My dad has hunting season; my mom has auction season.
One is a vicious bloodsport that evokes our most basic predatorial instincts; the other is hunting.
Well, summer is prime auction season, and my mom is an accomplished sportswoman in her field. Her finds are proudly mounted all over their house: vintage school supplies, old metal signs, tobacco tins, stoneware bowls and antique tchotchkes of every sort.
That’s not to mention big game like furniture, all relics of a bygone era. To name a few: church pews, a pie safe, an ice box (used as a liquor cabinet) and a wooden incubator that has been refinished and repurposed as an end table. Yeah. An incubator.
Much of it came from scouring stores, but plenty also came from the more intense, head-to-head competition of the auction block. That’s what really gets her adrenaline flowing.
If you’ve never been, auctions are pretty interesting.
In Kansas, many auctions are livestock or farm equipment sales. But even if you’re not in the market for a heifer or a backhoe, you’re likely to encounter a little rural flavor. Most auctions take place at the fairgrounds, maybe in a 4-H building. It’s a good sign if at least a few people are wearing overalls.
The first thing you’ll notice is the call of the auctioneer, leading the sale in a chant with a rhythm like a snare drum:
“I’ve got a real nice teddy bear here now. Who’ll give me one dollar-an-a-one-dollar for the teddy bear with a plaid vest? One-dollar-bid-dollar-bid-an-a-ba-now-two. Two-an-a-two. Two-there-it-is-now-three. Two-now-three? Two-and-now-three-dollar-bid-ba-da-bid-now-three-an-who’ll-give-me-three? Three-would-a-go-three-for-the-bear-now-three? Sold for two dollars number 157.”
And as the auctioneer chants, spotters on the side call out intermittently as they see bids. “Hep. . . Hep. . . Hep.”
Speaking of which, if you’re a novice, you’d better keep your hands at your sides. Everyone gets a number to hold up when they’re bidding, but the veterans will signal with just a nod of the head or a wiggle of the index finger. If you scratch your nose at the wrong time, you could be going home with some hideous piece of art. (Anybody see that episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show”? No?)
If it’s an estate sale, you’ll see all the merchandise laid out for buyers to peruse: table linens, encyclopedias, wrenches, rifles, gravy boats, jewelry and the like. Some of it is junk. But always, there’s some rare treasure, too. At least, somebody probably thinks so.
A few sales get heated. The auction world is like any other, and you’ll have dealers and serious collectors who are experts at getting what they want. If they show up, you’ll know it’s a good sale. But you’ll also know that you’ll have stiff competition.
Now, my mother will pretend that she’s just an amateur — a casual auction-goer there for a weekend diversion. In truth, she’s one of them. She senses when someone hesitates, stifles a smile when she spots another’s weakness. Because like any good hunter, that’s when she goes in for the kill.
As a kid, dragged along to auctions, I didn’t do much except sit on the floor between rows of folding chairs, filling my Mad Libs. I hated auctions. But I remember the first one I participated in. It was a church bazaar in my friend Molly’s church when we were in the seventh grade. I had spotted a black sparkly scrunchie, and I wanted it. It would look so good with my orange and black volleyball uniform.
I waited for it to come up for sale. We started bidding. I bid a dollar right away, a rookie mistake. Then a little old lady bid two. What did she want a scrunchie for? Her granddaughter? Back and forth until I bid $6. That was all the money I had! But she backed off, and I won the coveted scrunchie.
I have to admit, nothing really compares to the thrill of winning a bidding war for an item you want. Nothing safe, anyway. Nothing legal.
So I have come to better understand my mom’s favorite hobby, even though I don’t share it and I’m not really in her league.
Recently, I offered her a new and exciting mark: for my upcoming wedding, I wanted 120 white vintage plates, casually mismatched in such a way that you know someone spent hours selecting them. At first, she balked: “What? Do you know how expensive that would be? And who’s going to wash them?”
But five minutes later, with a dreamy look in her eyes, she was musing to herself, “I guess we have a few months. I have seen a lot of white dishes at auctions.”