This September 23 marks ten years since the historic clearing auction of the Marjorie E. Larmon Collection. Based on Marjorie’s reputation (discussed in my blog of July 29), there was enormous anticipation building up to this one-time event. The buzz continued to growing since the announcement of the auction months before, and it was clear that they would need the full capacity of the Simcoe Curling Club where it was being held. By the time the Friday preview arrived the atmosphere was electric, and the place was crowded with dealers and collectors closely examining and considering their items of interest. Whispering to each other. Some with poker face. Others unable to contain their excitement. Everyone jotting down little notes in their catalogues. I noticed some dealers gathered in a quiet corner, privately sorting out how they might divide the spoils by not bidding against each other. Kidding themselves really, into believing that this may help against this determined crowd.
Our strategy at auction previews is to focus first on the work, and leave the chatting until later. This is tougher than it sounds in a room full of people you like and who rarely, if ever turn up in these parts. I find it best to have a short friendly exchange and then be upfront with a “let’s get together and have a visit once we’ve finished looking. I can’t wait to see the stuff”. Most people are relieved because they are feeling the same. And so it was that after a couple of hours of inspection and note taking we spent another couple of hours just getting caught up with old friends. Many of whom we invited to drop by the following day after the auction, for a beverage and commiseration on the porch. We had no idea who would want to take the time to come by rather than beating a path home, but we realized that there would probably never be another occasion when so many of our dealer and collector friends would be drawn to our area. With the help of our daughter Cassandra, and her husband Anson who were also attending the auction, we got a lot of snacks together, and brought the giant metal wash tub for ice, and the folding chairs up from the basement to the porch. We spent the evening discussing our wish list, and our strategy.
Basically we didn’t feel we would be buying much for resale. We would watch for things that may fall through the cracks, but it was unlikely for this to happen often given the overall quality of the items, and the hyped up crowd determined to take something home of Marjorie’s. We would keep our eyes open, but decided to focus on a half dozen things we would love to add to our own collection. Realizing we would be happy to get one or two of them. We didn’t want any of the big furniture for ourselves, so we decided to focus on a few smaller items like hooked rugs Lot 128 an 1888 rooster, and lot #104 a rug with five black cats, Also lot #162, a spectacular poly-chromed artist’s box, and lot #101 a beautiful example of a Ceinture fleche or Assumption sash from Quebec. We loved the Pirate weather vane dated 1846, lot # 74, but most of all we loved lot #217, described as a pair of folk art carved and original painted pine figures, a face and upper torso of a white man, and a face of a black man with a hand below. They were attached as pilasters to an old chest of drawers and were thought to be from Quebec. I didn’t much mind where they came from, I just thought and still do that they are extraordinarily beautiful and mysterious objects. Plus, they were obscure enough that I imagined they would have limited appeal, and so we hoped that we could get them for four or five thousand dollars. Tops. I mean with everyone fighting over the cigar store Indian and the chair table who was going to notice “our” little men. That is what I dreamed that night.
At 9:30 on that fateful morning, we were seated in our chairs, catalogues in hand, coffee at our side, ready to roll. So were a few hundred other people. Marjorie was seated front and center, ready to observe and keep track of who bought what. The auctioneers Jim Anderson and Jerry Brooks kept their opening comments short and sweet, and so after a big round of applause for Marjorie we were away to the races. Within minutes the pattern was set. Every important item realized astronomical prices. Even most lesser things went through the roof. It was relentless. Our first targeted item #74 the pirate weather vane realized $24,000. By the time the Ceinture fleche sold for $13,500, and the cat rug sold for $24,000 we could read the writing on the wall.
Then the 1888 rooster rug sold for $15,000, and we gasped along with everyone else when #162 the artist’s box sold for $40,000. Over the afternoon we did managed to buy a few pieces of tole and pottery, and a couple of rugs for resale but in terms of our own collection our last hope, and greatest wish was #217 the strange painted men. As we soon learned, out projected hammer price of $6,000 was wildly optimistic. Things looked good as the bidding began and there was a point where I thought we might get them for $3,000. It seemed there was just us and a couple of other bidders, who seemed to stop. Then a painfully long stretch of “do I hear $3,500. Someone give me $3,200. Are there any further bids?” My heart was pumping. “Any advance on $3,000?” Going, going…. and then from the back I hear “I’ll give you $3,200. Well there you go. It was a new bidder. An American dealer I knew from New York who had been laying in wait. I was disappointed, but not defeated as Jeanine and I had already upped our projected top bid to $10, 000 based on the rest of the auction and our lack of success with other items. So away we go. My preferred bidding method is to bid fast, with just the occasional slow gap right up to my top bid. It sometimes works especially at a local, lower profile auction because people realize you are serious and determined, and the quickly climbing price is intimidating. It didn’t work here.
We said goodbye to our dream at $10,000 plus one bid as planned and then watched as it carried on up between two American dealers to a hammer price of $14,000. You know it’s true what they say. You never regret the things you stretch your budget to buy. You only regret the things you let get away. $4,000 isn’t much in the overall scheme of things, but then of course there is no saying how far past this we would have to go to get them. Would my life be more fulfilled if I was able to look at them there on the living room wall every day? The answer is both yes and no. I’m not a guy who gets excited by a new car or sports jacket, but I truly do love being around items that inspire me so yes, but I am also happy enough to reach a predetermined point and walk away. You can’t take any of this stuff with you contrary to what the Pharaohs believed.
About thirty people came back to the house afterwards and it was wonderful to compare war stories. A lot of laughs and comradery, and a fair amount of B.S. It was a special day in many ways. For the genuine feeling of community, and because it would be the last time we would be together with some of the dealers, who have since passed on. I wish I had taken some pictures. I was too busy just living in the moment. It was a great moment.