-conditioner is sold for $10 ("You better have a big house," auctioneer Tom O'Farrell warns, "or it'll freeze ya.") and a mammoth Zenith console color TV goes for a mere $15, but a tray of vintage tin toy noisemakers goes for $40, an oak doll bed goes for $110, and a table carved from a old grand piano fetches $275.
It's a nostalgic few hours, evocative of the rural auctions of my granddad's day, with a few subtle reminders that we're squarely in the 1990s--O'Farrell wears a headset microphone as he takes bids, and the gimme caps worn by plaid-shirted, gray-haired men are as likely to read hard rock café--san francisco as john deere.
At a side table, Nelson and Carolyn Pickett examine some glass lamps, deciding which ones to bid on later; Nelson grimaces when he finds one whose shade doesn't match its body. "People will alter [an item] just to try to sell it," he says, shaking his head. Every week the couple attends one or two auctions, searching for country and primitive antiques which they sell for profit a few times a year at flea markets. "Auctions are usually organized," he says. "You know about what time they're going to sell a certain item, so if you're only interested in one thing, you can go and come back." However, sometimes the waiting is the hardest part: "You may have to wait two or three hours sometimes. At a flea market, when you see something you like, you can just make an offer."
Dave, an aspiring primitives dealer from Westminster who preferred not to give his full name, says he loves auctions and goes to "too many, probably." "A lot of people won't tell you this," he tells me, leaning in conspiratorially, with one eye fixed on the bidding, "but going to auctions is a sickness. Your whole life revolves around it. Most people you see at auctions you see at every auction."
Theresa and Tom Greene--a young couple from Westminster--are attending their first auction, searching for furniture. Theresa, who is pregnant, rests on a cedar chest while her husband lifts up the lid of another wooden trunk and examines it.
"We're clueless," Theresa says with a laugh, gesturing at the furiously chanting O'Farrell. "We're kind of taking it all in. Everyone tells us to just listen at first. We don't want to end up with something we don't want."
They're hoping to score some bargain furniture. "Take this cedar chest," she says, tapping the lid. "It's $500 to $600 usually, but we can buy it here for $100."
Gladys Ridge, executive secretary of the Auctioneers Association of Maryland, would approve of the Greene's wait-and-see strategy. If you're an inexperienced auction shopper, "don't start the bidding," Ridge advises. "And don't get carried away."
Richard Hall of Mount Vernon's Harris Auction Galleries also recommends just watching at first. "Don't go planning to bid," he says--and don't bid until you have figured out how the auctioneer calls the sale. "Every auctioneer has his own style, his own increments--some don't make it clear immediately if they're calling in tens or hundreds. Some are friendlier to the crowd. Some are more forgiving and explanatory" if someone makes a mistake in bidding. An auctioneer "worth his salt," Hall says, is sensitive to the difference between "incidental motions on the floor"--someone scratching or waving to a friend--and someone actually bidding.
But auctiongoers must be held accountable for their behavior, too, Hall says. "People should be a little careful and realize that it's a fairly serious business. There are people whose livelihood depends upon their obtaining certain items. There's a certain courtesy that's involved."
"Try to know the value of what it is you want to buy," advises second-generation auctioneer William Fox, chairman of Baltimore-based Michael Fox International and a former member of the National Auctioneers' Association's board of directors. "It may be worth more to you than to someone else, but make up your mind what you'll pay and then do not pay one nickel above that."
Opfer advises would-be buyers to always preview the sale items and never buy anything they haven't seen. "Learn to trust your eye," he says. "I tell my employees that if you know coins--or any collectible--you know antiques. Look for damage. Look for quality. Usually if it's cheap, it's cheap for a reason."
"The auction is only as lively as the goods you're selling," Hall says. "When you've got junk, you've got junk."
And the point of an auction, Hall says, is to get the best price for an item--but not to be so cutthroat that the buyer feels cheated. "You don't want people paying insane and stupid prices," he says, "because they'll never come back."
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