In Maine, a country auction is a form of entertainment where the faces are familiar and the show is always full of surprises.
- By: Michael Burke
- Photography by: Jennifer Smith-Mayo
A few years ago, I’m at Allen’s auction house in New Sharon, and Rodney Allen, the auctioneer, brings before the crowd a zebra skin made into a rug. I think it’s fantastic. Rodney jokes, “You’d be the only one to have something like it,” which gets a derisive laugh. He starts the bidding low, so I know he’s not expecting much.
One other person makes a desultory bid, but I get it for thirty-five dollars. (Later that year I travel to Cape Town, South Africa, and see another zebra skin rug, just like it, hanging on the wall of an upscale African arts shop. The price? About two thousand dollars. I win.)
Rodney goes on, offering an old toy bicycle that is falling apart. “You got a grandkid you don’t like, this is the toy you want,” he says. If something is truly junk, Rodney says it’s “not that bad.” A kneeler from a church goes for $22.50, a used punching bag (used for jokes, at this auction) for $57.50, a Sawyer print for $45.
This is the essence of the country auction, as it is practiced in Maine: bizarre objects, some useful, some decidedly not, selling at bargains or absurdly overpriced. The country auction is a form of entertainment, a Saturday night (or Thursday, or Sunday morning) event where the cost can be nothing, or very little, and the show is always new. The auction also serves as an ecosystem, too, buyer and seller and auctioneer serving one another. Most of all, the country auction is an exercise in community: many of the people at auctions know each other, and attending an auction where you know the auctioneer, the audience, the helpers, is like being at the local bean supper. Auctions can become addicting, as you imagine that this time, this time, there will be something for sale that you really need/want/can sell/will give away/ought to buy for Christmas.
Perhaps the most perfect example of a country auction was Harold’s, held in Rome, a tiny cluster of houses along Route 225. You would have had a hard time at first telling what kind of place Harold’s was: there were abandoned cars all over the yard, a gas pump selling gasoline at prices a dollar and a half out of date, and old metal advertising signs covering the ramshackle building.
Inside was a carnival: weathered, dramatic faces, a riot of objects, including dozens of railroad lanterns hanging from the ceiling, none of them for sale. Harold Hawes always perched on a stool on a small stage that took up half of one end of his garage — where during the week he fixed cars — wearing a ball cap, usually one with an automotive logo. He was slight, with thick glasses and a gray beard, and he held the microphone, which sent his voice through a scratchy one-speaker sound system, up tight to his mouth, as though he were a lounge singer.
He’d sit with one leg crossed over the other on the stool and use his right hand as a prop, urging the bidding on. He’d open the hand, palm-out, offering the item to us, wiggle his fingers as he talked, slowly flap the hand back and forth as he went from one bidder to the next and back.
“What the hell’s the matter with you people?” barked Harold at an October sale one year, waving his arm loosely in the air. “That’s a perfectly good piece of junk,” he said, sternly, about a chipped pitcher, and the audience laughed.
When Harold’s was full, there might be fifty people in the folding chairs; when it was not, the crew of office people, runners, and hangers-on at the front of the hall matched the number of attendees in the seats. At this sale, the next-to-last auction of the season, I counted twenty-five buyers.
Sadly, Harold died early in 2009, and with him went this perfect embodiment of the rural auction. The cars, the gas pump, the advertising signs, the spectacle — all gone.
Of course, rural auctions are not the only model in Maine. A new favorite of mine, and a distant relative of Harold’s, is the Thomaston Place Auction Galleries on Route 1 near the St. George River. Its auctions are held on Labor Day weekend, and occasionally in the spring, and they are huge and expensive and take two days to dispense with all the accumulated antiques and art.
The Thomaston Place building is a long, wood-shingled affair, two stories tall, with weird, hexagonal windows along the first floor. It was once a chicken barn, then a weaving factory, then a storage facility, and now a high-end auction house. The aisles here in the old chicken barn are often crammed with items, and you feel as though you are in an eclectic museum, trying not to bump into any of the valuable things.
On a recent Labor Day, I see that everyone in the audience is well into their fifties and older. There are more blonds than Maine could possibly produce and all of the men look like Walter Cronkite.
The auctioneer comes to a lectern, set to one side of the main aisle. “I hope today’s auction will be amusing, entertaining,” he says by way of introduction. He is Kaja Veilleux, 58, a French-Canadian native of Waterville who has thick black hair that swoops back from his forehead and through which he occasionally runs his hand, as people with thick black hair often do. He is wearing a white-and-blue-striped shirt and chinos, which already distinguishes him from every other auctioneer in Maine.
The first item is a little metal bird, about four inches tall, whose purpose I can’t discern. But apparently someone can, as bids come in quickly, and in seconds the bird has been dispatched for $3,300, more than any item has ever sold at the dozens of auctions I’ve attended.
Like all auctioneers, Veilleux has a catch phrase. It comes when he is about to end the bidding, as he waves his hand above his head, like a conductor preparing to conclude the final note: “All in, all done?” he’ll say, then point emphatically at the winner.
The most dramatic moment of the weekend takes place midway through day one, when item #100 is brought in, an “OOC” (oil on canvas, in the vernacular) titled Roman Newsboys II, by Martin Johnson Heade, a painter from the late nineteenth century. This painting is obviously the signature piece of the sale, featured on the back cover of the auction catalogue, with a very long description. The estimate on what it will sell for is $150,000-$200,000.
I don’t pay much attention, not being particularly smitten by the painting and having left my one hundred thousand dollar bills at home, but when the bidding reaches two hundred thousand dollars I look around to see who is involved. One bid is coming in by phone, and another bidder, who I can’t spot until other people in the hall are all glancing in the same direction, is buried in the crowd. He turns out to be a rough-looking old fellow I hadn’t noticed before, in ragged shorts and a polo shirt, casual among this crowd of pastels and pearls.
The bidding jumps in $25,000 increments. There are no pauses of the sort when someone is agonizing. Our man never wavers, and finally Veilleux asks, “All done?” and it is at $475,000. This gets a sustained round of applause. The rough fellow, tipped back in his chair on its rear legs with his feet on the chair in front, smiles slightly in acknowledgement, and that is all.
Something about small towns spawns auction houses: in central Maine the better known ones include Allen’s in New Sharon, Holmes Auction Center in Skowhegan, and Houston-Brooks in Burnham.
Harold Holmes holds his auctions at the unlikely time of 11 a.m. on Thursday mornings. This prompts one to wonder what the reason would be to hold an auction on a Thursday morning. Holmes tells me, “There is no right day. They’d come in the middle of the night if you held it then.”
The merchandise is similar to, but probably a bit more interesting than, that at Allen’s, with a few gems sprinkled in amid the junk. I ask Holmes how he would characterize his sales. “I’m a generalist,” he says. “The merchandise dictates what kind of sale it is. We’re a country auction, that’s what you’d call us. And ultimately,” he says, “you are what you sell.”
One day in Skowhegan a fellow standing beside me at the rear of the hall buys a glass-headed cane, a trombone, and a 45-rpm recording of George Harrison singing a forgotten ditty, “Apple Scruffs.” I ask my neighbor what he’s going to do with this eclectic lot, hoping they mean something important to him. He’ll sell it on eBay is the unsurprising, if disappointing, answer.
The Houston-Brooks main auction building is graced with a sign that reads, “We Buy Junk. We Sell Antiques.” Like Holmes’, the Houston-Brooks sale is held at an odd time, Sunday mornings starting at 7 a.m. At a sale in mid-winter, under a slate-gray winter sky, the collection shows signs of fatigue, almost desperation. There is a fishing reel, a Mickey Mouse hand puppet, and a ceramic napkin holder in the shape of a baseball glove with a baseball forever embedded in the palm of the glove. We may have crossed from auction to yard sale. But it is winter, everything in Maine is tired, and by spring the offerings here will revive.
Pam Brooks, co-owner of the auction house, has no illusions about where her auction falls on the scale of Maine. “The niche we’re in — we’re middle of the road. I’m not saying our stuff is bad, but because we sell what comes through the door, we don’t have high-end things. If we get it on a Monday, chances are we’re selling it on Sunday.” Yet the auction attracts buyers from all over. “Oh, yes, we pull from all up and down the East Coast, from Texas in the summer, Canadians . . . they’re a mix — retailers, collectors, people who are bored.”
No matter which kind of auction people attend or what they’re on the lookout for — high-priced artwork, low-end trinkets, or unremarkable but dependable furniture — the same fairy tale lurks within all their hearts. “A picker [someone who goes around looking for items] bought an old Larkin desk from a lady in Skowhegan,” recounts Kaja Veilleux. “He needed something to protect it, and the lady said ‘You can have this old horse blanket.’ The guy gave her two dollars for it. Another picker bought it from him for a hundred bucks, because that second guy knew it was a bed blanket, not a horse blanket, and I bought it from the second guy for twenty-five hundred dollars, and I sold it to another dealer in New Hampshire the next day for ten thousand dollars. So in less than twenty-four hours it had passed through four hands, from two dollars to ten thousand. And not long after it was bought in Skowhegan for two dollars, it was being offered for sale in New York for fifty thousand dollars. It turned out to be a big, thick, bed blanket that had been made by Longfellow’s great-grandmother in about 1770.”
I had that fairy tale in mind when Harold Hawes was working his magic during the last auction of his I ever saw. From a Betty Boop cookie jar to a pair of table lamps, the objects lifted up became ever more dreary, and we were at the point where Harold was nearly giving items away. The whole thing seemed about to fold when Harold crooned, almost to himself, “It’s Saturday night, folks, it’s auction night.”
If You Go
Holmes Auction Center, 605 Middle Rd., Skowhegan. 207-474-8769. www.holmesauction.com. Houston-Brooks, 22S Horseback Rd., Burnham. 207-948-2214. www.houstonbrooks.com. The Thomaston Place Auction Galleries, 51 Atlantic Highway, Thomaston. 207-354-8141. www.thomastonauction.com
- By: Michael Burke
- Photography by: Jennifer Smith-Mayo