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A Lively Way to Shop for What you don't Need

Going, going, gone . . . a typical scene inside an auction house

INTRODUCTION:
Many of us, when shopping for an item from past generations will go to the Jaffa flea market or the Carmel or Ben Yehuda shuk. Auctions take place in Israel as well, offering art, Judaica, antique books and instruments, coins, post-cards, photographs, silver, jewelry and furniture. Every country has its own unique cultural style of displaying, disposing, recycling and selling items of its past. Often people will procure a professional buyer to shop abroad for items they would like to have in their homes here. Carol Shepko writes of a particular kind of home-spun country auction found in the New England States of America.

My grandma collected string, rubber bands and brown paper bags. My mother collected buttons.

Their collections were matters of necessity. Before cellophane tape was widely used, string was king. And you never knew when you'd need some - or a rubber band or a paper bag or a button. For the generation that lived through the Great Depression wondering where their next meal would come from, the idea of collecting useless objects—like duck decoys or antique cherry pitters—was impractical at best and, at worst, meshuggah.

These days, an entire industry - auctioneering - has benefited from thousands of impractical meshuggenahs who have become nostalgic for their own pasts or for a past they never knew.

Those comics that got thrown away in 1952? The old icebox? The electric fan gladly tossed out for the new air conditioner? Those old Saturday Evening Post magazines with the Norman Rockwell covers? They're back! But this time they don't cost a nickel and you don't see them every day. Many of these items fall into the hands of auctioneers who hold auctions once a week or once a month or whenever they accumulate enough stuff to make it worthwhile to gather people together and give them a spiel and sell to them.

My husband and I started going to auctions in upstate New York and southern New England 20 years ago. We have seen many changes over the years, but some things remain constant: principally the enthusiasm and good humor that infects both auction-goers and auctioneers. This is not a typical shopping trip. It's a reason to drive through a changing countryside to an out-of-the-way location. It's an opportunity to learn, a chance to make friends and an entertaining way to acquire that bed warmer you've always wanted.

For the auction habitué, it all begins (as does so much these days) with the Internet. Pretty much every auctioneer has a website on which to announce upcoming auctions. Most auctions are held in an auction hall or, often in spring and summer, outdoors under tents on the auctioneer's property. (There is almost always a food vendor for hungry bidders.) The website lists, either cursorily or in detail, the items that will be sold, and most often includes pictures of these items too. The reader also learns when the preview will be held—generally on the day before or the day of the auction, a couple of hours before it begins. The preview allows bidders to see the items to be auctioned first-hand.

Even after examining the pictures the auctioneer has posted online, you can't anticipate the goods you'll see as you enter the auction house. Look, there's the set of dishes you had in 1974, right next to a huge potato-chip tin and a poor copy of the bust of Queen Nefertite. There are hooked rugs, braided rugs, Oriental rugs, grandfather clocks, grandmother clocks, desk clocks, cuckoo clocks, French clocks, mantel clocks, seltzer bottles, milk bottles, medicine bottles, soda bottles. And don't forget the sheet music, vintage and antique magazines, bookends, books. It's the New England counterpart of an Oriental bazaar.

Each item or group of items to be auctioned is assigned a lot number, which is simply a way of identifying the item for both the seller and the buyer. As they go through the preview, potential buyers usually make a list of the articles they're interested in along with the lot numbers. Before the auction begins, attendees must register and receive a bidder's number. The number is written in large, bold characters on a bidder's card which gets raised languidly or waved frantically until the auctioneer recognizes the bid.

Before the excitement begins, the auctioneer provides information that virtually no one listens to - a little like that given by flight attendants as your plane is taking off. This includes:

A statement of the buyer's premium - the percent that is added to the bidding price that the buyer must pay to the auctioneer. Generally, this is between 10% and 15%. So if you buy an item for $100, you're really buying it for $110 or $115 plus local sales tax.

A warning that the bidder is buying the item "as is, where is"—which means that if you have buyer's remorse, it's just too bad! Nothing is returnable. The auctioneer basically informs you to use your eyes and not your ears. "Trust what you see," he is saying, "not what I tell you."

Most auctioneers are honest folks who just want to earn a living. They will let you know if that little statue you love so much is really bronze or a base-metal painted to look like bronze. But there are others who have a bit of the scoundrel in them. Avoiding the issue of bronze or not bronze, they focus instead on an ersatz history of the item: "Here's a statue of Apollo which was owned by a wealthy collector. I can't reveal his name, but he lived on Park Avenue in New York City. The statue dates from 1814, maybe 1815; it's probably French in origin and I'm sure it's signed. I didn't look at it carefully, but I'm willing to bet it's signed." What my father would have called 'a cock-and-bull story'. For those who have been down this path before, every word that comes out of his mouth is taken with a grain of salt. However, the uninitiated may be about to learn a fairly expensive lesson.

As the auctioneer describes an item, (honestly or not) it is displayed by a runner—a man or woman (sometimes a child - auctioneering is often a family affair) who shows the object to the audience and who, once the item is sold, records the bidder's number on it. At the same time, a record-keeper is noting the item's lot number and entering a brief description, the winning bidder's number and the final price.

Once the item is shown and described, the bidding begins. Auctioneers like to start high. "Do I hear $300 for this statue? 200? Who'll say 100? 50? 20?" Someone or everyone may hold up their bidder's card at this point or they may wait for him to say $10. For some auctioneers, $10 is the lowest bid they'll accept, while others may go lower. So then, the auctioneer continues: "Who'll bid 30 and let's go. I'm at 30 - now 35. I'm at 35 - now 40." Once the final bid is in, you may hear, "All in and done at $35 to number 44."

At a typical country auction you will find fabrics, including vintage or antique (one never says old) clothing, quilts, homespun, tablecloths, napkins and embroidery. (By the way, 'antique' is generally applied to items that are more than 100 years old, while 'vintage' describes an article older than 50.) You will also see antique household items: washboards, clothespins, coffee mills, bird cages, oil and kerosene lamps, lanterns, candlesticks, dishes, flatware and pots and pans. For the more aesthetically or historically inclined, there are framed and unframed art, photograph albums, tintypes, daguerreotypes, art glass, pottery, metalwork, Judaica, gramophones and floor-model radios, along with period jewelry and accessories. For the do-it-yourselfer there are tools, both modern power tools and beautifully made antiques.

When you think about it, auctions perform an important civic function: recycling. Instead of old Victrolas or 78 rpm records or the scores of other obsolete objects being consigned to the garbage dump, they enjoy a new life in a new home where they are valued as treasures from the past. 

Hoping to make a pile on the auction of this carpet

In addition to the items the auctioneer lists, there may be box-lots, meaning that a bunch of similar objects unlikely to sell individually - doll parts, for example or old magazines—are thrown into a box and sold together. Box-lots are generally sold at the very beginning of the auction or at the very end. Bidding may start at $10 s—the auctioneer might start at 40 but no one bids until he hits 10. If only one person wants that lot, he gets it for $10. If someone else wants the same box, then the bidding will increase until all but one person gives up.

You get a sense of what people are collecting by checking out the specialty auctions: There are clock and clock-part auctions, doll and doll-part auctions, coin auctions and paperweight auctions. There are auctions for collectors of fine art or guns or books or ephemera or petroliana (everything to do with vintage gas stations).

Prices fetched for some merchandise can seem exorbitant, especially considering that these are country auctions. At an auction I attended recently, held in a small town about 30 miles outside Albany, New York, a 1930s General Electric table-fan with brass blades was bid up and up and up, and was finally sold for $500 dollars. Elsewhere, four automobile license plates from the early part of the last century went for $100 dollars; to top it off, a dealer bought a simple, red-painted wooden box with dust and cocoons inside for $1,500.

What would my grandma say? Not much. She'd be breathing slowly into one of her brown paper bags.

See also the website of auction houses' arena in Israel: https://il.bidspirit.com/portal/?lang=en#!/home 

 

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Saturday, 29 January 2022

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