A Funny Thing Happened at the Country Auction
by Ted Currie
Auctions are by their nature, serious dispersal events. Some are more serious and reserved than others, especially estates sales. A few, depending on the auctioneer's sense of humor, and the conditions of the day and venue, and some of those characters in attendance, can become entertainment venues at the same time as dealers hustle to claim the best antique prizes on the block.
The tin barn episode in a thunder storm, is still one of my favorite auction recollections. There was an auction sale on picturesque pastures abutting what is known as the Muskoka Beach Road, in Gravenhurst, one rainy May afternoon, and I knew the auctioneer seldom did sales without substantial quantities of antiques. It was raining off and on, and at this time of the year, it does limit the audience size. Also, there weren't many upcoming sales and we needed inventory bad. It was looking good for me thusly, and seeing as I didn't have a lot of mad money that day, a small crowd would likely give me more bang for my jingling coins that if it was a full house flooded with big spenders.
When I arrived, I immediately walked over to see two harvest tables near the entrance to a large metal barn, used for housing the farm's horses. It was empty during this sale. One of the Victorian harvest tables, had its thick spindle legs cut down, probably due to rot, from having been stored in a damp space. I knew this was a piece that would go for a low price, because it could be compared to a good example of the harvest style, situated, by good fortune, right beside it, with legs intact. The fact that the damaged table was long, and a foot lower than it should have been, with some surface damage on the top boards, meant the selling price would be low. It would make a hell of a coffee table, that very few people that day, would appreciate as being a good thing. My customers would and that was all I needed to know. A lot of collectors won't touch items like this, but home decorators will. I had a lot of professional decorators as customers, back in the early 1990's, and I knew this kind of project piece, would be perfect for a large house or open concept condominium.
I wanted the other harvest table, but my initial appraisal was that it would sell for a minimum of two hundred dollars. I think it went for more money than that, to a collector of Canadiana, not a dealer as I suspected would be the case. There were quite a few furniture pieces that day, most of them being in as-is condition. I wasn't a great handyman back then, but I could do minor repairs, and some refinishing. I just didn't like stripping heavily painted tables and chairs, especially those dreadful pressbacks. It took forever to get the paint cleared out of the grooves, deep in the engraved design on the chair backs. I loved staining and varnishing furniture pieces but it became very expensive, and necessitated larger sale prices, versus leaving them in as-is condition, and hoping that the lesser price, would encourage bargain hunters to put in the restoration work themselves. We still do this. As I suffered many injuries while stripping furniture, this works real well for me. A lot fewer trips to the out-patient department.
The sale had only just gotten underway, when the rain began falling once again, and the auction helpers had to run with tarps to cover some of the furnishings, that would have marked-up badly with the moisture. The auctioneer that day was Peter Green. Peter passed away this winter. Formerly the proprietor of South Meadow Farms Antiques, of Gravenhurst, with his wife a business partner Susan, was an old friend and writing colleague. I can't recall how many hundreds of sales I attended, where he was responsible for settling farm and estate clear-outs. Peter was well seasoned in the atmospheric catastrophes that could thwart an auctioneer, and bring a sale to a sudden halt. He used to run sales on the property of his Barkway business, which certainly afforded more escape options, when the weather suddenly turned ugly. On this day, he couldn't read the weather at all. Just when everything was tarped over, and the auction suspended like a baseball game, for a few moments, the sun would emerge, and the blue sky would again stretch to the horizon. The inventory of auction items would be un-tarped once again, and about twenty minutes later, a small patch of black cloud, would start raining on his parade as if a curse had been attached to that day's sale.
It was as if the spirits were definitely on the outs with this country auction, and soaked-to-the-bone auctioneer, on such a scenic patch of Muskoka farmland. Finally, he decided to take the event indoors. There seemed to be no way to beat the inclement weather, for any more than a half hour at a stretch, so he directed his helpers to move as much inventory as possible, into the empty barn with its large concrete floor space. The delays were really annoying Peter, and the auction staff, and the sale was well behind schedule. A lot of folks had just decided to abandon the sale, and head back to their shops, or get on with their Saturday chores. Once again, this was good for me. Less competition. The problem for Mr. Green? The weather just kept throwing curves at the poor chap, all that afternoon.
There is a famous film clip, shot by the Global Television camera crew, at a turkey farm where feature host Bill Bramah, was doing a pre-Thanksgiving story. The short feature clip was about this particular farm and staff, getting the turkeys ready for the holiday market. The out-clips were better than the feature story. So much in fact, that it became the story. You see, every time Bill began his introduction, with microphone raised to his mouth, the turkeys as a collective, "gobbled" so loudly, he was drowned out. Take after take, the turkeys seemed to be trying to trip the veteran interviewer up, by calling out just as he began to speak into the microphone. Well sir, this is exactly what happened to Peter Green, except the interruption didn't come from turkeys. It came from the inclement weather.
I felt sorry for Peter, but gosh it was funny. After all the auction items were re-positioned in the metal barn, and all the helpers took their places, ready to help Peter register bids, I noticed another black cloud moving overhead. Just as the auctioneer began to call for bids on a group of chairs, or maybe it was a turn of the century sideboard, the rain came down like it did with Hurricane Hazel. The sound of the torrential rain, hitting the metal roof, was like standing next to a jet airliner, getting ready to taxi down the runway. You couldn't hear anything above the thunderous roar. So Peter had to stop in the middle of his auction call, until the rain subsided. Then, in fairness, he had to start all over again, because the bidders forgot what they had run the sale price up to, just before the heavens opened. I have never seen such a debacle as occurred this day, no fault of the never-say-never Mr. Green, who just stood on his little podium, looking out the barn door, as if praying for the day to end better than it had begun. It didn't.
He made it part way through the sale items, and I was able to purchase one of two harvest tables, (one with the legs cut down), for a very acceptable price. I think I had the company van that day, so I probably hauled home another few items, including press back chairs, and at least one vintage book cabinet. Yes, all for very affordable prices. Not so good for the auctioneer and his client however, who had the very real disadvantage of an unsettled weather pattern, as an auction partner. Honestly, all bargain attained that stormy afternoon, I felt bad for these hard working sales folks, Peter especially, who couldn't get a word in edge-wise without some wild natural intervention, that either threatened to ruin the items for sale, or a deluge that pounded down on that metal roof, with an echo off concrete that was deafening. I haven't experienced anything similar to this, and I've stood outdoors in frigid temperatures and even snow, in order to bid on antique pieces that caught my fancy. I've even stood in a foot of mud during a spring auction, with both rain and snow, to buy Suzanne a dozen vintage quilts. But nothing to parallel the great rain and thunder event, of that Muskoka Beach Road auction. As a footnote, I sold that harvest style "coffee table" after a paint restoration, for a sizable profit, to a home decorator who had the perfect, large size livingroom, suited a six foot, very low, farmstead relic on cut-down turned legs. The kicker to this? The table was so damp, from wherever it had been stored, that it took months to dry enough, so that I could re-paint it; and actually expect the paint to dry. The first coat of paint had to be wiped off, because it refused to dry. The water in the wood, was actually rising through the table top, to the surface, and there was no way of taking any acceptable short-cut, to just allowing it to dry of its own accord. Nature won out that day, no doubt about it! Peter had to cancel the rest of the sale, because most people had left, and his voice couldn't out-muster nature's intrusion. Peter wrote it off as "one of those things" in life and the pursuit of business that serves to remind one,, that mother nature doesn't follow any protocol other than her own. Ah, the intrigue of the outdoor country auction. Don't you just love them. See you next issue.