The Auction House Diaries: How a Drunken Auctioneer Set My Career Path

(From left to right) Auctioneer Morgan Willis, with Bill Whitcomb and Howard Koeppel, in auction action in 1984. Had it not been for a drunken auctioneer, Willis—the author’s father—may have never become an auctioneer himself, and Martin Willis may have gone into some other business.

I guess you could say that our family got in the antiques auction business because of drunkenness. Most people would be embarrassed to admit something like that, but not I.

Long before my father ever stood behind the podium with gavel in hand, he was relentlessly dragging me from an early age to auctions everywhere. I would enjoy the previews and try not to break anything, but of course had to touch everything. I would always grab a seat with my dad and sit there as an auction meandered with very little interest. As the night would drag on, I would find my way to the truck just to fall asleep among the musty packing blankets. I would usually wake up abruptly to the banging of the tailgate. This was the way I was alerted that is was time for me to help packing and loading. Anticipating that we would be heading home soon, I did this without too much complaining, yet in a groggy, lethargic manor.

I was totally bored at most auctions; I thought the auctioneers were angry because no one was ever paying enough for what they were buying it seemed. Only one auctioneer could hold my interest, and that was George Martin, a.k.a. “Colonel Martin.” He was 5 feet tall, at best, and skinny as a rail. He would bid call while he had a stoneware jug on his shoulder, tipping it to drink. [You might guess this is where the drunkenness comes in, but not yet].

This auctioneer was drinking water while as funny as could be. He could make a little kid like me laugh and want to hang out at what would normally be a boring auction. I remember he was the first auctioneer I ever bought anything from at the ripe old age of 9. It was a crystal scent bottle for $2 I bought it for my mother’s Christmas present. It sparkled like a diamond and I really wanted to keep it myself, but I came to my senses and wrapped it for under the tree. I can remember my father’s guidance telling me not to go above $4 because that would be too much. No one had even heard of a buyer’s premium then. When the auctioneer said sold, I remember him teasing me about needing perfume. Everyone was looking at me, and I could feel my face turning bright red. I was not so thrilled with the auctioneer’s humor that night.

My dad, Morgan Willis, was as close as you could get to being the mayor of our small town Eliot, Maine. Chairman of the Board of Selectman was his title. He dragged me once more to an auction, but this time it was at our own town’s Grange Hall, an unprecedented event. It was a benefit auction of some kind and we were all waiting around for it to get started. You could never keep my attention too long at that age, and minutes were like hours. I wanted to leave and not wait anymore.

All of a sudden, there was uproar in the back of the hall and the auctioneer came in staggering. As a kid, I couldn’t understand what was wrong and my father whispered to me that the auctioneer was drunk off his you-know-what. People in charge of the auction started running here and there with a band of men slowly guiding our pickled auctioneer out the door he came in. I can only hope someone drove him home, but in those days he was probably loaded (no pun intended) into his car with someone putting the key in the ignition for him as well as placing his hands on the wheel.

(From left to right) Runners at Seaboard Auction Gallery’s inaugural sale in 1979: Jack Brown, Martin Willis and J.R. Larue.

The band of men came back in together, arguing amongst themselves, when one of them yelled, “Hey Morgan, you’re the mayor, you get up and do the auction.” For some reason, I was horrified, but my dad did not hesitate, he got right up there, in charge as usual, and started selling. He took to it like a duck to water. Finally, an auction was not boring at all to me. I remember feeling proud to be his son until I bought a Norelco electric razor that came up for a dollar bid. This gave my father a great opportunity to introduce the bidder as someone several years away from peach fuzz. After awhile, it dawned on me that my father couldn’t buy anything, there was no packing and loading to do, so I was doubly elated, but that was soon about to change.

The auction concluded, there was a big applause as attendees of the sale rushed up and surrounded him. I heard a woman tell him she had a barn full of antiques and if he became an auctioneer, he could sell it all. He told the woman he would be right over and off we went. We followed behind her and on the way there my father wouldn’t stop talking how much he loved auctioning.

We pulled up to a beautiful white Colonial home with a large barn surrounded by fields. After looking at her antiques, he proudly claimed he was going to get his auction license right away. It was a long day of loading, one of many to come. By the end of that weekend, he had visited several other people’s homes as well. This progressed to many years of my father’s successes, including the building of Seaboard Auction Gallery in our hometown. He was so busy his first year it opened (1979) that he conducted 50 auctions.

My father never stopped loving the business and even up to his last days, he wanted to auction just one more time.

Life’s twists and turns usually end up amiss when it comes to the affects of alcohol. I can honestly say in a roundabout way, that drunkenness had enriched our lives.

Martin Willis is Worthologist and auctioneer who owns Seaboard Appraisal Service. 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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