All in, All done?

Maybe it’s age. Perhaps nostalgia. Most likely both.

Auction attendance used to be fun. There was a certain dynamic and drama associated with the event – whether on-site, in a gallery or, less glamorously, in smelly old barns.

And auction reporting wasn’t just about the prices. Personalities and place mattered nearly as much as product. An on-site auction of a collector’s estate could easily draw a couple hundred people. Everyone from nosy neighbors who were rarely short on judgments to Madison Avenue dealers who spoke as though their teeth were glued together, top to bottom.

A recent, on-site estate auction was a trip down Memory Lane. But in the factual not the mythic sense.

Sandwiched between two tiny villages, the auction location was a small dot on the map. But for the agricultural ambience, it was a breath of fresh air compared to most of today’s antiseptic auctions.

Back in the old days, most attendees at on-site estate auctions came to do business. Antiques dealers buying for inventory or for clients. Others were driven by collecting interests and the opportunity to enhance their own collection by leveraging the objects in someone else’s. And decorators of the professional sort brought a customer “want” list with them; decorators of the amateur kind (i.e., homeowners) had a similar list, using it for different reasons.

And then the world changed. Auctioneers began to accept absentee and telephone bids. No longer was the competition restricted to the other 199 people standing around, waiting to bid. Or buy a hot dog. The competition now included people who weren’t present and, sometimes, hadn’t inspected the merchandise. These “distance” customers may have judged the merchandise from fuzzy Polaroids and an optimistic auctioneer’s say-so; and their bidding often reflected the optimism implied by each of those sources.

The internet, as is well-known, ruined the auction business. As it did virtually everything else. But the internet is merely today’s bogey man. The patient among us recognize that if we just wait, there will be a new bogey man along momentarily and we’ll forget about blaming the quaint old internet. Just as we did the previous bogey men: TV, comics, radio and movies.

Digital natives, as they’re now named, at the on-site auction likely require tutoring. There is no clicking or touching; instead, there is hand and bid card (a stiff, printed piece of paper with a number written on it) waving. Which, given the temperature (high 80s), proved a bit ambiguous among the faint who were fanning, though the auctioneers weren’t confused.

There was a generalized order of sale: “We’ll begin over here,” the auctioneer said, “and then go over there.” If there was something one was interested in buying, one had to pay attention as it could arrive at the sales podium at the whim of the auction’s runners.

The sale concluded with more than two hundred “box lots.” Cardboard boxes in which pots, pans and the rest of a lifetime’s detritus had been haphazardly placed.

Years and years ago, at another on-site estate auction, a fellow dealer observing a vast Field of Box Lots quipped: “And there it is: Your entire life, laid out on the lawn in cardboard.” A bit grim and certainly hyperbole, there’s also an element of truth.

Still, this on-site auction was, I dare say, fun.

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