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Going Going Gone: Town and Country AuctionsBy Edwin Valentine Mitchell
( Orginally published 1950 )
Auction in town and country have been popular in New England for centuries. These sales, or "vendues," as they were called, used to be announced by the town crier, or by the distribution of handbills, or by newspaper advertisements. Sometimes all three methods were employed to give notice of the same sale. These methods are still used today, but the function of the town crier is now largely fulfilled by the radio announcer.
Auctions were frequently held at the local tavern, which was not merely a place of entertainment, but a center where public and private business was transacted. Sometimes an auctioneer provided refreshment for the crowd. If the bidding lagged, he held up a bottle, offering a drink to the next bidder. Someone would raise the bid a cent and be the envy of all as he took a swig.
Peddlers held vendues at fairs, musters, and other special gatherings where the people turned out in force. In his American Notes, Nathaniel Hawthorne describes the peddlers at Williams College on commencement day in 1838.
The most characteristic part of the scene [he says] was where the peddlers, ginger-bread sellers, etc., were collected. There was a peddler there from New York State who sold his wares by auction, and I could have stood and listened to him all day long. Sometimes he would put up a heterogeny of articles in a lot-as a paper of pins, a lead pencil, and a shaving box-and knock them all dawn, perhaps for ninepence. Bunches of lead pencils, steel pens, pound cakes of shaving soap, gilt finger-rings, bracelets, clasps and other jewellery, cards of pearl buttons, or steel, bundles of wooden combs, boxes of matches, suspenders and, in short, everything-dipping his hand down into his wares, with the promise of a wonderful lot, and producing, perhaps, a bottle of opodeldoc, and joining it with a lead pencil.
Hawthorne would perhaps have been interested in the luck of a person who at a country auction in Maine a few years ago purchased a bean pot and its contents for small change. In the bean pot was discovered the rare first edition of Hawthorne's Fanshawe, a book worth over a thousand dollars. There also turned up in Maine the rarest and most sought after of American literary treasures. This was a copy of Poe's Tamerlane and Other Poems, of which scarcely a dozen copies are known. One in good condition has sold for as much as $31,000 - This book, which is really not a book at all but a small forty-page pamphlet, has a romantic, if rather baffling, history. It was printed in Boston in 1827 by a young printer named Calvin F. S. Thomas, who is thought to have been a friend of Poe's. Poe was eighteen at the time and it was his first literary work. His name does not appear on the pamphlet. On the title page it is stated that the poems are "By a Bostonian," but though born in Boston, Poe was not a proper Bostonian. He had enlisted in the Army at Boston under the name of Edgard A. Perry, after quarreling with his guardian, John Allen, in Richmond. When the late Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard was asked whether he did not think Poe's writings had in them the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome, he replied, "Yes, and the degradation of Baltimore."
The circumstances surrounding the publication of Tamerlane are largely conjectural. It is believed that Poe agreed to stand the expense of having his poems printed, but when the work was done was unable to pay Thomas, who disposed of the edition as wastepaper, except for a few copies which he had given to Poe, perhaps for the purpose of soliciting orders, or for presenting to reviewers. Nobody knows how many copies were printed, but the edition was undoubtedly small. Poe included revised versions of the poems in Tamerlane in another collection called Al Aaraaf, published two years later in Baltimore. In this second pamphlet he acknowledged the printing of Tamerlane in 1827, but claimed it had been "suppressed through circumstances of a private nature."
The public at large did not become aware of the value of Tamerlane until an article on rare books by Vincent Starrett called "Have You a Tamerlane in Your Attic?" was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1925. An elderly woman living with her sister in an attic in Worcester read the article, but was uncertain whether the Tamerlane she had was the sort which Mr. Starrett said was worth $10,000. But she got in touch with Charles A. Goodspeed, the famous Boston bookseller, who found the buff-colored pamphlet to be genuine. He sold it to Owen D. Young for $17,500, and gave the Worcester woman a check for $14,000, This particular copy is now owned by the New York Public Library. Six of the eleven known copies are in institutions.
The eleventh copy, which was discovered in Skowhegan, Maine, was a miserable specimen which brought a record low of $4300 when it was sold at auction in New York at the American Art Association Anderson Galleries in December, 1938. Its earliest known owner was a Skowhegan carpenter and builder named Joseph Bigelow. But no matter how poor the copy, if you are able to secure at a country auction of antiques an insignificant pamphlet in printed wrappers entitled TAMERLANE AND OTHER POEMS. BY A BOSTONIAN.... Boston: Calvin, F. S. Thomas ... Printer. 1827, with two lines quoted from Cowper between the "Bostonian" and the "Boston," you have the rarest of American first editions. The quotation which Poe used on the cover of his teenage work was singularly appropriate:
Young heads are giddy, and young hearts are warm, And make mistakes for manhood to reform.
Frequenters of city sales rooms in which pictures, rare books, manuscripts, prints, old silver, antique furniture, and other artistic and literary valuables are auctioned watch the trend of prices closely to see whether new heights are reached or there are losses on previous values. Many ups and downs can be accounted for by changes of fashion in collecting. Of course, if you follow the current vogue, you pay more than if you pursue a less popular line of collecting. Important things often show heavy losses on earlier values because they come up for resale only a few years after they were bought at a high price. When this occurs such things seldom do well, as there is a feeling that the person who wishes to dispose of something so soon after purchasing it may have regretted buying it in the first place. Then, too, the owner may be the person who because of his interest in a particular kind of antique is the one who has been chiefly responsible for establishing the market value, and when he changes from buyer to seller a fall in prices almost invariably follows. The artistic merit of a thing, however, does not change with the value, and lower prices may enable appreciative persons to make acquisitions they could not afford before.
Some people take a melancholy view of auctions, seeing in the sale of the contents of an old house in the country a note of valediction and doom. They picture the owners, perhaps an aged and infirm couple, forced to sell the old homestead and all their belongings. Poverty and death often are the causes of these sales, but appearances are sometimes misleading. During the summer city dealers sometimes travel about the countryside with loads of furniture and, hiring the barn and grounds of some nice old place, will auction the furniture off to summer residents and others. Local dealers frequently do the same thing, bringing stuff from isolated places to towns, where it is easier to get a crowd. An auction is not necessarily a preface to poverty. A person may simply be moving elsewhere and wish to get rid of a lot of old junk he cannot take with him.
New Englanders are a saving people, sometimes accumulating and hoarding things to the point of eccentricity, and you never can tell what will come up for sale at an auction. Here, for example, is a list of articles sold by auction after the death of Harry Crocker, and his wife, in Nantucket, copied from the list published at the time of the sale and preserved in the notebook of Mrs. Frederick Mason Stone, who was born in 1828 and spent her girlhood on Nantucket Island. The Crockers lived near the North Shore in a house long since removed or taken down. "They had no children," says Mrs. Stone, "kept no boarders, never entertained company, and lived in a small house." Yet, incredible as it may appear, they possessed the following things:
There were other miscellaneous items, including toweling enough to last the heirs a lifetime.
There are eccentric buyers as well as eccentric sellers at New England auctions. One newspaper editor who is an auction addict revels in buying the oddest and most useless objects imaginable. He comes home with the craziest collection of things which neither he nor anyone else could possibly find any use for, but absurd or hideous as they may be, he professes a profound affection for them, and it amuses him to buy them.
For many people the fascination of an auction does not lie so much in the articles offered for sale, or the crowd present, or the place where the auction is held, as it does in the auctioneer himself. People love to hear a good auctioneer in action, and it must be admitted that many of them are masters of the art of advocacy. They know how to arrest and hold the attention of a crowd. They know how to coax and cajole and keep the bidding going at a lively pace. They know how to play off one contender against another. They can spin a web of words around a commonplace object so that it seems the most desirable thing in the world. They are able to get the last penny for it, too. Occasionally, they let something go cheaply to maintain interest. Courteous, goodhumored, and amusing, they nevertheless know the right moment to scold their hearers. This is seemingly one of the traditions of the calling, but it takes an experienced auctioneer to know how and when to do it properly.
Once at a sale of antiques in the house of a deceased Connecticut millionaire at which I was a bystander the customary berating was particularly ill-timed and badly done. The sale was such an important one that a cry of New York auctioneers had been imported to conduct it. It was a long sale and after luncheon a relief auctioneer took over. He was young, quite Hollywoodish in appearance, and somewhere had acquired what sometimes passes for a cultured accent. The fellow didn't do so badly at first, but he had only been selling a short time before he decided to go into his scolding act. He felt very, very hurt, he said, at the discourtesy of the audience in not paying strict attention to him. There was buzzing, he declared, and he went on to chide the people as if they were a lot of bad-mannered and illbred children. The whole thing was poorly timed and what he said in worse taste, but carried away by his own bad art he went on and on to the discomfort of everybody, until at length the situation was relieved by a cynical gentleman in tweeds exclaiming, "Fiddlesticks, Professor!" at which the crowd laughed and the youthful auctioneer was hurriedly deposed by his colleagues.
An auctioneer is the agent of the owner and is bound by his instructions. He cannot bid himself and he must use reasonable diligence in the conduct of a sale, the terms of which must be stated at the outset. He must not be guilty of misdescribing the goods, as that is fraud. An old-time trick of the unscrupulous auctioneer is to pretend to receive bids which are not in fact made. It is also fraudulent to use by-bidders or confederates to run up prices. But the law relating to auctions is rarely invoked, and there is no doubt that some auctioneers employ persons to stimulate the zeal of legitimate bidders.
Only once, however, have I known an auction to be broken up. The auctioneer stopped the sale immediately when a person present charged him with unfairness. He was a barnstormer holding a summer sale of antiques in an old coast town. He had hired a hall, and the moment his methods were challenged he declared the sale adjourned and ordered the lights put out. The people present were furious at the man who stopped the show.
The Uniform Sales Act, which has been adopted by most States, contains the following provisions covering sales by auction:
Section 21. In the case of sale by auction-( i ) . Where goods are put up for sale by auction in lots, each lot is the subject of a separate contract of sale.
(2.) A sale by auction is complete when the auctioneer announces its completion by the fall of the hammer, or in other customary manner. Until such announcement is made, any bidder may retract his bid; and the auctioneer may withdraw the goods from sale unless the auction has been announced to be without reserve.
(3.) A right to bid may be reserved expressly by or on behalf of the seller.
(4.) Where notice has not been given that a sale by auction is subject to a right to bid on behalf of the seller, it shall not be lawful for the seller to bid himself or to employ or induce any person to bid at such sale on his behalf, or for the auctioneer to employ or induce any person to bid at such sale on his behalf, or for the auctioneer to employ or induce any person to bid at such sale on behalf of the seller or knowingly to take any bid from the seller or any person employed by him. Any sale contravening this rule may be treated as fraudulent by the buyer.
The custom of hanging out a red flag at an auction is a very old one, dating back to Roman days, when the spoils of war were disposed of at public sale. A spear was used as the sign of an auction. Soon a red flag was added, and this continued to be the emblem of the auctioneer even after this special mode of sale had been extended to property in general. Ever since, the red flag and spear, or rather flagstaff, symbols of blood and war, have been used for this same purpose.
It is difficult to lay down any rules for the person who attends New England antique auctions, but here are a few points which are perhaps worth noting.
One, you have to know the auctioneer, which includes knowing his by-bidders, if he uses them. If you are really friendly with him, regarded by him as one of his following, so to speak, you get favored treatment.
Two, with an honest auctioneer who works without by-bidders a private citizen can nearly always outbid a dealer for anything he really wants. Lots of people just sit back in exasperation when a dealer starts bidding, whereas a moment's thought will show that the dealer has to stop short of what he will charge for an article in his shop. I know one or two high-class dealers who will go within ten dollars of their expected retail price on a hundred-dollar item, but normally a dealer expects to double his money, which leaves plenty of leeway for a private buyer to make a saving. Furthermore, if you cultivate the friendship of dealers, they hesitate to run up a good customer.
Three, pay no attention to the trimmings, such as "contents of old house in the same family two hundred years." The only thing that counts is the merchandise itself. You have to know a good piece when you see it, and you have to know, not necessarily what it is worth, but what it is worth to you. You must also know your own particular failing at auctions. Some people get caught in the spirit of competition, and cannot let go even when they don't want the stuff; others get feeling poor halfway through, and lose things because they won't toss in the last two dollars and a half that would take it. Also it is probably a mistake to pass a "steal" because you are saving your money for something else you want; two to one the latter will go out of sight.
One hears it said that the days are gone when bargains were to be had at auctions. This is not true. There are just as many bargains and the voice of the auctioneer is heard as frequently as ever in New England.
"A fine, genuine old piece, ladies and gentlemen, a hundred years old, as good as the day it was made and a rare example. What am I offered for this heirloom? Will somebody start it off at ten dollars? Anybody give ten dollars? What do I hear, five dollars? I have five dollars for it. Who says six? Thank you, madam. I have six dollars. Going for six dollars..."
Recently, at the end of a country sale, the auctioneer as a final gesture sacrificed for a dollar and a quarter the kitchen table which the clerk of the auction had used to keep a record of the sales. After the buyer had driven off with it, the discovery was made that the entire cash proceeds of the auction were in the table drawer.