By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, September 20, 1947
“Come on!” pleaded Jimmie Frise. “They’re fun!”
“Auction sales are a fraud,” I scoffed. “They’re a racket!”
Jim had slowed the car in front of an old house in the downtown district which had been converted into an auction sale headquarters. Over the lighted portico, a large canvas banner proclaimed “Auction now in progress.” And cars were parked densely all around, while a regular church congregation seemed to be pouring into the emporium.
“Come on,” egged Jim. “We’ve nothing better to do.”
“I haven’t seen ‘Great Expectations’ yet,” I complained. “We can find it at one of the neighborhood theatres.”
“Look,” said Jim, “movies are all the same. Once you’ve seen one movie, you’ve seen all movies. But an auction sale is a riot. You see human nature revealed there in the raw – not all taffied up by some movie director. If you want a good chuckle, go to an auction sale.”
“Jim, they’re just a racket!” I protested, as he started to manoeuvre for a parking space up the street. “And it’s just junk they sell.”
“Oh, don’t think I was suggesting we buy anything,” laughed Jim. “It’s just to see the show.”
“It’s always the same, Jim, I made my last bid. The same old crowd always attends these auction sales. The auction sale habit is like the bingo habit or the racetrack habit or any other rut certain people seem to get into. You see the same types at an auction sale just as you see the same types at a race track. There’s an auction sale type.”
“Exactly,” agreed Jim, turning off the ignition. “And it’s fun to see them in operation, just the same as it’s fun to watch a bingo crowd. First of all, there’s the regular dealers who are in attendance, the secondhand dealers and antique dealers. Attending auction sales is a part of their business. They pick up a few dollars worth of odds and ends, bric-a-bric, china, silver, to eke out their own stocks in their shops.”
“Then,” I pointed out, “there are those other semi-professionals – they don’t have stores. But it’s a sort of sideline or hobby with them. They attend auctions as regular as the second-hand dealers, to pick up odds and ends which they take home, and then either sell to their friends and neighbors, or else advertise them in the want ads of the daily newspapers, turning over a little profit.”
“There could be worse hobbies,” asserted Jim, as he wound up the car windows. “It doesn’t cost anything. There’s no admission charge to an auction sale. And after a little experience, I suppose a man can become real expert at picking up things he knows he can make two or three dollars on.”
“It’s these second-hand dealers,” I pointed out, “and these semi-professional picker-uppers who make it next to impossible for the ordinary guy, like you or me ever to get anything worth while at an auction, Jim. They don’t just walk into an auction and sit down, like us They go beforehand and size up the merchandise that’s going on the block. They spot all the articles of any value and wait for them to come up. They have made up their minds in advance how much they will go for it, and still leave them a margin of profit on the resale.”
“That’s when you see the fun start, at an auction,” agreed Jim, as we left the car and started down street towards the emporium. “When the dealers begin bidding against each other.”
“With the odd outsider, like us,” I recollected, “butting in and upsetting the apple cart.”
“A good auction sale,” explained Jim, “is one that has a few worthwhile articles salted in among the junk. Only the dealers and the professionals know the real stuff from the junk. But their bidding, on the real stuff excites the rest of the congregation to bid on the junk. And that’s where the gravy comes in. For the auctioneer.”
We went up the steps and into the spacious and cluttered rooms of the old mansion.
A smell of new carpets and old dust filled the air. From the big living room and dining room of the old house – which had been opened up into one large chamber for the auction hall – came the monotonous but incisive voice of the auctioneer, rising above a low babble. The sale was already under way.
But in the lofty and outer halls, numbers of people, the men hat in hand, were wandering around with that slightly absent air you observe on people in an art gallery. They were inspecting the great clutter of goods piled and stacked around awaiting their turn on the auction block.
There were great heaps of carpets and rugs all rolled up. There were articles of furniture, tables, nets of tables, lamps, with shades, chairs, sofas, chesterfields, beds, dressers. All were spotless and recently polished.
“Just look at the rugs and carpets,” said Jimmie “Where do all the rugs come from that are put on auction?”
“Culls, I suppose,” I suggested, “and seconds picked up from jobbers or from the manufacturers. Besides, probably any number of these auction addicts get into the habit of buying and trading back their rugs every little while. The home of an auction addict probably never does get set. It’s in an eternal state of flux. They keep on adding little bits here and little bits there – each new piece of furniture upsetting the design or color scheme; so they’ve got to sell things to restore the balance. Probably a real bad auction addict never keeps a rug more than three months. Turn it in and snap up a new one.”
We examined the furniture. None of it was anything we would ever want to own. It was either large and florid, or extra plain. A great many pieces seemed random bits that had got cut adrift from what once upon a time must have been suites. We also examined a find set of china that was really beautiful, except that a pale bilious green rim on each piece spoiled it completely.
“Now how the dickens,” demanded Jim, the artist, “could any designer ever ruin a lovely design by such a fool rim as that?”
“Probably something went wrong in the mixing of the colors and in the firing,” I suggested, “and as the result this set has been on the auction circuit for the past 20 years. If you owned a china factory, and something got spoiled like this, what would you do? Why, sell it to an auctioneer! It’s the last hope for things that go wrong.”
A rising babble and mutter in the big room made us stop and listen. The auctioneer’s voice took on a ringing tone, excited. And we could hear the rising clamor stabbed by voices making rapid bids as they were shooting their bids like arrows.
We hurried over to the auction room doorway and stretched our necks and tiptoed to see over the heads of the others suddenly attracted.
“Sixty!” shot the auctioneer, leaning tensely. “Do I hear sixty-five? Sixty-five, do I hear?”
“Sixty-two-fifty!” came a hoarse voice.
“Sixty-five!” snapped another voice.
There was a deadly stillness.
“Seventy? Do I hear seventy?” rasped the auctioneer. There was dead silence.
“What’s selling?” I whispered to a tall man in front of me.
“A pair of Dresden china figures,” be replied quietly. “The dealers are after them.”
“Going!” wheedled the auctioneer. “Going!”
And they went at seventy.
Half a dozen people got up to leave and Jimmie and I seized the chance to get seats.
“Maybe,” chuckled Jim, “we’ll see that set of bilious china go.”
We had arrived right in the middle of a list of china, glassware, ornaments and other crockery. The battle of the dealers for the Dresden figures had stirred the crowd to great excitement. Everybody was shifting in their chairs and chattering excitedly. The next item was a large red glass vase which the auctioneer described as reputed to be genuine Bohemian, though I’m sure I have seen any number of the same down in the basement china departments of the big stores. Large, dark and ruby red.
The bidding started at $1 and went in about five minutes to $10. One of the bidders was a young woman, sitting just in front of us, obviously a newlywed. For every bid she upped, her young husband turned a glowing face on her, as though he loved the sound of her voice. Several other women and a couple of men were on the tilt. The auctioneer seemed a bit startled at the bidding, because he went over and had another good look at the red monstrosity, as if to make sure he wasn’t making some sort of mistake. When he resumed, he let the bidding go to $11.50 and then knocked it down very suddenly to the young newlyweds.
“You’ll notice,” whispered Jim gleefully, “there were dealers in on the tilt.”
“How about those two men bidding?” I suggested.
“Probably a couple of the auctioneer’s shills,” said Jim, “spotted in the crowd to excite the bidding. The shills always look like dealers.”
Sure enough, the beautiful set of china with the bilious border was tenderly brought in by three or four auctioneer’s helpers and ceremoniously displayed to the audience. The auctioneer described it as genuine Milton, one of the famed English chinamakers, and for the past 20 years the prized and tenderly cared for treasures of one of the city’s most prominent families.
“What am I offered?” he demanded.
“A hundred!” called a man.
“A hundred and ten!” promptly came a woman.
“A hundred and twenty!” rung another man.
“A hundred and twenty!” took up the auctioneer enthusiastically. “Come now, ladies and gentlemen…”
A curious apathy stood like a fog curtain between the auctioneer and the audience, and almost abruptly, knocked it down to the man who had bid the $120.
“A shill!” whispered Jimmie.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, we saw the man who bid the $120 out in the hallway showing some rugs to a pair of women.
“What a racket!” chuckled Jimmie, as we watched a man bid down all contestants for a brass coal scuttle that went for $14. And six glass tumblers that went to a fat man for $7. And a large glass dome, such as you see sandwiches displayed under in railroad restaurant counters, for $4.
“What the dickens,” I muttered, “would anybody want a thing like that?”
“Maybe the guy owns a railroad restaurant lunch counter,” hazarded Jim.
I was busy watching the crowd bidding on the next thing trying to pick the shills from the genuine bidders, and the dealers from the semi-professionals, and the neophytes from the newlyweds, when I heard Jimmie suddenly sing out:
I turned sharply. Sure enough it was Jim! He was sitting slightly forward on the edge of his chair, his chin lifted, his face flushed and a queer look in his eye.
Somebody called “Four seventy-five!” and Jim, rising slightly, snapped “Five!
I raised myself to see what was going.
It was one of those huge china vases, three feet high, in bright Chinese red, green and gold, with a golden dragon writhing around it.
I hadn’t seen one in years. Back in my boyhood, my grandmother had one in the front hall to put umbrellas in.
“Six-twenty-five!” rang Jim’s voice, as I realized the bidding was cracking faster and faster.
“Jim!” I hissed, taking his sleeve.
“Seven!” yelped Jimmie, jerking his sleeve from my grasp.
I furtively stood up and took another look, to be sure. Yes, the auctioneer’s helper was lifting the huge vase with laborious effort, to show its great weight. I noticed, now, that the slender neck of the vase would not permit umbrellas to go in it. It must have been for something else my grandmother had the bulky thing standing in the front hall.
“Nine!” quivered Jimmie’s voice beside me.
“Reputed,” droned the auctioneer’s voice, “to be genuine Ming! Nine-fifty I am offered!”
“Ten!” I shouted unexpectedly.
“Ten-fifty!” barked Jim.
“Hey!” I hissed, leaning out to try and fix his attention. “What the Sam Hill do you want that great ugly thing for?”
“You keep out of this!” snarled Jim, a wild look in his eyes, and elbowing me away. “Eleven-twenty five!”
The bidding had swept past us.
“Twelve!” I shouted.
“Twelve-fifty croaked Jim, turning his shoulder to me.
Well, it went at $14.25, to Jim!
And 20 minutes later we were outside in the lobby, paying the $14.25 to the cashier, while the auctioneer’s helper stood by, holding the great vase in his arms.
We both felt curiously limp and bewildered, as though we had been smitten by a sudden fever, sort of instantaneous malaria. Our faces were flushed. I had to lend Jim my $4.60 to eke out the $14.25.
Neither of us wished to look at the vase, which the helper kept confronting us with.
“I’ll carry it out to your car?” he wheedled. “You’ve got a car?”
“We’ll carry it,” said Jim grimly, pocketing his receipt.
We picked it up. Jim the heavy butt end, I the slender neck. We walked sideways to the door.
On the verandah, just at the top of the concrete steps, Jim’s foot caught, and he slipped.
The priceless Ming vase crashed to splinters down the steps.
“Thank heavens!” I gasped.
“Gosh!” whuffed Jimmie, taking his handkerchief and mopping his brow, “the way that thing strikes you! I didn’t know I was bidding. I just heard my voice!”
“It’s all very confusing, Jim,” I consoled, patting his shoulder. “Will we get somebody to come and sweep up this?”
“No, no,” said Jim, heading down the driveway. “They’re used to it. They expect it.”
And as we melted into the shadows, we saw the auctioneer’s helper come out with a carton and a broom and hastily sweep up the remnants.
$14.50 in 1947 is equivalent to $195 in 2020.