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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How did this whole thing get started?

The other day as a friend was about to leave,  I spotted a couple of small finger jointed pine shelves leaning against the back porch wall where they had been standing for the last six months or so.  They were part of a cheap wooden shoe rack I had bought a few years back at Canadian tire for about $16 on sale.  The finger joints had begun to come unglued and one of the upright supports had snapped, so rather than repair it we bought ourselves a better one .  Although I had no use for shelves, I found it difficult to throw them away.  “Hey, could you use these shelves.  They need a little gluing but they would make a great little rack for drying herbs or something.”  My friend looked at me and said, “I have no use for them as a shelf, but if you want to get rid of them I will use them for kindling for my wood stove.”  I stood there for a moment assessing whether this was acceptable,  and then reason clicked in and I said “Sure, go ahead and burn them up.” I thought they may have served a nobler purpose, but hey, a man’s got to light a fire.  This incident got me thinking about why I have a tendency to save things that I either find interesting as an object, or which I think I might find useful  later on.

I’ve never lived through a period of want.  Never not had enough to eat.  Never even longed for a new pair of pants.  I’ve been a pretty lucky little monkey when it comes to living in a time and place where I have not wanted for much.  So why do I save broken shelves?   And being someone who saves things, why have I not become a collector per say?  Or for that matter, a hoarder.

Over my 35 years in the trade I have encountered and come to know several collectors, and indeed we do have a pretty large collection of Canadian folk art, but this is largely due to my vocation, and the tendencies of my wife Jeanine who does have a true collector’s instinct.  In collecting terms I relate most closely to the crow.  Not in that I am necessarily attracted to shiny things, but in that I tend to pick up and carry away that which I find interesting or pleasing enough that I think I may want to look at it again and again.  Knowing that one day, I may find that I have enjoyed the object enough, and if it no longer holds a special relationship to me,  I am quite happy to find it a new home.  I recognize this makes me more a dealer, than collector.

It is the process I am interested in. Not so much the act of possession. I like handling the stuff and taking it somewhere else where it will be safe. I like to feel I am saving it from the fire.  Also, I like to be surrounded with things that resonate with me. Things that make me feel something when I look at them. Things I find beautiful.

Does  my becoming a dealer come from me not wanting to throw out possibly useful things as much as it does from an appreciation of beautiful things?  Probably so, at least in the first place. As I grow alder I save a lot less for eventualities.

And why with this tendency have I not become a hoarder? The simple answer is  I guess it never appealed to me.   I have always lived in environments that are essentially orderly, and although far from being minimalist, have never been overly crowded or chaotic.  That being said, from a very early age I have always had a room, or a space in a barn , or someplace where I could pile things that were of interest, but not necessary for my day to day life.  My hidey-hole.  My Raven’s nest. I have included as evidence a tricky triple exposure photo I made of myself in a room I had for my “extra” things in London when I was in my early twenties .

As a kid I wasn’t particularly prone to dragging things home, although as soon as I had my own space in the form of a tree house, I started to put things in there. That was when I was most crow-like.  An interesting rock.  A discarded cowboy beIt buckle. You name it. Then when I was about 16 my Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie decided to sell the farm and move to a house in town, so that was when I attended my first auction.

I remember that lovely late spring day, arriving to see everything from this familiar place being dragged out of the house and barn and spread across the yard.  My initial response was sorrow. My next response was interest.   I was there with my parents and my Aunt Marie and cousin Ron.  Ron was eleven days older than me, but already a lot cooler.  He had started to grow his hair longer, and had taken to wearing torn blue jeans and moccasins without socks.  We were close, so when he excitedly told me that he was going to bid on and buy the Bakelite portable record player, I was excited for him, and decided then and there that I would also bid to buy something to remind me of these folks and their place.

Ron’s record player came up first, and he was up against considerable competition. About half way through the bidding he had to ask Aunt Marie if she would cover him if he went over his savings.  She agreed, and he won it for about thirty bucks as I remember.  A lot of money in those days.  It was worth it though.  It was a great sounding unit and loud, and we had countless hours of enjoyment playing large stacks of hit 45’s in his bedroom as we discussed everything under the sun, and ate mandarin oranges from a tin.

The auction wore on and I tried for a couple of things unsuccessfully before winning an old pine drop leaf table which had never been painted  for $5.  It washed up beautifully, and I began to sit at it to do my homework feeling an indescribable closeness to it.  The table is still with me; and although it’s nothing special, I continue to love it for the association.

Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie’s table today

Anyway, it was on that day when I bid and won a useful table for $5 that something clicked in me. And the switch is still stuck in the “on” position.  Within a year I had made an arrangement to rent some space in a barn from a 70 year old man I had befriended, who lived by himself on an unworked farm at the edge of town.  And the rest as they say is history.

More about door knocking

truck2Early on in the game I  realized that the truest adventure of the antique business lay in door knocking.  It’s one thing to source from auction, other dealers and collectors you know, it’s quite another to pull up to a lonely,  run down farm in the middle of nowhere, and knock on the door. You don’t know what type of person you are about to meet.  It’s a bit like hitch hiking in that respect.  Most people are o.k. but if you keep at it long enough you are going to meet up with your fair share of weirdos, some who can even be dangerous.

I  was never a full time picker, but I wanted to experience the excitement of it so I would go out for a couple of days to a week every so often, usually with a buddy, and treat it like a  fishing or hunting trip with BBQ and beers, and lots of bullshit stories.

It is always a good idea to be picking with someone else. Not only for security, but for the more mundane legal reason that you have a witness to verify the transaction, should the kids come back at you, or the like.  You have to trust and respect your picking partner though, and have some fair way of distributing the booty.  The ordinary stuff isn’t hard to figure out.  The problem arises when you come upon something wonderful that you both lust after.  You can take turns buying and leave it up to chance, or do what I liked to do  and agree that if you come up with a real treasure that you both want you own it together.  On my picking trips with buddies we came across some nice gear, but nothing that fell into this category.

I would occasionally go out on my own. I liked to go down to Kent and Essex county where my dad had owned and run farm papers.  A lot of people knew my dad and it would quite often be the ticket indoors.  For the most part people are pretty nice around there, and I could leave early in the morning, pick all day, and come home with a fairly full truck the same evening. It also just felt good being around the old parts.  It’s desperately flat country, but it has its charm. I wasn’t like the guys you see on t.v. buying anything that had value.  I didn’t want to haul and distribute a lot of o.k. but ordinary stuff.  I cherry picked. China stayed in the cabinets but I would do my best to leave with that nice wall box found buried under junk in the shed. It’s funny because nobody wanted much for good primitive furnishings but everyone was looking for top dollar for the silver plate.   At the base of it, it’s a treasure hunt. Much like we played at as children. That treasure just might turn up at the next stop.

One thing I noticed early on is that it is not often the house that looks like it would have a 1830 flat to wall in the back kitchen that actually produces much. It’s likely been picked several times. It’s just as likely to be in the basement of the 60’s ranch style house that the farmer built himself next door.  People have been picking for a long time.  Almost every rural property has been visited at least once over the years. Inevitably you would confront the story that it’s too bad you didn’t get here ten years earlier.  But it also worked out sometimes that people would come to regret refusing an earlier offer, or their situation had changed, and you could buy something for what they had been offered. Or at least what they said they were offered.

Looking  mostly for primitives  it is fairly frustrating how many of these turn of the century farms are filled with turn of the century manufactured mail order furniture.  An awful lot of maple stenciled to look like oak. Your best chance was in the basement, outbuilding, or barn.  Not always rural either. Some of the best things I have found came from homes in small towns.

You like to feel that you get a gut feeling, but this is a romance, and often just something you tell yourself to keep pressing after several disappointments.

What’s worse is after hours or days of finding nothing you come across the crown jewels, and they refuse to sell it.  This is when you need to use your head and stay cool.  I never played games with people by feigning disinterest. Without revealing my hand I would show genuine interest in the things I was genuinely interested in. Too emphatic and they might close down and send you packing.  I would never try to belittle the item, recognizing most people can spot a phony.  No, best to tell them that you respect and value an item and offer them a fair price.  You don’t necessarily give up at no. You do your best to keep the conversation open and positive, eventually coming back to a second offer.  Mind you this is just the way I did it because I like to sleep at night. Even if I couldn’t get them to budge after several attempts I always left my calling card in case they changed their mind, and then check back in with them for a friendly hello from time to time.  Just a general chat with a casual reference to how much you still like the piece.  It’s sometimes worth it.   You can go back five or six times unsuccessfully and then be delighted one day to hear that they have decided to sell.  Picking with respect.

Not everybody works like this.  There are some hair raising stories of some legendary pickers especially from earlier days who were essentially bullies.   They would get in a house and aggressively brow beat the poor old couple until they would give in.  Picking using fear.

Like any human endeavor, with picking there is a light and a dark side.

It came with this topper

It came with this topper

Towards determining age in unmarked Collectibles -Brass Model “A” Sedan

6" long.  Marked Canada

6″ long. Marked Canada

Recently I noticed this molded brass car listed in the Saturday, January, 9th Plato Antique and Vintage Auction simply as “Brass Model “A” sedan car, 6″ long, marked Canada”. and realized I know something about it’s manufacture, and that it illustrates an interesting problem when trying to  determine the age of a small production, unmarked (in terms of manufacturer) Collectible.  Plato Auctions wisely did not suggest an age, but rather provided honestly all they could determine about the object.  That being said I don’t believe they are brass, but rather some kind of bronze-like alloy.  In any case, I  have seen this car and some other similar, (but different) models many times over my forty-five years, or so, of noticing such things, and every time it makes me feel nostalgic.   The reason being, is that I know that at least some of them were manufactured by my father, Charles Ross in Dresden Ontario, in the 1960’s.  What is interesting (hopefully) besides the story which I will tell is that at shows, and in articles I have seen them dated over a quite a wide span of time, and with various provenance;  and yes it is likely that some were produced before the ones my father produced in the 1960’s, as you will see.  Here’s what I remember about this time, and how my father came to make model cars.

My father owned and operated the weekly Dresden News, and monthly farm papers, Voice of the Lambton, Kent, and Essex Farmer.  All at the time were produced by the old letterpress method, which involved melting and remelting lead to feed into the Linotype machines which produced the copy type for the paper.  Those machines are an amazing story in themselves, but I will endeavor to stay on topic. The fact that my father had the technology to melt metals is what’s key.

As I recollect I was about ten when my father rather excitedly told me that we were going to drive the hour or so to Corunna, Ontario to buy something that I would be interested in.  I loved any drive along the St. Clair river so I was ready, and willing to come along.  One fine summer morning my father, mother, and myself pilled into the old Ford, and set out along road 33 which followed along the St Clair river.  I remember we stopped at a favorite little lunch spot in Port Lambton for a sandwich,  before arriving at the newspaper office in Coruna early in the afternoon.  My father was fairly secretive about his business, and suggested that my mother and me have a walk down to watch the boats pass along the river for a half hour or so while he conducted his business.  By this point I was wondering what I might possibly find interesting in a newspaper shop, but I could tell something was making my father excited, so I was too.

Upon returning, my father met us by the car and flung open the back of the station wagon with a big “ta da”, and there to my delight was a dozen or so Brass and painted black model “T” and model “A” cars and trucks all looking somewhat like the one above.  Also in the trunk were three or four crates which I later found out contained the molds used to manufacture the various models.  How he heard about them, or why he decided to buy them I do not know, but I remember that after that the newspaper office window was filled with cars and trucks,  and that before long people started to come in and purchase them, and of course I had a blast playing with them.

I know he had some arrangements to place them with local tourist attractions such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin which is on the outskirts of Dresden, and at other spots throughout the three counties that he used to travel on newspaper business.  I also remember his employees making them when they were not otherwise busy working on the newspapers, but I really have no idea how many he made, or for that matter, how many had been made in Corunna before him, or even where the molds came from in the first place.

The thing is, to look at them it is easy to imagine, because of the relative crudity of the manufacturing that they were made at the time of the cars they represent, and  for all I know perhaps that’s when they started.   But I do know that many of these were made as recently as the 1960’s.  You would be hard pressed to determine exactly when within  that  approximately forty year span such a car was produced.  Does a 1960 car have equivalent value to an identical one made in 1920?  Considering the exact same method and quality of materials were used, I suppose so.  And I think reflecting on this suggests that with certain types of small output, cottage industry type manufacturing, we shouldn’t get too hung up in the numbers.  And that establishing provenance is always tricky, and sometimes an “educated” guess at best.  And most importantly that in the end this ambiguity  doesn’t take away at all from the beauty of these toys from a simpler time.