The Work of Greg Clark and Jimmie Frise

Tag: Auction

Going, Going, Gone

“Reputed,” droned the auctioneer’s voice,”to be genuine Ming! Nine-fifty I am offered!”

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:

“Four-fifty!”

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.

We picked it up, Jim the heavy butt end, I the slender neck

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.


Editor’s Notes: Great Expectations was a film released in 1946. It was adapted for the stage by Alec Guinness from the Charles Dickens novel. He also starred in the movie version.

$14.50 in 1947 is equivalent to $195 in 2020.

Surprise Package

By Greg Clark, May 9, 1936

“After lunch,” said Jimmie Frise, “we’ll drop in at that auction sale place. There’s a sale of unclaimed packages.”

“Surprise packages, eh?” I consented.

“It’s good fun,” said Jim. “I’ve been to lots of them but I never bought anything.”

“If we go, we’ve got to buy something,” I stated, “because you really haven’t been to an auction sale unless you buy something. It’s like going to the races and not betting on a horse.”

“O.K.,” agreed Jim. “It won’t cost us much. Lots of the packages and bundles go for a few cents. Twenty cents, thirty cents.”

“You never can tell what you’ll get,” I pointed out. “I once heard of a man who bought a common little paper package at one of those unclaimed baggage sales, and when he opened it up, he found wrapped inside of five or six coverings of newspaper, a small box containing a diamond and ruby brooch. He sold it for $1,800.”

“I heard of another case,” said Jim darkly, “where a man bought a small trunk for two dollars and in it was a human leg.”

“You have no imagination, Jim,” I protested. “You don’t seem to understand the secret of happiness, and that is always to expect. Always expect something nice, something valuable, something exciting. And even though it never comes, you feel good.”

“I go by the reverse system,” said Jim. “I expect the worst. I look forward to nothing. I fear no good can come of anything, and when some good does come of it, look how surprised and delighted I am.”

“I suppose,” I agreed, “one way of looking at life is as good as another. What is to be is to be, and no amount of guessing one way or the other can change it.”

“You said it,” confirmed Jim. “I was at one of these auctions one time and a terrible thing happened to me. A terrible thing. A funny-looking canvas valise came up. It was pretty greasy-looking and battered and rubbed. It looked like a prospector’s packsack. When I looked at it, I had a hunch I ought to bid for it. The auctioneer begged for bids but nobody rose to it. The auctioneer said it might contain nuggets of solid gold. But the way he was lifting it around, we could see there were no nuggets in it. It was light. Finally a man bid a quarter for it. And it went bang.”

“What was in it?” I begged.

“I followed the buyer,” said Jim, “out to the door of the auction room, where most of the buyers take a peek at their purchase. Before my eyes, that man drew forth a forty dollar pistol, a prismatic compass worth about $20, a fly rod in aluminum case, fly books, English reels, compact cooking kit nesting into a single large pail, in fact everything I have wanted all my life but never could afford.”

“Why didn’t you make him an offer?” I asked.

“Make him an offer?” cried Jim. “I followed him half way across the city, but all he would say was that he was something of a sportsman himself.”

“I hope we get a couple of hunches today,” I breathed.

“You never can tell,” said Jim. “The worst looking packages often contain the valuables, and vice versa.”

Hostage to Fortune

Jim and I hurried through a sandwich and walked briskly across downtown to the auction rooms where the unclaimed goods sale was in full fling. The customers were mostly pretty seedy-looking individuals, mostly men who looked as if all other hope in life was pretty well spent, and that this auction sale was their last despairing effort. Automobile tires were being offered when we arrived, new-looking, but, as Jimmie pointed out, if you could see what was really the matter with them you would know why they were unclaimed.

In a few moments, the tires were exhausted, and then began a series of surprising items. A large coil of galvanized wire, which went, after a brief bid, for thirty cents; a paper package tied with a dirty rope which went for twenty cents and turned out to be a beautiful set of lace curtains; a cardboard box mysteriously sealed with sticky paper, forty cents, and it contained, when the man opened it, a tin contraption that looked like part of something which even if completed, wouldn’t mean anything.

Then came a suitcase, cheap, aged and sagging, its handle repaired with string. A pair of men went ten cents at a time to sixty cents for it, in low, doubtful voices. And the one who won opened it to reveal a heap of soiled shirts, socks, red bandana handkerchiefs all the worse for use. He put it under his arm and went off with it. His last sixty cents shot. Hostage to fortune.

“Hm,” said Jim, as we stood on the outer fringe of the crowd, “not much doing to-day. I thought there would be packing cases and everything.”

“In times like these,” I explained, “if anything has any value whatsoever, it will be claimed.”

“Now here,” cried the auctioneer, “item one-sixty, is something out of the ordinary.”

A box about a foot square was lifted heavily shoulder-high by two strong men serving on the auction platform. It was bound with metal tape. It was fastened with screw nails. A flurry of interest stirred the crowd.

“Who can say what is in this?” demanded the auctioneer. “Would it be valuable instruments of some sort, or something in valuable metals? What am I offered for this unusual item, ladies and gentlemen?”

“Twenty-five cents,” said a determined voice. And instantly it snapped up by quarters and dimes, to a dollar, then to two dollars and then to three.

“Should we get in on this?” I asked Jim.

“No,” advised Jim. “What we want to bid on is something useless looking. It’s the surprise we are after.”

*Right,” said I, and listened while the bids went higher and higher, to four dollars and seventy cents before they slackened and came to a solid stop.

“Come, gentlemen,” the auctioneer cried. “this box is obviously a valuable article, you can see it is fastened with metal bands and secured with screw nails instead of common nails. In this box is something unusual, strange, valuable. I cannot understand why it is left unclaimed, unless its owner mysteriously passed away, before he had a chance to call for it at the express office. Who knows but what some great enterprise is held up all for the want of whatever is in this box?”

“Aha,” said I.

But the bidding stopped flat at four-eighty. And a well dressed but hard-faced middle-aged man took the box and carried it to the doorway to have a look at it.

“You’ve got something there, mister,” I said agreeably.

“Stand back and mind your own affairs,” said the gentleman with accustomed rudeness. He borrowed a screw driver from one of the luckier members of the audience and pried the box open. Jim and I stood discreetly and watched. When the lid was removed from the heavy little box, it appeared filled with silver. The gentleman pinched some of it with his fingers. He removed a note that lay on the top of the contents of the box. Read it. And suddenly flinging the note down on the floor, he rose and stamped angrily from the auction room.

Battle of Bidders

Jim stepped over and picked up the note. It was on the letterhead of a sand and gravel corporation in Montreal and it said:

“We are sending you herewith a working sample of our water-washed granite sand, No. 412X.”

“Let that be a lesson to you,” said Jim.

“Guys that look and act like that man,” I said, referring to the departed customer, “occasionally get their deserts.”

“But only occasionally,” agreed Jim.

And we returned to watching the sale.

More cardboard boxes with obvious things sticking out of them; a string of assorted old boots, a carpet, a case containing an oil burner that went for $16 after a bright tussle between two obvious dealers in such things, ladies’ hats, men’s hats, a crate of stove pipe.

Then came another string of seedy suitcases.

“Let’s bid in one of these,” suggested Jim.

“Let’s pick the worst looking one of all,” I submitted.

And when the auctioneer called item 189, the platform attendant held up as shabby a cheap and battered suitcase as ever it has been my lot to see. Its sides did not bulge; they sagged consumptively. It was torn and crudely sewn. Its handle was newer than the suitcase itself, a cheap handle fastened on by an amateur.

“Ten cents,” sang out Jimmie.

“Fifteen,” promptly shouted a hoarse voice from the far side of the crowd.

“Twenty,” said Jim.

“Twenty-five,” snarled the same voice.

And in no time at all, Jim and the unseen but foreign-voiced gentleman across the throng had run that old tramp of a suitcase up to two dollars!

“Don’t quit, Jim,” I hissed, “There is something odd about this.”

“Two-forty,” cried Jim, while the crowd stood rigid with excitement at the battle over the wreck.

At three dollars, the other bidder suddenly quit, with a despairing bellow of that amount Jim handed his three dollars over the heads of the throng and the suitcase was promptly passed from hand to hand over the crowd to Jimmie.

“It has nothing much in it,” said Jim, hefting it.

“Nix,” I said. “Is this the guy that was bidding?”

Two sinister-looking eastern Europeans were hastily coming around the edge of the crowd, keeping their eyes fastened on the suitcase, as if not to let it out of their view for one instant.

“Jim,” I said, “let’s get out of this. I don’t like the looks of these two customers.”

We walked out the auction room door into the street. And right on our heels, breathing down our necks, came the two foreigners.

We turned west. They followed, and walking quickly alongside of us, the larger of them leaned close and said, with an unpleasant and ingratiating smile:

“Please, boss, please!”

He had an old scar, such as a knife would make, across one cheek and it drew the corner of his mouth up viciously.

“What do you want?” said Jim, halting.

“Beat it,” I commanded.

“Please, boss,” repeated the larger one, and the shorter one squared around to block our passing.

“What do you want?” shouted Jim.

“Please,” wheedled the big one, reaching for the suitcase.

Jim leaped back, holding the suitcase behind him.

“What do you want? Speak up!” Jim glowered.

“No spik,” said the foreigner, shaking his head. “No spik. No money. No more. No spik. Pleeeeeeeaaaaaasssseee.”

And again he made a lurch for the suitcase, casting at the same instant a meaningful and sinister glance at his partner.

With a strong and adroit movement, the smaller man thrust me aside, and snatched the suitcase from Jim’s hand behind him.

“Haaaallp,” we roared, as the two thieves dashed down one of the streets past the market towards the waterfront. And we gave furious chase. Half a dozen people stopped and stared. But nobody helped. Nobody ever does. No policemen were in sight. Traffic didn’t even slow down to help us. Everything went right on as usual in the street while, headed on swift legs for the waterfront, we saw our thieves vanishing, and Jim and I puffing badly, brought up a vain rear.

“Jim.” I gasped, as we slowed up to a fast walk. “I bet you the crown jewels of Roumania or something were in that suitcase.”

“Too light,” said Jim. “No weight. But it’s funny.”

“Those were sinister-looking men,” I said. “I don’t feel like tackling them anywhere down here on the waterfront.”

“Like to know what was in there,” said Jim. “Why they were so desperately anxious.”

“High graders,” I suggested. “Full of gold.”

“No weight,” said Jim. “Perhaps papers or plans. Incriminating. Perhaps jewels. Very mysterious.”

We walked rapidly down to the Esplanade and halted at the railway tracks, looking down the lines of standing freight cars. We caught our breath.

“Jim, that was like out of a crime story,” I said. “Perhaps it is just as well we didn’t keep the suitcase. Maybe those birds would have followed us to our homes and committed murder. Maybe they were part of a gang.”

“Nix,” said Jim, “here they come.”

And astonishingly, from behind some freight cars, appeared our two villains, advancing straight for us.

“How about ducking,” I said. “Back up to good old King street, huh?”

“Wait,” said Jim.

The two advanced straight for us smiling fiercely yet apologetically. The large one was carrying a letter in his hand. Holding it out to show us.

“Please,” he said. “No spik. Please.”

“Come, come,” said Jim, “what is all this my man?”

“No spik,” repeated the big fellow. “You come?” He carried the suitcase without any fear. Up the street he led us back east past the auction rooms, and beyond.

“Here, where are you taking us?” I demanded.

“Please,” repeated the big fellow in a coaxing voice. “No spik. Some spik. Some spik come.”

With elaborate foreign gestures, he bade us wait while he and his friend stepped up to the door of an old house. In a moment a third foreigner appeared, and they engaged in furious conversation in a language that sounded as if its gears were clashing.

“Jim,” I said, “it’s bread daylight. But just the sameā€¦”

The foreigner who lived in the house came out and advanced to us.

“My friends,” he said slowly, “wish to apologize. They have lose their suitcase. It go for sale. In the suitcase is letter with address of their brother in west. In town with name they cannot remember.”

He held out the letter. We read the town. Tzouhalem, B.C.

“Mm, mm,” agreed Jim.

“He no find brother,” explained the interpreter, “he go die, he go starve, he no find his brother without that letter. He find at last suitcase. You buy.”

“Aaaaaah,” we said.

“He no steal, he just borrow,” said the interpreter. “He give you suitcase now.”

The big one held forth the suitcase.

“Aw, you keep it,” said Jim. “We only bought it for fun.”

“Please,” said the big foreigner, gratefully.

And we shook hands all around.

“Which shows,” said Jim, as we went back to the office and work, “that what is one man’s fun is another man’s tragedy.”


Editor’s Notes: $1 in 1936 would be about $18.50 in 2020.

The is still a place on Vancouver Island called Tzouhalem, a part of North Cowichan, near Mount Tzouhalem.

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