We went to our first auction this past weekend. Now, we are about to move: the last thing we need is anything else to pack. We went out of curiosity, really. I’d seen a rather desperate-seeming ad for a last-minute house-clearance auction to be held in our neighborhood.
We went with our friends J and L. We had planned to check out the preview late, stay on for the first few lots, see how it all happened, and then go home for lunch and out to a matinee. But we found it quite fascinating, so we stayed, and stayed…
The homeowner was apparently leaving his McMansion for a smaller dwelling, and he’d evidently failed to properly dispose of his treasures OR his junk. The auction had been arranged on Thursday and was held on Sunday, and the house needed to be cleared on Monday in time for the closing. The contents were a strange mish-mash of handsome antiques, collectibles and novelties of varying quality, and dilapidated housewares from the far corners of the basement: a player piano, a box full of red Christmas ribbons, a revolving mahogany drum table, three ceramic caricature heads, a plastic folding table, a vintage oak filing cabinet, a set of hand-painted Finnish dishware, mismatched Corningware in cardboard boxes, autographed photos of celebrities, autographed posters of local teams long gone, maps of the Thousand Islands, boxes and boxes of fishing lures, an entire Dickens Christmas Village, an unworn lace dress from Target, a garbage bag full of bath towels… His taste ran to brass trim and stamps of authenticity.
Some of it was lovely.
Some of it was useful.
Some of it was junk.
The auction firm had set up a big striped tent in the driveway, and half a dozen runners fed items to the auctioneer, holding up first a stockpot, then an autographed photo of Robin Williams. They seemed to try to alternate the nice things from the house with the bins and bags from the garage. The player piano fetched nearly two thousand dollars, but no one would bid at all on an alarm clock from the 1970’s.
Inevitably, we began to participate. It started when I saw a very sturdy tree stand in the garage: “Hey,” I said to B. “We could use that.” J had registered to bid, so we borrowed his number and B held it up for the tree stand. And he won it! $10.
A few minutes later an alligator suitcase came up. “You want that?” said B.
“It’s neat, but…”
“You’ve driven out of your way to look at old suitcases that cost more than this one will,” he pointed out. “If we get this one, can you stop doing that?”
It cost him $11, and I promised not to look for any more old suitcases. Not until I’ve found a use for this one. It turned out to be real alligator with brass hardware, very battered around the edges, clearly well-used and very handsome. I love it.
After that he accidentally bid on a display box full of collectible knives (but he was outbid), and after that he kept his hands in his pockets!
The auctioneer kept up a rapid-fire patter for four whole hours. He would offer a brief description of each item, ask for a high price, reduce it until someone bit, and then drive the bidding with his energy. Occasionally he’d editorialize: “Bike rack? That’s not a bike rack. That’s a WEIGHT rack. Anyone for the weight rack? Can I get fifty, twenty-five, ten, who’ll give me one for the weight rack, a buck. Take it back. We’ve got fishing rods here, choice on fishing rods, who’ll give me fifty for choice of any rod, fifty fifity who’ll give me twenty-five, thirty thirty thirty-one, give me thirty-one, thirty to number 42.” Number 42 would be allowed to choose one of the fishing rods while the auction moved forward, and then the group would come up again.
I bid on a lot of upholstery fabric this way: there was a purple roll, a green roll, a purple floral roll, a brown brocade and a neutral heavyweight canvas. Of course I chose the canvas. It’s like a drop cloth… but better.
The auctioneer looked right at me when choice on that lot came up again, but I kept my hands folded in my lap.
We learned lots of new terminology, too: choice is taking first pick of several items in a lot, and usually you’re allowed as many picks as you wish but you have to pay for each one in the amount of the winning bid. The remaining items will come up again later under the same conditions. One money was another phrase that amused us, and it’s the opposite of choice: “Box of belts here, all for one money” means that the winning bidder gets all the items in that lot.
We stayed through the player piano ($2k), through the grandfather clock ($700), through the Empire sofa ($300), through Waterford cordial glasses (“overpriced” whispered the guy next to us) and through an endless parade of fishing lures. We stayed through a sudden violent downpour. We stayed long after lunchtime had come and gone. We missed our movie. We stayed until the bitter end.
When it was all over, and we’d unpacked J’s car and divided up our winnings, I had acquired a tree stand, an alligator suitcase, a roll of upholstery-weight canvas, and six stretched canvases. J and L had the other half-dozen canvases (we’d shared), two rolls of unstretched artists’ canvas, and a stepladder. Not a single thing we bought was necessary or immediately useful, but we felt quite pleased with the whole experience.
I think I’ll try out more auctions.
After the move.