by Hugh Gilmore
Weeks of snow and split-level fever made us want some relief from being perpetually indoors, like Purgatory dwellers. “Let’s go to an auction,” I growled to the wife last week. “Okay,” she barked back. And so we drove out to Alderfer Auctions in Lansdale. The sale didn’t start till 12 noon, a further enticement to two people who do not like to get up early.
We had not been to an auction in years, but they had always seemed like fun, especially for people-watching. Many Bukowski-like characters mixing with others that look like decaying aristocracy – the sort of worn-cuffs-Brooks Brothers look. Most of the people there, however, looked drab and harmless, like me. The point is, one does not go there looking for a potential prom date.
Unlike the heart-pounding drama of your typical teacup auction, however, we were going to a mid-afternoon book sale. And it was a catalogued auction, not a make-it-up-as-you-go-along event. That means, the items for sale had been listed and briefly described already, both in print and online.
That gave the bidders time to figure the items’ values ahead of time. If not, the cafe next to the auction room has free WiFi, so everyone could do their research on site. Everyone knew the values of what was being offered and had had time to figure out how much they wanted to bid. Helter-skelter it was not.
I used to go to this auction house often enough to know nearly everyone there, but it had been a while, so I saw perhaps six familiar faces, three of whom I knew well enough to stop and talk with. But not much.
Everyone was here to work. Most importantly, each lot had to be examined because the catalog was the kind where the description is simply a TV Guide-type teaser: “Eleven vols. Children’s illus. 19th and early 20th century.” Or, “Large lot 19th century travel brochures.” “Dickens Christmas Stories. 1st American collected ed. 1852. 1 vol.”
The large lots might contain a buried gem or two or three. The single lots might be in awful condition. Condition statements were omitted – an inducement to get prospective bidders to come and see for themselves. At this particular sale there were no potential big-ticket items that might go for a thousand dollars or more, so there was not a contagious anxiety in the room. Nonetheless, the uncertain nature of auctions lends a casino-like buzz.
Prices might run unpredictably high or strangely low. On top of that, one always suspects that some of the people in the room have more info than the others. They may know that a so-called 1st edition is actually a reprint. Or that that box of old letters contains two by Einstein, hidden in an envelope at the bottom of the box.
And someone might have switched them to another box, so one has to keep going back and rooting through the box to verify that the special item is still there. Which makes others suspicious, so they come over and start snuffling the boxes for truffles they missed before. Such paranoia maddens everyone’s auction prep.
Although I stopped and got a bidder number, I had little intention of trying to buy anything. I confess here that another aspect of the auction added spice to it for me. I had consigned 42 lots (out of about 600) in the sale. They would not appear until two-thirds of the way through. I’d consigned to auctions before, but I’d never gone to watch my own lots sell. I do not recommend the practice. It’s nerve wracking.
First, it became apparent by lot 10 that nearly everyone in the room was a dealer. Dealers are good buyers, but at a Level B sale like this one, they’re also, necessarily, cheap buyers. Serious, knowledgeable collectors can usually outcompete dealers. If, for example, a $100-dollar book comes up, a dealer can really not afford to pay more than 50 dollars for it.
A civilian collector can beat that. But, as I said, there seemed to be no collectors in the room that day, and the bidding all was dealer-against-dealer. If the bidding started at $5, ten hands went up. By $20, only two or three. At $50, it sold.
A good auctioneer at a catalogued mid-level auction like this moves about 160 lots an hour. We people-watched, read the newspaper, went to the cafe, and walked back and forth until about 3 p.m. when our lots came up. I watched in muted dismay. An early “Leaves of Grass,” for which I’d paid $400, went for $80. Two “Eloise” books with dust jackets, “worth” about $80, went for $10.
On and on. Very monotonous. Dealers buying for stock. If the lot was cheap enough, they’d buy it. If not, the lot was passed. I did not feel like a bookselling genius after my lots had been cried.
“Oh well,” we said, on our way home, “at least they’re gone. We won’t be staring at them anymore.” I’d sold things I’d been unable to sell. Some were things I’d been forced to buy from houses in order to get other books I’d really wanted.
When we got home it was close to five. We’d been out, escaping cabin fever, since 10 a.m. But we’d been in a stale, confined room all day, as though all we’d done was make an especially long doctor’s visit. There was no sense of having escaped confinement. Spring can’t come soon enough.