The Country Auction
( Originally Published 1907 )
THERE is fascination in the very thought of a country auction. Not, indeed, that there is always something to be picked up, but that there is an ever-present possibility. There is an allurement in the very sight of a country auction bill, whether it be tacked on the oak tree at the watering trough or hung on a string in the village store.
Nor is this merely a modern idea. Those who like to know that in their quest of things of the past they are following in the footsteps of the notable people of a bygone time, will not only remember that auctions have long been held in high esteem (they are as old as the Romans), but that the very Father of His Country went one day to an auction at the breaking up of a neighbor's establishment in the Potomac region, and there purchased furniture to the value, as the queerly precise old record has it, of one hundred and sixty-nine pounds, twelve shillings and nine-pence! That Washington, although he bought from a full pocketbook and spent a lavish total, was not able to resist entirely the delight of getting things at as good a bargain as possible, and that he was reluctantly forced upward on different purchases, shilling by shilling and penny by penny, is amusingly apparent. How delightful would be a full and accurate account of his behavior and his bidding at that auction!
Nowadays, in many districts, when an auction impends, handbills are distributed to every little store and post-office within a radius of some ten miles or so, and tacked upon trees at crossroads. Placed thus in public view, the bills are commented upon by the critical and combined intelligence of the neighborhood.
The important announcements, from the local viewpoint, are of horses and cattle, of farming machinery, of chickens and of hay. Yet almost al-ways, if looked for, may be found the words, tucked away somewhere down toward the bottom, "Household furniture." Sometimes the descriptive "old-fashioned" accompanies the words. Sometimes there is an item of "coverlids and homespun blankets." And "coverlids and homespun" are likely to portend ancient chests of drawers and Windsor chairs.
The auction will not be quite so promising as to results if the house is near a summer resort or any of the host of places to which urban dwellers crowd during the distinctly suburban months. And yet this does not make so much difference as it might, for most auctions are held in the spring or fall, before the tide has set from the city or after it has ebbed cityward again.
Most promising, is the little auction where the number of articles is small, where comparatively few people will be attracted, and where, at the end of the little handbills, is modestly printed the announcement that articles sent in by neighbors will be disposed of at the same time.
There is always the likelihood that such an announcement will fetch to the light of an auctioneer's day the single pair of unused andirons from the garret of the aged spinster, the rare candlesticks which some old settler long since discarded and for-got, the four-post bed, the set of drawers, or some-thing else equally interesting, which inquiring search would not have revealed but which the owner is as glad to sell as you are to buy. It is astonishing how many old pieces are put away and forgotten and regarded as of no value; and on the other hand, it is astonishing at how much beyond even the city prices some of the country dwellers value their old-time articles. To buy something old at a country auction or a country house, having behind it no dealer's guarantee of quality or condition, having the trouble and expense of getting it home, ought properly to carry with it the benefit of a lower price than for an article repaired and polished, put in perfect condition, and delivered.
On a beautiful October day we set forth to an auction at a house a dozen miles off, situated eight miles from a railroad and far from any town. We carried our luncheon, and oats for the horse, and were equipped for results. We had first inter-viewed our neighbors, and were told that the auction was held because of the death of an aged woman, long occupant of an ancient house; that her family had lived and died there for a hundred and twenty-five years; that there were only distant kin who felt no personal interest in either the house or the furniture; and that the house was full of old-fashioned things.
And so we went brightly on through the bright October day. The sun was cheerful and warm, and the air was a caress.
We approached the house. It was venerable and wind-beaten and gray, standing high up toward the top of a hill, with the old road sweeping by its door. Its ancient shingled sides told of multitude of antique treasures within. Wagons filled with country folk were converging on the spot from all directions. It was assuredly going to be a notable auction!
We reached the place, and the horse was tied to a fence along with a long line of other horses. In the front yard was a lot of kitchen material: wash-tubs, glass fruit jars, ironing boards, clothes-pins, pie-tins, frying pans, and a medley of similar things, little and big. There were men and women poking about. Other men and women, gathered in knots, were enjoying the reunion that comes with every auction- for an auction in the country brings many people together for perhaps the only time in weeks or months.
We were still elated. This exhibit of simple articles on the grass was to make it unnecessary for the auctioneer to lead the throng into the kitchen and cellar on his course through the house.
We went to the door. A grim-visaged woman stood on guard. Glancing beyond her, one could see only a great bareness. "Every thing 's out there in the yard!" she snapped.
"But the furniture?"
"There ain't any."
"But the bill said-"
"It 's all sold."
And such was actually the case. Every thing except a few stray worthless pieces had been disposed of at private sale, or had been taken away by the relatives, who, we learned, had swooped down and seized everything worth taking, although they had not even seen the house or their aged relative for many years.
Needless to say, we did not wait for the sale, al-though the auctioneer was clearing his voice and be-ginning to gather the people together. They were not all disappointed, of course. There are often extremely desirable bargains to be had in the matter of glass jars and ironing boards and frying pans. And for ourselves-well, it was a beautiful day for a drive, and it is illuminating and mildly chastening to learn that all expectations do not materialize and that every country auction is not a treasure field.
But there was recently a sale which furnished peculiarly good examples of the possibilities that lurk within the country auction, and at the same time showed what wonderful prizes one may at any moment secure. The house whose furniture was sold out was built before the Revolution, and the roll of its guests included names famous in our history, such as Alexander Hamilton and General Montgomery and John Jay, and one whose entertainment was matter of condolence as well as respect, General Burgoyne. It was peculiarly a house from which no collector could ever have hoped to secure a single article, any more than from a museum. Yet all the belongings were recently sold at auction!
And chief among the articles of interest, finer even than the set of two hundred pieces of old blue Can-ton china, was a set of Chippendale chairs, twelve in number.
These twelve chairs, beautifully designed and made, and two of them with arms, were used at the time of General Burgoyne's reception there, an honored prisoner, after his surrender at Saratoga and on his way toward the coast. And there is a curious point about them. Although distinctively Chippendale in design, and in the unmistakable central splat, they show a Dutch influence in that the top line of the back merges into the side lines without a break-giving the effect, that is, as if of a single piece, rounded and bent, instead of one piece at each side and one at the top. Chairs with this peculiarity are usually known as Dutch chairs, but in this case the Chippendale characteristics far outweigh the Dutch and the beauty of design has been but slightly lessened.
There was an auction sale of a different class, not at all a notable one, just a few months ago, only eight miles from our home, at which there were opportunities such as one can ordinarily only dream of.
Unfortunately we did not go, being informed by some who ought to have known better that there was nothing of much interest there. Particulars of the sale came later, from a friend; and here, literally set down, are some of the prices at which sales were actually made, only fifty miles from New York.
A fine and ancient armoire, of dark oak, heavy, dignified, impressive, went for six dollars. Good armchairs, the kind which Sheraton himself called "fancy" chairs, light and delicate, painted, and with touches of gilt, sold for thirty-five cents each. Some mahogany chairs, of late Empire, were bid off at ten cents apiece less. An admirable mahogany chest of drawers, with oval brasses, was knocked down for one dollar! A plain chest of drawers of cherry, with wooden knobs on the drawers, was bid in for twenty-five cents.
Thus it is that the country auction tantalizes with its potentialities.
One day we set off to an old house upon one of the oldest roads of the countryside, a thoroughfare familiar to the troops of the Revolution.
But we found it a place where the penalty of too much prosperity had been paid. Generation after generation had thrown away the old and purchased new. There were but few things in the house for which a collector could care, and for those few the prices were run up by the dealers, and then, when they would go no higher, by a man who had come with apparently unlimited money and the intention of procuring a household furnishing of antiques.
But the auction was an amusing one. The auctioneer, genial, loud-voiced, ready-witted, knew al-most everyone in a first-name intimacy. As he led the way from room to room, he interspersed the selling with jests and pleasantries. One woman had recently married a second husband, and he was always calling her, with intent to embarrass, by her earlier married name. It so happened that her buyings of the prosaically useful were many, and it gave the auctioneer the frequent opportunity to call out to his clerk to set the sale down to "Mrs. Brown." No matter how often he did this, she was each time genuinely taken off her guard, so deeply had the second marriage impressed her. And so, to his cue of "Mrs. Brown," she invariably gave her agitated contradiction, "No, no, no! Mrs. Jenkins!" To the intense amusement of the crowd.
In one room was a fine old bellows. A number examined it appreciatively. The man who had come prepared to bid for everything openly admired it. It was of graceful shape, rather large, heavily bossed upon one side and showing a generous wealth of brass nails on its margins, and it possessed an unusually long and heavy and business-like brass nose. Naturally, it showed hard usage, and its leathers showed holes. None the less, it was a distinct potential prize, one of the very few possibilities.
But the auctioneer, when he picked it up, saw only the holes in the leathers; and so, to make a "lot" with it, he held up at the same time a spittoon of mottled brown crockery, past its prime. "How much am I bid for the lot?" he asked.
There was a sudden chill. All at once it seemed that nobody wanted a fine bellows, in spittoon environment. To the admirers of the bellows, including him of the plethoric purse, it seemed that they were asked to bid not on the bellows but upon its obnoxious associate.
"Ten cents!" There was no other bid, and the bellows was ours.
"No; I don't want the other;" and the auctioneer smiled appreciatively and handed the spittoon, as a gift, to a patriarchal farm-laborer in the front row, who bore it off in toothless glee.
It mattered not, now, that to the very rich had gone the very little of braided rug and acorn mirror and quaint old chair which the sale had afforded. Our bellows for ten cents!-a bellows for which we had been prepared to bid high-had redeemed the day. It mattered not that there were holes in the leathers. By chance, by the fate that watches over true lovers of the old, there was a piece of morocco at home of size sufficient to make new leathers for it, and it took but an hour to do the work.
Considered simply as a money proposition, it would have been more economical to purchase a bellows in the regular way, instead of taking two per-sons and a horse, and an entire day, for a cross-country drive and an auction sale. But as it is we have a particularly fine bellows, which reminds us of a fine old house of the olden time and of the varied amusing experiences of a pleasant day.
At this same auction we missed an unusual opportunity. A great lot of carpet was put up in one lot : ingrain, of good quality, and not much worn, but of such colors and designs as to displease everybody through their glaring gaudiness. The entire lot was knocked down for a trivial sum, we looking on indifferently. And not until afterward did it occur to us that the carpet should have been bought; not to use as a carpet, but to be cut into strips, and made, by the local weaver, into rugs; for it could have been done in such a way as to lose all the gaudiness and make the rugs of softly warm colors and modestly attractive effect.
All good auctions are not in the country. There are some city auction sales which it is a satisfaction, and perhaps a pleasure, to look in upon auctions at those shops which make a specialty of handling the antique. For at such places there is always the possibility of seeing just the piece you wish, and not a copy but a valuable original. Naturally, in the large cities there are likely to be so many people present as to make low prices unusual for desirable articles. But the prices are often very fair.
There are, too, sales in the city at the breaking up of homes; it may be because a family has died out, it may be from the same reason that caused the Sedley sale at which Becky Sharp was present and where the well-intentioned Dobbin purchased a piano, and where there were also disposed of certain magnificent mahogany tables.
It has come to be rather the custom, however-at least in New York-for the sale of the furnishings of an old city home to be held at one of the principal auction-rooms. For the sale of special collections in this manner, catalogues are printed, often illustrated ones, and the articles are on preliminary exhibition for several days.
It is worth remembering that, at the large shops, the end of the day is likely to be the best. The auctioneer is tired, and begins to lessen his attempts to raise prices; and most of the people are restless and beginning, more or less actively, to think of home; many are actually leaving. Drop into the rooms just for those final psychic moments, and you may "learn something to your advantage," as advertisements have it.
It was at such an hour in the late afternoon that six beautiful old blue dinner-plates were put up-plates worth at least a dollar each, and at ordinary prices two or three dollars. There was no competition, not a single opposing bid following the opening tentative one, and the plates came to us for ten cents apiece; and this in a sale at a fashionable shop where the wealthy congregate. It was at such a time that a dark blue teapot came to us for eighty cents, for which a dealer, who had missed noticing that it was up, at once offered us five dollars.
It is not always that purchases can be made for a little. The price that lies in antique buys, as Hood would have expressed it, has been the undoing of many a pocketbook. But it is interesting to know that such low prices are possible and that at no time need the buyer of moderate means go to a high extreme.
One of the most charming of the Elian essays expatiates on the pleasure which accompanies the purchase that is a triumph. A purchase is but a purchase when there is a plethoric purse, declares Elia, and he lovingly turns over and over-his immediate text is the gathering of some old china-the thought of the keen pleasure that accompanies the purchase exultant.