Fill 'Er UpJan 01, 2023 09:58AM ● By Maggie Barnes
“We are never going to fill this house.” I sure meant it when I said it a dozen years ago on move-in day. We had defied the usual empty-nest expectations and bought the biggest house we’d ever owned. We went from a little house with a shared garage on a busy street to a place in the country. (How do you share a garage, you ask? It has a lot to do with planning arrivals and departures, much like the air traffic control tower at LAX.) So, I could be forgiven for thinking we would never have enough stuff to take up all the space we suddenly had. Then we discovered auctions.
Auctions in rural communities are major social happenings. In settings from fire halls to churches to barns, bargain seekers, expert antique hunters, and the just plain curious gather to find a treasure.
There is a comfortable atmosphere of wide plank floors, creaky chairs, and, if you’re lucky, food someone’s grandma made.
“What are those?” I looked at the rusted steel gizmos at my husband’s feet. If the Marquis de Sade had gone into dentistry, these sharpened nightmares would have been his extraction tools.
“They are ice hooks. For pulling blocks of ice in the winter,” he replied.
“Are we going to freeze the hot tub? I know you wanted an ice maker on the deck, but there has to be an easier way.”
Bob gave me “the look” and returned his attention to the auctioneer.
In the hands of a talented auctioneer, the mundane becomes exotic. Things that serve a bygone purpose are showcased for their potential to become something else. “It may look like an old dresser, but if you cut out a circle and drop in a sink, it becomes the perfect fish filet station! Get your husband and his stinky catch out of your kitchen, ladies!” If that fails, slap the label “vintage” or “collectible” on it and watch the paddles go up. Bids start low and sometimes go in unexpected directions. There was an antique spinning wheel that I only recognized from my childhood copy of Sleeping Beauty, which sold for more than the rent on my first apartment. There was hot competition for a butter churn and a yelp of joy from the winning bidder. Why, I have no idea. I’m not eating any butter from it.
There are wonderful characters to be found at auctions. People who are professional bidders, complete with a favorite paddle number, take this whole thing very seriously. They are the ones who come early and scope out items. They make notes. They glare at people who outbid them. Then write in their notebooks. I’m envisioning some sort of “antique hit list” and uncomfortable encounters in the parking lot. “Nice hurricane lamp you got there, Agnes. You outbid me like that again and I’m putting your paddle where you’ll need some light, you follow?”
There’s a fellow who frequents one of our favorite auction houses and buys every clock that comes up. Grandfather, mantle, cuckoo, belly of a cherub...if it tells time, he snatches it. The moment he is awarded the bid, he unrolls a leather pouch, removes odd looking tools, and extracts the face of the clock. That goes in a box. Sometimes, he leaves the rest of it—like a discarded carcass. What is he doing with all those clock faces? Maybe he has a really specialized repair business—“The Hands of Time”—and he just replaces clock faces? I don’t know, and I really don’t want to. The mystery is part of the fun.
However, I did want to know what my husband intended to do with the huge box of aluminum floodlights he bought.
“When are the Rolling Stones playing in our field?” I asked. “You know Mick is getting pretty old. You’re gonna aggravate his cataracts with this much light.” Honed by nearly thirty years of marriage, Bobby has perfected the art of not hearing me. When he was the winner of the gorgeous ruby earrings from an old Victorian home, though, I knew exactly what he was going to do with those, and rewarded him with a squeal and a kiss.
That’s the joy of auctions. It’s like a small-scale lottery with someone winning every few minutes. Sometimes it’s a big win, like the beaming young couple who seemed to be buying most of the furniture for their first home on the cheap. Once in a while you get skunked, like the chainsaw Bob bought “as is.” It “as is”d for about twenty minutes and then turned into “as was.” But when the moon and the stars align just right, you find a real treasure. We have a full set of delicately etched cordial glasses that hold a ruby port as the final flourish to formal dinners in our home. They were an auction find and I love them.
There are sad moments, too. You look at a pole barn full of things, and you think that they were once cherished possessions, or essential tools to a day’s work. They had a life with a family that is now scattered, or gone. They are silent witnesses to history. Now, they go for five bucks to a collector who will scavenge their parts.
The photo albums break my heart. Who were these people and why is there no one left to cherish their images? Women in high collars and kids in short pants with scruffy dogs, standing stone-faced by a tree. I feel like we should apologize for reducing them to lot number 127.
But, mostly, auctions are fun events, a celebration that these things are going on to be a part of someone else’s life. Maybe that’s the best we can all hope for our possessions. One night far into the future, God willing, a young bride will squeal with delight when she wins my cordial glasses. I hope her eyes shine as she covers them in bubble wrap and drives home extra carefully. May they go on to hold gallons of good port.
As for our house today? There isn’t a blessed inch of space left for anything else. Except for maybe one spinning wheel...