Seeing Estate Auctions In a New Light

When I was a kid I used to like going to estate auctions with my dad. They provided an excuse to explore new places, discover strange new treasures (at least, new to me), and maybe meet some new kids and strike up a conversation. Sure, the day could get long and the auction boring, especially if Dad struck up a conversation with someone he hadn’t seen in a few years. That happened just about every time we went, whether it was an estate, consignment, produce, or livestock auction.

I swear Dad always knew someone, and like most farmers he seemed to crave trading stories. That probably comes from spending long hours in the field with not much more than the roar of the tractor for company. Even if you have actual company with you, conversation is nearly impossible over a high-throttled diesel’s thunder. And boy, did Dad have the stories: that time a hog escaped the truck while crossing town; the hay-wagon incident when I lost the back third of a load of bales, thanks to a ill-placed groundhog hole; to his days testing milk as a young man …

You never knew what you’d find at an auction. Once we brought home a Quonset hut, balanced on a flatbed hay wagon (thank the Lord that didn’t upset). Another time, the trove was a set of five hog-farrowing crates. I remember seeing old pickup trucks, hay knives, glass power-line insulators, glass chemical-fire extinguisher bombs, and foot-powered whetstone wheels. I think a lot of my appreciation for Pennsylvania Dutch heritage came from asking about the stuff on the docket at auctions.

How can you talk about an auction without mentioning the auctioneer’s craft? Using a singsong voice, a string of called numbers, and what sounds like nonsense, a good auctioneer can coax a crowd into bidding more than they expected on items they didn’t know they wanted to buy. I’m always amazed at how a good auctioneer can start the bidding at what seems high, have the bidding fall to less than a dollar, then coax the crowd into a bidding war shooting far above that starting call. I’ve even found myself caught up in those bidding wars, bailing out at the last second after promising to pay more than I wanted or could afford to spend.

I also learned not to wave to friends, or scratch my nose, or even nod in agreement while a bid was on. That could get expensive fast. Fortunately, I never found myself on the losing, er, winning end, of an accidental bid. That’s not to say I never had a panic moment, though.

But until last week, I never gave too much thought to the history of the treasures uncovered at an auction. I don’t mean the history of what that item was used for, such as using wide-mouth crocks for pickling cucumbers or sauerkraut. No, I’m talking about the history of that piece as it relates to its previous owner.

That hammered home in a new way as I sat at the estate auction for my parents. Suddenly, I knew the stories behind the items on the block. That reddish-brown baked-bean pot with the fading, chipped, painted detail — a boy offering flowers to a girl in primary colors — went to every picnic and covered-dish social filled with thick, pasty, sweet, baked beans fortified with bacon and brown sugar. Those square, clear, glass pitchers graced the table at every meal filled with fresh, raw milk courtesy of Dad’s dairy herd. Barlow and case knives reminded me that Dad always had a knife in his pocket, as I still do today. There’s the bookcase that once stood in the upstairs hallway stocked with World Book Encyclopedias, my window to the world when I was a child. There are the lots of Mom’s extensive “flocks” of ceramic chickens of every breed, color, and artistic style imaginable: nesting hens, hen and rooster salt-and-pepper shakers, rooster planters — chickens in every conceivable form. Finally, the shotgun and .22 rifle which accompanied me on so many pheasant and rabbit hunts on golden November days in my youth.

At the same time, row upon row of box lots — old iron equipment, wooden runner sleds, and barrels of long-handled tools — drove home the reality of eight decades of accumulated life. Innumerable birdhouses spoke of Mom’s love of bluebirds. Boxes filled to bursting with patterns and material along with a half-dozen sewing machines hinted at a seamstress’s skill. Arcane, alchemical-looking glassware gave silent testimony to a young farmer moonlighting as a state milk quality tester. Cases of plastic berry boxes and box after box of canning jars — most clear and modern, some blue slope-shouldered, and one green glass jar driving a lively bidding war — spoke of years of throwing nothing away as long as it could still be used for something.

At noon, the flow of items to the block paused to allow for the auction of the property itself. It was then that I watched as the farm, a Weidman property for some fifty years, ceased to be the Weidman Family Farm and became instead the property of a new family. One chapter ended and a new one began by the time clocks struck one.

I came home from the auction bearing new family heirlooms and heritage gifts for my boys, pieces of my childhood, parts of my parents’ lives and legacy, and a link connecting the past to the future. Add to that a day spent reminiscing with friends and family, and I judge it a day and money well spent.

Life goes on, even when life stories come to an end. Antiques carry impersonal histories, heirlooms personal. Yet all are merely things, subject to the crack of a gavel and the whims of a bidding public. I suspect that while I will always enjoy estate auctions, I won’t ever look at them in the same light again.

Published on Nov 21, 2016

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