The Auction House Diaries: Country Auctioneers in the City
Back around 1983, I was working with my father at his auction gallery in Eliot, Maine. It was a small, regional auction house called Seaboard Auction Gallery. We had auctions every few weeks on Thursday evenings. There was always a huge crowd of buyers and it was a nice social event. We were one of the few auction galleries operating in the area at that time, and our consignments came from local estates and homes. The phone always rang and we had our hands full. Now, the seacoast area is inundated with auctioneers and the pie is sliced rather thin these days.
Our auctions were mid-range, yet once in awhile we pulled something great out of woodwork. When we put together a nice auction, we would advertise in the Antiques and the Arts Weekly and sometimes in the Maine Antiques Digest. Our name was well-known for auctions in the seacoast and we had participants bidding nationwide. We had a few big auctions at the time, but nothing earth shattering.
One day I was in the office and received a call from a gentleman in Manhattan. He told me that he and his mother had some great pieces for auction. They had a few homes full of fine antiques that had been had moved to their apartment in Manhattan. He also said his mother had a house at Margate, N.J., full of antiques and a Rolls Royce to sell. I asked him why he contacted us in Maine and wondered why he was not using the hundreds of auction galleries in his area. After all, New York is considered the nation’s hub of antiques. He said he saw our ads in the Antiques and the Arts Weekly and did not trust anyone in New York. A red flag should have popped up, but I was young and all I could think about was the nice items he described to me. I told him that I had to speak with my father about this and put him on hold.
My father was working with the floor crew setting up an auction and I filled him in on the details. He jumped on the phone for about a half hour, and then I heard him taking down directions. After he hung up, he proclaimed that we were heading for New York the Monday after our auction that week.
The following Monday, we got up early in the morning and started our five-hour trip south to New York. I was driving and I am the first to admit I was scared to drive in the city. Not to our surprise, we got lost and kept getting more lost. I had a knack of coaxing the beeping horns of taxis. It was turn after harrowing turn, and then finally we were on the correct street somehow. We drove past the address, but that didn’t matter, we couldn’t find parking anyway. I noticed it was not the best of areas, and I also knew my dad and I would stand out like a sore thumb. We might as well have tattooed “Country Hicks” on our foreheads. We had to walk for several blocks and I remember my father saying “This is the city; don’t make eye contact with anyone.” This was coming from a man that always said hi to everyone, everywhere.
“We called from a payphone to tell our clients we were on foot and nearby. The apartment was on the 5th floor, it was a hot, muggy summer day and the elevator did not work. My father had a few pounds on him and by the time we got near the top flight, he was panting and dabbing sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief. ”
We called from a payphone to tell our clients we were on foot and nearby. The apartment was on the 5th floor, it was a hot, muggy summer day and the elevator did not work. My father had a few pounds on him and by the time we got near the top flight, he was panting and dabbing sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief. We rested for a minute before approaching the door. The hallway was dark and it was noisy living; you could hear people talking, music and televisions playing through the thin walls.
When I knocked on the door you could hear about 10 locks snapping open. The door opened to reveal a stocky elderly woman who was greeting us with a raspy voice. She seemed nice enough, but there was something unusual about her. I had just spoke to the son on the phone and asked if he was there. She said he would be joining us soon. The entryway was well lit and right away I noticed a five o’clock shadow on the elderly lady as well as an Adam’s apple. I don’t have a problem if a man wants to dress as a woman, but this was supposed to be the mother of the son we had been dealing with. She had lots of make-up caked on, nice clip on earrings, a fashionable, flowery summer dress and heels.
The furniture was stacked up to the ceiling and took me aback. It is hard to portray what we were looking at. It was a three- to four-bedroom flat that had every square inch spoken for. There were small paths just wide enough to squeeze through. Most of the rooms were very dark as the furniture was stacked against the windows and blocking most of the overhead lighting. I asked if she had a flashlight we could use and she curtly said that she did not. My father smoked a pipe at the time and his lighter came in handy.
“There was a fine Philadelphia Chippendale highboy, other period highboys, chests on chests, lowboys, a wonderful block-front Chippendale chest, Hepplewhite chests, sets of Chippendale & Federal chairs, period mirrors, folk art and impressionist paintings stacked thick to the wall, marble and bronze sculptures, tapestries, antique Persian rugs and on and on.”
We could not believe what we were seeing. Everything he had mentioned on the phone and more. There was a fine Philadelphia Chippendale highboy, other period highboys, chests on chests, lowboys, a wonderful block-front Chippendale chest, Hepplewhite chests, sets of Chippendale & Federal chairs, period mirrors, folk art and impressionist paintings stacked thick to the wall, marble and bronze sculptures, tapestries, antique Persian rugs and on and on. Every single room was stacked tight up to the ceiling. There must have been 20 sets of period chairs alone.
While the lady was showing us around and describing pieces, she leaned down and the back of her wig lifted to reveal a nice thick head of short black hair.
When my father and I were alone in a room, he said that we needed to talk. I told the lady that we were going to get some lunch and be back in awhile. She said her son should be back by the time we return.
As we stepped out into the hallway, my father was saying that there was something fishy about the whole situation. To my total amazement, he had not noticed we had been talking to a man. I got a good laugh out of that, but he became even more concerned. We found a restaurant several blocks away and my father was a bit upset at the cost of our delicious, $12-cheeseburgers. We slowly meandered our way back to the building talking about what our next step would be. I remember I was intrigued by the actions and sounds of the city, but felt out of place. After we crested the dreaded stairs for the second time, the son greeted us at the door. We asked where his mother was and he said she was resting and will be out soon.
I noticed he had heavy traces of make-up foundation under the chin and neck. Keep in mind, this was way before “Mrs. Doubtfire” had hit the theaters.
My father said that we would love to deal with the items, but need some sort of proof of ownership. I spoke up and asked if he and his mother would sign an affidavit stating the property was theirs. He sternly said if we took these pieces, he would give us the property at Margate. We looked around a little more and I kept seeing things I had not noticed the first time through. I asked one more time if he would sign an affidavit and he suddenly got angry and told us to leave. As I was winding my way back toward the door, I yelled farewell to his mother for fun.
My father and I had a few laughs on the long drive home. We came up with all kinds of scenarios on the situation. We were never able to figure it out and never saw the collection come up at auction. We were glad to get out of the city and came to the realization that being country auctioneers wasn’t so bad after all.
Martin Willis is Worthologist and auctioneer who owns Tiburon Arts Consulting. You can hear his podcasts at the at Antique and Auction Forum, featuring interviews with key players in the antiques and collectibles trade
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