Going Going Gone ... Sold!
Every year in August our local volunteer fire department holds a fund raising auction, and it draws quite a crowd. We may live in a world where you can buy almost anything online, but you cannot purchase the experience of taking in an auction for yourself. So grab a bidder card and take a seat on a squeaky folding chair (or you can perch on top of the chest of drawers you just won if it has a better vantage point) and settle in. A box of folk art paintings, an antique dovetail joint chest, a set of Liberty Blue dinnerware and more are on the block. Enjoy the summer breeze and the smell of hot dogs from the concession stand. Neighbors as well as those from afar, antique dealers and the curious gather to watch and to bid, lulled by the rhythm of the auctioneer’s song. ”Five? Who will give me five? Who will give me six?” sings the auctioneer accompanied by the quiet conversation of those in the audience catching up with each other and the hum of passing cars and the snap of rope against a nearby flagpole.
An eclectic assortment of objects have also gathered here, unearthed from garages, attics and houses, and from dusty sunlit barns. The firehouse bays are full while the trucks themselves are parked outside. Bags and boxes of smaller things long ago packed away and opened years later wait for new owners. A few people browse through vintage toys, gilt mirrors, antique trunks and dusty rocking chairs. There are books and newspaper wrapped pottery and tarnished silver plate, all looking for new homes. These are the wayward orphans from freshly organized garages, de-cluttered homes, from downsizing and moving. By the end of the evening, everything here will have found new owners and the bays will be clean and empty, ready for the trucks once more.
While this auction is an annual community event, there plenty to be found throughout the year and around the state. Some auctioneers sell on their own premises, and also hold auctions on location to sell the entire contents of a house, piece by piece and lot by lot. A house owned by four generations of the same family in Milton, Vermont was the site of a June auction by Duane Merrill & Company (itself a three generation family venture). A yellow and white striped tent stretched over the lawn in front of the house. Years of household history passed over the auction block: civil war photographs and leather-bound books, century old crinkly taffeta dresses once packed tight in dark closets, war medals with faded ribbons and handwritten letters. All of the furniture and household belongings accumulated by a family over many years were held up and sold to the highest bidder until the house and the barn were nearly bare. These ordinary things had been assembled over time into a constellation of household objects and are now venturing out into the world under new ownership. Just as a kaleidoscope shifts to form a new pattern, these belongings are shuffled, packed up and dispersed into the world again.
The lure of auctions mainly lies in the possibility of finding something wonderful at a low price, or even an unrecognized treasure. Nearly thirty years ago a man in Pennsylvania found a first printing of the Declaration of Independence in the frame of a four dollar painting. The Third Imperial Egg, an 1887 Fabergé, was purchased for scrap metal and rediscovered in 2012. First editions of beloved books, an unrecognized Sabra Field print, a 19th century letter from Lincoln to his wife and son during their stay in Manchester, Vermont… who knows what may be up for sale at a Vermont auction? The possibility of something wonderful, the potential of a treasure, however improbable that may be, is part of the thrill, as is bidding on what catches your eye, and watching what sells and for how much. Sound tempting? Want to attend an auction? Here are some tips:
What to expect: Register upon arriving to obtain a bidder card (typically an index card with a number written boldly in marker). When you win an item, the auction staff records the number of your bidder card and the amount of your winning bid. Small pieces may be brought right to your seat, while larger pieces are likely to be set off to the side for loading into your vehicle after you check out. Once you are finished and ready to leave, present your bidder card at the registration desk, and pay for your purchases. Be prepared to leave with what you have bought as auctions are generally cash and carry.
What to bring: You will need identification to register for a bidder card. Bring cash as some auctions may not take credit cards or checks.
Bidding tips: If you have even a small competitive streak, it will likely show up at some point in the bidding process. You may find yourself bidding much higher than an item is actually worth, or unexpectedly pursuing an item you feel you absolutely must win. I was surprised to find out the framed Life magazine covers of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt from April and November 1940 were my must-have items. I waved my bidder card and kept raising it until everyone else relented and Mr. Churchill and Mr. Roosevelt were mine. I had won, and I was a little thrilled by the adrenaline rush of bidding and winning. Upon reflection, I realize this may have been the thrill of competition driving me to bid, and that sometimes it might be wise to just let something go.
If you do want something, be quick to raise your bidder card, particularly if there is another person bidding. The auctioneer or his spotters need to see your bid before the sale is final. Most of the time, you will hear “Going once, Going twice…” but this is not always said. Once the auctioneer says “Sold,” there are no second chances.
Finally, enjoy the experience. An auction is not just about what you win or what you lose. An auction is an opportunity to find something unexpected and to learn something new. May you find what you are looking for and good luck bidding!