Learning to Love Auctions

What is it that would cause a teen age boy to attend an estate auction on a sunny Saturday afternoon , when he could be going to the beach with friends?  Thinking back on my sixteen year old self I remember that I found time for both, and that as soon as I discovered them, I enjoyed attending auctions.   Initially I think it was the “game’ aspect of watching two or more determined buyers going at it, trying to outbid each other to win that desirable object.  . Although not inherently materialistic, I find it interesting to observe the dollar value of things on any given day, and compare it to my estimates of it’s worth.  Also,  an auction presents an opportunity  to be among strangers, and observe their interplay.  Something I also love about public markets, both of the food and antique variety. And finally  of course there is the stuff itself.  There, spread out across the yard lie the components that taken together represent the life and  possessions of an individual, or family.

When I turned sixteen my Mom inexplicably and without warning bought me a brand new Vauxhall Viva station wagon.  She and my Aunt Marie were visiting a car dealer friend, and it must have been a heck of a good lunch, or a sweetheart of a deal because they came home with the news that they had both bought a car. One for me, and one for my cousin Ron.  We suspected that alcohol was involved, but naturally we were delighted all the same.  So I had wheels, and occasionally, a local auction advertisement would catch my eye, and I would take some of my hard earned  cash and set off to see what I could score.  Hard earned being the correct term in that I had a summer job on the night shift at the local canning plant.  I worked in the cooking area.  About 100 degrees, steamy, and loud for eight hours.  Minimum wage.  I learned to get by on about four hours sleep so I could have some fun before going back into the abyss.

I didn’t need anything of course.  I wasn’t setting up house or starting a shop.  I would just find myself interested in certain things.  A naive painting.  A primitive, handmade table, a chrome ashtray stand with an airplane on top.  An old plastic radio. The ephemera of interesting small things dumped from a keepsake drawer into a box lot. I loved to sort through it all and find the unexpected. I realize now that as I was looking over all that stuff I was developing my aesthetic.  I didn’t give a hoot for all the fussy glass and china and Victorian furniture , but I started to love the look of old paint, and hand wrought things.  I decided what of the paintings, if any were of interest.  I grew an appreciation for rusty old farm tools.

I didn’t even bid all that often, and when I did I would fall out early as I didn’t have a lot to spend. But I would usually come home with something.   A little gem unnoticed in a box-lot, or something so off base and goofy to most people that no one else wanted it.  I seemed to score a lot of funky, handmade furniture.  Nobody wanted that stuff.

After a few auctions you begin to notice who the dealers are.  The ones who stuck out from the crowd by how often they bid and won,  seemingly without matter of the cost.  In our area there was Madge Wilson, of Grannie’s Boot who incidentally is still  in the business today, and Don Palmer, legendary picker form the Aylmer area.   On anything of great antique value these two would very quickly leave everyone else in the dust and battle it out between them.  They both had great knowledge and taste so I learned a lot by just observing them.  On something I really liked  I would try to outbid them, but I would rarely win.  I don’t think they liked the idea of encouraging a young upstart, although they would very occasionally throw me a bone.  Still, I would most often leave with something, or a few things in the back.

In Dresden, where I was raised we had a Two car garage.  My mother rightfully insisted in keeping her car indoors, but didn’t mind having things stored temporarily on the other side.  When we sold the newspaper business, I decided to keep a few things.  I noticed one day that the bottom of the trays used to store type were made from very old hand carved wooden plates for making  circus posters.  These approx. 2’x3’ works of art showed wild animals, acrobats etc. with a place blocked out to include the local time and place.  They had remnants of the old ink soaked into the wood.  They were very old, and they were fabulous.  I also had a circa 1840 hand feed rotary printing press.  Quite small, but weighing about half a ton.  Then there was a lot of old hand carved type, etc.  So it did not take long for my space to fill up.  That’s when I met my new, old friend Dan.

Dan was always at the auctions.  He was the friendly looking, disheveled  old dude who would give the auctioneer a $2 bid when he need one, and would go home with twenty or so boxes of old tools, hardware etc. and the occasional piece of unwanted furniture.  I got to talking to Dan over coffee as we were checking out the preview.  He was a nice guy and generous by nature.  Since his wife’s death some years earlier Dan had lived on his own on a small hobby farm at the edge of town.   Just a few blocks from my house along the river road.   One day Dan asked me to come by for coffee and he would show me his barn.   I got myself right over there.

After coffee and a chat in his kitchen we went to the barn, and when he threw open the doors I was truly amazed with what lay before me.  There arranged on rows of tables and in cupboards lay thousands of sorted everyday items.  A box of cork screws here, next to kitchen devices, beside hand tools.  You get the picture.  Then over there are stacks of furniture, old bicycles, and a couple of cars including a big, black 1957 Cadillac limousine.  Wow. “Where did you get the limo, Dan”.  Turns out it was the governor of Alabama’s, and he had bought it cheap because the engine was seized. Knowing that I was running out of space he offered me a 10’x20’ space in exchange for helping him once a week to move and organize things.  I liked Dan and had no trouble agreeing to the terms.

Within a couple of years this space was also quite full, but my high school years were drawing to a close and soon I would be leaving town to pursue higher education.  My mother was wanting the other side of the garage back for storing her picnic table in the winter, etc. and I didn’t want to leave my old friend Dan with a problem.  By this point he was finished with going to auctions and wasn’t leaving the house much.

Realizing the game was almost  up, and not wanting to leave a burden on his kids, Dan phoned a local junk collector he knew and sold it all for one money on the understanding the guy would clean out the barn.  I was just about to leave home for London, Ontario so I told him to go ahead and sell my stuff as well.  There was some cool things in there, but there was also a lot of junk.  I think I got $800 for it all which was probably about what I had spent, and which came in handy to buy books, etc.  The stuff in my mother’s garage lasted about another year until a professor from a Chicago University with a printing studies program  found out about my old press and came racing over to sweet talk my mother into donating it to the library there.  Oh, and he’ll take those old Circus printing plates as well.  They had a deal when he agreed to take everything.  I couldn’t really be upset as I had left the problem unresolved for so long, but I still think about those Circus plates from time to time.

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“That’s funny. Someone’s burning wood on this hot summer day.”

In the late eighties Bill Dobson decided to hold a one day antique show in a small town just south of Montreal.  I’ve been on Google map, and for the life of me can’t figure out what town it was.  It may have been Napierville but I wouldn’t lay money on it.  In any case, it struck us as a good prospect and fit our agenda so we signed up.  First time shows are a toss of the dice, but Bill kept the rent reasonable so even if it was a wash you were not out much.  We also liked the fact that after the show we could make the two hour drive to Victoriaville to check out if anything great had arrived recently at the picker’s barns there.  Cassandra was out of school so she came along and so we also made it a bit of a working vacation. Which is about the only kind of vacation we were taking in those days.

It was already a glorious day when we pulled in to the quaint small town fair grounds at 7 a.m. on that Saturday morning.  There was about forty dealers arranged in two back to back aisles along the race track between the community hall and the bandstand.  We spotted many of the usual suspects, especially among the Eastern Ontario and Quebec dealers who did Bill’s other shows, but there were also a lot of dealers we had never seen before.  We did some good picking after setting up in those first couple of hours before the show opened.

When we pulled into our spot I noticed that a Quebec dealer I had never met was set up behind us and he had some wonderful things.  We made our acquaintance and did a little business.  Ah, that wonderful feeling of optimism that sets in just before starting an outdoor show on a beautiful day when bad weather is not a worry. I noticed that there was a very old lady sitting in the shade behind his truck already starting to cane chairs, while chain smoking.  She was the dealer’s mother and was well into her eighties.  He said she loved caning chairs and it was a good part of his business.  I enjoyed meeting her in spite of the fact that she barely spoke and continued to smoke one hand-rolled cigarette after another. I noticed she threw her butts on the ground and there was already a little circle of them around her, but didn’t think much of it.

The day preceded to be fun and profitable.  Many Montrealer’s made the drive and we also recognized lots of eastern Ontario collectors.  At  5 o’clock shows end we were happy with our day both from a buying and selling perspective.   It didn’t take long for us to pack up, and the last thing I loaded was a stack of packing blankets that had been sitting by the back door of the truck, and were no longer needed as the pieces they were protecting had been sold and were gone. I picked up the whole bunch and stuffed them in a space in the left, back corner just at the base of a wonderful old one piece cupboard in original red paint that in spite of it’s attributes had failed to attract a buyer.  We hopped in, turned east and started the two hour drive to the Motel Marie-Dan in St. Eulalie where we had a reservation.  This motel was clean and friendly and inexpensive and situated near the pickers barns so it was were many dealers stayed.  It has a nice little pool too which  Cassandra liked.  We arrived without incident, got our key which was to an upstairs room, and unloaded our luggage.  We switched on the air conditioning because it was and continued to be a stifling hot day; had ourselves a cool beverage, and proceeded to relax and count the loot we had taken in.  At the end of a good day of selling this is the best part.  Cassandra who was about 8 at the time watched a few  late afternoon cartoons and just as I was starting to nod off in my chair, looked over and said “ how about a swim ,Dad?” To be honest a quick nap in a cool room after such a long day of unloading, selling, and loading again was more appealing, but Cassandra had been such a trouper, helping out with packing and keeping herself occupied over the long hours in the hot sun, that I was not about to deny her this simple pleasure.  Plus, I knew that a little dip would do wonders to restore my energy.  So I put on my bathing suit and ten minutes later we were happily floating, and jumping and otherwise enjoying the little pool which had grown almost warm in the summer sun.  It was quite idyllic.  The sun starting to lower behind the forest which ran behind the motel bringing that beautiful evening light  which softens the contrast and pushes the red end of the colour spectrum that film makers call the “golden hour”.  I remember floating peacefully while hanging off the edge of the pool by my ankles, which is a favourite trick of mine. I loved watching Cassandra jump in over and over and otherwise enjoying herself.  We were the only ones there. As I lay there thinking how fortunate, content and grateful I felt, I was at one with the world.  And it was about then that I faintly detected the beautiful smell of burning wood.  I remember thinking, “That’s funny. Someone is burning wood on this hot summer day.” Almost as quickly I thought “ well it must be someone burning up old surplus wood to get rid of it.” And that’s when I looked over towards the parking lot and noticed smoke billowing from the back door of my truck.

You’ve never seen someone exit a pool, and cross a parking lot as fast as I did that day.  I ran to the back door of the truck which was hot, but of course it was locked and I quickly realized the keys were upstairs.  I raced upstairs, pounded frantically on the door until Jeanine who was coming out of the shower answered with a ‘hold your horses,  I’m coming, where’s the fire.”  “In the truck” I fairly shouted, “the truck’s on fire.  Quick get me the keys.” It seemed like an hour but it was probably just a few minutes before I was again at the back door of the truck. As soon as I unlocked and opened it, of course the rush of air hit the flames and the blankets were truly ablaze.  I grabbed them out and dumped them on the parking lot, and could see that the fire had also connected to the bottom of that big red cupboard which was laying on it’s side in front of the blankets.  I looked around wildly assessing my next move.  My first instinct at seeing open flame was to run, but I recovered my senses and noticed a long hose hooked up to a faucet by the garden so I raced over and was relieved to find that water came out when I cranked it and also that the hose was long enough to reach my truck.  It only took a couple of minutes to put the small fire out on the bottom of the cupboard,  and extinguish the large pile of burning blankets by now safely away from the other vehicles parked in the lot.  Cassandra was there beside me all along but there was little for her to do but watch and shout encouragement.  When it had cooled, we dug through the blankets and sure enough there was the smoldering butt of a hand rolled cigarette.

Thanks to Cassandra’s insistence on a swim, I had discovered the fire in time,  that surely would have otherwise escalated within that truck filed with 100 year old pine to the point  where I imagined the headline would read “Truck explodes on motel parking lot causing massive damage”.  The bottom board of the cupboard had to be replaced due to the smoky smell that would always inhabit it, but otherwise we just lost a pile of old blankets.  A close call.

Getting creative with Cupboard parts

In the 1980’s it became trendy to put your t.v. and/or stereo system in a cupboard to tuck them away when you weren’t using them.  Therefore the demand for antique storage cupboards continued to grow throughout the 1980’s, to the point where the supply could not meet the demand.   I would have a half dozen people looking for such an item and I was only able to bring back one or two from the picker’s I frequented in Quebec.  That’s when I started to look more closely at the out building, or out, out building that were the dealers “bone yards”.  Here, for a fraction of the cost of good cupboard, you could buy a good cupboard that had undergone some horrible mutation, such as being cut in half to make it possible to carry up the stairs to the attic where it was relegated to hold the out of season clothing.  Yes, it happened.  People would take a perfectly decent cupboard and buzz it right down the middle (as illustrated below). There were also cupboard faces or fronts, which had somehow lost their bodies, or in some cases were the front of a built-in which may have been saved when they tore down the house and the rest of the cupboard was lost.  There were also lots of doors, both in pairs, and singles, and good bodies of cupboards missing doors.  You name it.

So this situation combined with an interest in doing a little creative woodworking led me to buy a couple of likely candidates for restoration. I determined that I would do the work to bring them as close to their original glory as possible. Using period tools and materials, I replaced missing parts, and would either paint to match the rest of the cupboard, or if the paint as found was not original or particularly interesting I would repaint the whole cupboard to an appropriate for the period colour. cupbo1

Here we see a good before and after example  You can see that this nice large cupboard was run through right up the middle but the two halves retained all the important parts.  The doors, and side panels, hinges, etc.  It was easy enough to replace the bottom, top, and middle board, and then reproduce from old house trim an approximate and appropriate base and top trim.  Mending the back, top and bottom was pretty simple, and it was ready to paint.  There was no good colour under that lime green so I painted it using old flat oil paints of forest green and turkey red with a mustard yellow accent on the trim.  I then rubbed it down slowly and evenly with fine steel wool and paste wax until it had a slightly softened, or weathered look.cupbo2  I wasn’t one for rubbing the heck out of the area around the knobs to try to approximate heavy wear.  To me this is always a dead giveaway.  My objective was to be as unobtrusive as possible. Add a couple of period china knobs and it was looking good.  I made it a point to tell potential buyers everything I had done to restore the cupboard and I priced them accordingly.  Some would prefer to wait for something original, but many were happy to have something that looked good, was less expensive and did the job.

On other occasions I would find a cupboard that essentially had good bones, but were otherwise lacking to some degree.  Below we have a before and after of just such a case.  I liked the high waist and form of this little flat back kitchen cupboard but the top shelving was ugly.  It also showed evidence that the haphazard arrangement of shelves on the right were added later and the shadow was still there on the left side where the original shelf had been.cupbo3  I took out the added selves, replaced the shelf where it had originally been, and added a wavy trim around the openings.  This I admit was an artistic conceit, but damn it does look cute.  There was nothing under the white so I painted it a robin’s egg blue and called it a day.cupbo4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

cupbo5This little green and red cupboard was a special order for a customer who needed a narrow cupboard to hold his cd’s that would fit into a spot between two walls.  I found a suitable door and built the rest out of re-purposed 110 year old pine and house trim.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, this cupboard is an example of finding a kick ass old Gothic door and housing it in something simple that more or less suited it, and by doing so turning  it into a useful piece of furniture.  I didn’t touch the original paint on the door, and made the rest of the paint complement the original.

I enjoyed occasionally doing this type of work for a few years while the market for such furniture was strong.  Mostly for the satisfaction of taking something that had originally been really nice, was screwed up, and then brought back to a useful existence.   After while I just got over it, and went back to dealing in all original pieces.  It was fun while it lasted.cupbo6

Let’s visit a French antique market

FullSizeRender (2)The first Sunday of every month, there is an antique market in the town of Soumoulou, 10 km from the city of Pau in the South West of France. It goes from 8 am until 6 pm, and on average has about 100 dealers in attendance. Twice a year, in the spring and fall they have a large show which brings in about another 100 dealers. In this it is roughly equivalent to the Aberfoyle antique market held near Guelph, Ontario. Because my wife Jeanine is from this area, we have been visiting this market from time to time over the past thirty years, and like Aberfoyle we have seen changes. Primarily, a rise in interest and prices until about 2008, followed by a precipitous fall. There is still good attendance and sales taking place, but the packages being carried are smaller and fewer in number.
Still, it is a wonderful way for a person of my persuasion to spend a morning and so it was with great excitement that I woke, had breakfast, and got everyone underway, determined to get first dibs on anything special that may arrive. You’ve got to be on your toes. I remember a few years back being very disappointed missing out on a 100 years old terra cotta bust of an aristocratic French gentleman because I was still trying to figure out the exchange while a more astute dealer stepped in and bought it. Another time I almost cried because I was a few seconds behind a man from Provence in committing to what remains in my mind the most beautiful wrought iron butterfly panel which had graced the entrance of an old restaurant. IN A GADDA DA VIDA baby, indeed.

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Pictured here are confit pots. They are a local redware which are glazed on the inside, and part way down the outside. They were used to preserve cooked duck in goose fat before the days of refrigeration. As long as the pieces did not touch each other they would keep for about three years like this, getting more tasty all the while. To my mind Duck confit is one of the most delicious things you will encounter on this earth. Be sure to try it, if you get the opportunity. Today, these beautiful pots are used mostly as patio pots.  At one point about twenty years ago you would do well to find one available because they enjoyed such popularity in the States that all of them seemed to end up there. These were offered from 45 to 65 Euros. Hard to transport or I would have been tempted. For the scores of them that we have carted back over the years , we have kept only a few for ourselves.

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These little birch-bark storage boxes were very tempting ranging from 35 to 45 Euros each. The dealer said he bought them in Biarritz, and thought them to be local, but I was uncertain as I have never seen other examples here. Lovely patina and in excellent condition. Looking at the picture I wish I had bought them.  I find I never regret the things I buy, only the things I pass on.

 

 

FullSizeRender (5)I have brought back several of these wine bottle drying racks over the years. People made and bottled their own wine here so the bottles would be cleaned out and dried to be reused.

I love the exchanges here between dealers and potential customers. It’s a more in your face, and no bars held. I overheard a woman who was negotiating the purchase of a vase say, “what, did you wake up in the middle of the night after dreaming that price”. The dealer laughed and a deal was made. We had a wonderful morning looking at everything. Most of it very different than the things offered at home, and we managed to find a half a dozen things that we could fit in out suitcases and bring back as gifts. There’s nothing I enjoy more that an antique market on a crisp spring morning. You never know what you will find.

 

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