Bidding at a rare book auction. by Florence Shay
Reprinted with permission of The Caxtonian
“Fair warning… Sold for $750 to 77.” Recently, I attended an auction at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers on Lake Street, near Ogden Avenue, in Chicago. I hadn’t been to an auction in a long time. This auction was Modern Age. Seated along one wall were eight good looking young men and women, all smartly dressed in black. Six were attending the phones. Two were at computers responding to live online bids. On three walls were large videos displaying the current item with its catalogue number. At the podium stood the auctioneer, Leslie Hindman. Standing at her side was the person recording the sales. There were successive auctioneers during the sale.
A small crowd of us were seated attentively with catalogues in lap. Although about 55 chairs were set up, I couldn’t gauge the attendance because people came and went. The categories of offerings were varied enough so that you could time your attendance with the approximation of their being called up. I chose a back aisle seat as an observer (with the Caxtonian in mind). Someone wanted the same spot so he plucked a chair from the floor and put it behind me. Now he had the back aisle seat where he could bid unseen. There was a bidder I watched, front row, aisle seat, who got every damn lot he unobtrusively bid on. He looked familiar, and when I asked, someone identified him as a Caxton Club member. Way to go, Caxtonian!
There were atlases, maps, travel books, military history, autographs, literature, big lots of Franklin Library, Limited Editions Club. Sets in leather bindings. Posters–WW II and circus posters, coins and stamps. Also included in the catalog were Elvis Presley embalming instruments and Elvis Presley post mortem articles.
The items had to weather a four-way competition for a sale. There was the bidding from the floor, the live bids coming by phone, other live bids coming in by computer, and the auctioneer was holding bids that had come in by mail or otherwise, a top bid rather than participating in the escalating numbers. It moved fast. I discovered only later that I had not understood the code for a book not reaching its minimum and being withdrawn. An explosive Darn, or a whimper of pain would have been a clue. Instead the auctioneer said, “Bought in,” or “Passed.” The catalog number will be omitted from the Prices Realized sheet we’d get later in the mail. Am I the only one who didn’t know this?
There was an item I found engaging at the viewing. It was a piece of furniture built to hold the two elephant folio Audubon books upright. The Audubons, Viviparous Quadrupeds of America, had facsimile prints, but the package was awesome. It was lacquered dark wood with a 10” wide base, standing about 3’ high and about 24” wide. God knows how one would remove the heavy books to enjoy the beautiful color prints. Estimate, $3000-5,000.
I waited excitedly for it to be auctioned but the action was so fast that I missed it. Afterwards, I found out why I missed the bidding. There was none. There were no bids; it did not make its minimum, and was returned to the seller. Well, I suppose it was a lot of money for two books in a tall skinny odd bookcase. Maybe with a crocheted antimacassar and a bowl of plastic flowers?
And the Elvis lots? One offered a needle injector, aneurysm hooks, and an eye liner pencil among the nine items ($6000-8000), and the second lot offered a toe tag and a coffin shipping invoice among its seven items ($4000- $6000). Although offered in the catalog, they were withdrawn from the sale because the provenance of the items could not be verified.
I got the three lots I impulsively bid on: a lot of 19 Franklin Library books with great titles, wonderful for people looking around helplessly in the shop for a low priced, fancy looking gift. Also, a very attractive four volume leather bound set, Short Stories on Great Subjects. Back at the shop I opened Volume I to price it and there was my very own handwriting with the same price I was poised to write in!
I bought the third item just to have it. I will frame it for people to read. It is a handwritten contract dated 1842 making arrangements for the slave owner to sell his skilled slave, named Race, about 30-35 years, for $700 to another man who was currently renting him from the owner for $125 per year for carpentry work. The handwriting is difficult, but I will try to decipher it further.
The most expensive book sold was Lewis & Clark’s History of the Expedition to the Sources of the Missouri. It was enhanced by important ownership signatures and presentation inscriptions. Including buyer’s premium it reached $48,800, way over the estimated $8,000-12,000. The runner up, price wise, was Mercator’s Atlas, 1636, two folio volumes. Missing was the map of Transylvania. (Hey, Dracula, give it back!) It sold for, again including buyer’s premium, $35,380, at the low end of the $30,000-50,000 estimate.
Jack London’s The Sea Wolf in first edition, first issue, was one of only two known copies. Wouldn’t it be exciting to own this book for that reason alone? The catalogue indicates the other copy as “London’s own personal copy.” That’s a curious statement. Since London is long dead, was it buried with him? This copy was described as Scarce. Understatement? Estimate: $4,000–6,000. Bought in, Passed. The auction house is no longer accepting credit cards. I asked whether they had had a nasty experience leading to that change, but no, it was a financial decision that is being adopted by the auction industry. The charge is 3% and they were reluctant to levy the burden on each winner, and didn’t want to assume the extra expense themselves. I didn’t bring a check to pay for my purchases, but since I have already bought from them, or because I’ve been in business in town long enough to show responsibility, I was allowed to carry mine home with a check to follow in the mail.
The afternoon had gone quickly. The auction was businesslike, brisk, straightforward, fast.
Remember the olden days? When the auctioneer, William (Bill) Hanzel of Hanzel Auctioneers, knew everyone by name? When he wheedled one more bid out of you? I remember the jeweled Kelmscott Chaucer. It had reached $10,000 and I held my breath as top bidder. And Mr. Hanzel said, “Come on, Florence, don’t let them get it–give me one more bid.” And I said weakly, “Wasn’t that my bid?” No, it wasn’t. A team of two looked at me, stolid, as Hanzel said, “Look at them, they are folding, you should have it, one more bid.” I collapsed. I was the one to fold. It was all theatre in those days. I still regret having missed my cue.
On another day, everyone was bidding like crazy for mediocre books and dreary box lots, and one new face on the crowd was getting each lot. At the break I asked what was going on. “Oh,” I was told, “he’s a buyer for a new dealer in town, and he’s determined to get every lot. We’ll never be able to buy anything here again, and he hasn’t a clue about books. So we’re driving up the prices to dry him up and get him out of the auctions.” It worked. We never saw him again.
Once a collector dumped a pile of cash in my lap. “Get me lot #28. These guys know I buy all the photography. They hate me so they keep bidding me up. Let’s see if I get it cheaper if you’re my secret bidder.” It felt good keeping my paddle in the air. It reached a high price but fair, and I won it. The fool jumped up and down and screamed, “I got it! I got it cheap!” So I couldn’t shill for him anymore.
If you lost track you hollered out, “What number are we at?” After frenzied bidding, when you won the item, you would be congratulated, when really, all it meant was that you had more money. One could be congratulated for that alone, I suppose.
Another auction house, Phillip’s, held a onetime auction in Chicago. A uniformed man stood guard at the door of a small annex off the main viewing room. As I peered around him, he said, “You don’t want to go in there, ma’am.” He whispered, “It’s pornography.” Lying, I said, “I was requested to view it for a customer.” He moved aside disapprovingly. Such collections are delicately called Erotica. They are still “dirty” books, but arty, and admittedly, fun to look at.
The Auction, like every business, changes through the years. Call me sentimental, but I remember with nostalgia when there were No phones, No computers, No video pictures on the walls. Just camaraderie. Ah, the olden days! In the new lingo, they are Bought in, Passed.