26. February 2006 · Comments Off on Going, Going, Gone · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, Pajama Game

The advent of spring brings with it the serious start of auction season. I only went to one or two auctions prior to taking up residence in the land of pigs, corn and soy beans, so I can’t speak much in the way of what they are like elsewhere. I suspect that because they are, in a way, a passion play that tends to be governed by human nature, they are pretty much the same no matter where you go. I’m not talking about the artsy fartsy auctions like Christi’s, or the charity type auctions where the only purpose is to provide a social means of funding something or another. I mean the kind of auctions where the auctioneers wear cowboy hats and the bidders are there for blood sport.

Real Wife and I traded a small two-bedroom bungalow for a large Victorian soon after our wedding and upon learning of the upcoming arrival of Red Haired Girl. As a consequence we needed lots of furniture. Keeping with the architecture of the house, we decided to hit the auction circuit and decorate the house with antiques. It seemed to us that if we bought carefully, we could obtain many pieces for prices equivalent to those of new ones, and that appreciation rather than depreciation would be the rule. Certain things needed to be new – Victorians were alien to the concept of a queen bed or comfortable living room furniture. So we bought some new and went auctioning for the rest.

One of the first auctions we attended had a beautiful cherry sideboard with hand carvings all around the large mirror and a dark brown granite surface. Everything at that particular auction had been selling high owing to the fact that the estate was that of a prominent local resident and everyone wanted a keepsake. An antique dealer friend of ours estimated that the sideboard was worth about $2,000 at the antique retail level where we live. Real wife and I decided that we would go $1,500 tops. Toward the end, prices were climbing higher and higher. We decided that there was no way we would get it for a reasonable price and, with Real Wife carrying a seven month load of baby, we would call it a day. As we were walking behind the auctioneer to leave, the sideboard suddenly came up for bidding. I impulsively shouted “$500”, figuring it was at least worth a try, and started moving toward the door. Someone bid $550, and I came back at $800 with no hesitation. An interesting thing happened. Because I was behind the auctioneer and had blown past the next bid increment, everybody was craning their necks to see who the bidder was and, in their hesitation, it was going, going and gone. It was one of those precious moments that we savor to this day.

We went to another estate auction that year that had the possessions of a rather wealthy old matron who, in her lifetime, had traveled the world and accumulated bits and pieces from nearly everywhere. Trucks with trailers from as far away as California and Virginia filled the parking lot – antique dealers all. You usually have an advantage when bidding against dealers because they are typically constrained to buy at a price below what the retail market will bear. Caution is warranted though because the general retail value of antiques varies by geographic region, a dynamic at play in this sale. At the prices being bid, we locals wisely kept our hands in our pockets. Toward the end, however, the trailers were full and reason set in. We ended up with a very unique quarter sawn oak straight back chair with an ornate carving of Old Man Winter on the back. I recall that we paid $300 and I have never had it appraised, although I have seen a catalog with an exact reproduction as part of a set of four, each of which had a carving representing the pagan god for each of the four seasons. The entire reproduction set was $2,500, so I think that was a good buy. At that same auction we successfully bid on a primitive early American blanket chest for $250. This piece caught my eye because it was in excellent shape and the fact that it is constructed from very old growth pine – the boards for the ends, sides and top were each of a single piece up to 30 inches in width. In likewise fashion we have collected old clocks, tables, ornate wall mirrors, Persian rugs, etc.

Then there are the “guy auctions”. I fully outfitted a 25 x 25 ft. woodworking shop by going to the auctions of old retired farmers. The thing about tool auctions is that 75% of the bidders have no clue as to what the tools can be purchased for new, so they often overbid to more than retail. In our area we have an Amish enclave that largely subsists by doing carpentry and such. They generally will bid on hand tools, but spend the majority of their time in groups being amused by the general ignorance of the weekend hobbyist bidders. They too, however, have taken to irrational exuberance on occasion. Whether it was due to a particularly long dreary winter, or perhaps a scarcity of females in the community to court, an auction about three years ago this spring turned into an orgy of bidding for worthless broken tools and hardware. For example, $30 dollars for a gallon jar of miscellaneous old nuts and bolts? I bought a like new 6 hp air compressor with large tank for $200 – too modern for the Amish.

One large local auction house holds a machinery auction each summer with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of tractors, trucks, cars, implements, etc. that cover an area of about 10 acres. They have three auction rings, and the affair has all of the atmosphere of a county fair. I bought a 20 hp John Deere garden tractor several years ago, which I had to ride 10 miles home because my buddy-with-a-truck had to leave early. Because the price exceeded what I had estimated to Real Wife for a tractor by about three thousand, I had a lot of ‘splaining to do, and ended up trading her vehicle in for a new Dodge Durango to smooth the waters. In 1970 Dad’s purchase of a brand new John Deere led to Mom getting a new Chevy Nova. Trust me guys, it works.

The house and shop are now well furnished/equipped, so we don’t auction as much as we used to. We did go to a large new furniture store liquidation auction last year. We were setting up a home theater, and specifically wanted a nice plush leather sofa. They had a row of about ten of them. The first sold for well over $2,000 – way over retail. About halfway through the sofas (all were similar but got progressively less expensive) they came up on another tan leather one the looked almost the same as the first, and which we got for $650. As a bonus, we then learned that it also had a hideaway bed (which the first one did not). We tried to buy a wrought iron coffee table with top made of ceramic tiles. They had three, which one person bought as a lot for $300 each. The next day we found the same exact table at Big Lots for about $180.

So, to review. First, know the value of what you are bidding on, or at least what it is worth to you, and stick to it. Second, use an aggressive bidding style. If you act like you are agonizing over each bid increment, the other bidders will think that it will only take one more bid for you to drop out (a corollary to this is to bid aggressively against another aggressive bidder and suddenly drop out – after you’ve made them overpay a couple of times they will think twice). Third, whenever possible buy antiques at tool auctions and tools at antique auctions – your bidder universe is a lot smaller. And lastly, if you are the sort that gets a kick from going to casinos, go auctioning instead. You get the same rush but almost always end up with something to show for it.

Good Luck

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