The most fun I ever had without leaving town or breaking the law was at a University of Texas auction. In a warehouse at the J. J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin, mountains of computers, office furniture, and scrap metal awaited the highest bidder. Within these heaps of common objects were bizarre gems, one-of-a-kind gizmos created especially for an esoteric research project and then jettisoned. No one could put a name or a purpose to these thingamajigs, but the engineer types at the auction lusted after them nonetheless. For some reason I burned with desire for 150 aluminum balls the size of grapefruit and as precisely machined as a spacecraft’s airlock.
I lost the balls to a possessed artist, a loss I still dream about, but I won what I had come for: an old wooden lab cabinet for my kitchen. The nine-foot beauty, made for the chemistry department by the university carpentry shop in the thirties, is my favorite possession, even though hunting for utensils and spices in its 24 little drawers can be a frustrating game of concentration. And every time I look at it, my chronic case of auction fever flares up.
You can buy everything but time at auctions, from airplanes and antiques to real estate and restaurant equipment—not to mention the most unusual Christmas presents you’ll ever give (anyone for a pedal-driven knife sharpener? a porcelain hand holding a lady’s slipper? a four-inch-tall outboard motor that really works?). Every large city in the state has at least one auction house that holds regularly scheduled sales. Add to those the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Customs Service auctions, government- and university-surplus auctions, and estate and charity auctions, and an auction addict can get a fix nearly any day of the year.
Forget the auctions of Hollywood’s imagination, where a nervous twitch can buy a multi-million-dollar Van Gogh. To bid, you must first register at the door, providing such vital statistics as your name, address, phone number, and driver’s license number. (At a few auctions, mainly those involving IRS seizures, you also have to shell out a refundable deposit of a couple hundred dollars—in cash.) After registering, you are given a bid card printed with a number that’s large enough for Mr. Magoo to read from across the room. This card is your entrée into the thrilling world of bidding at auctions.
THE MAJORITY OF PUBLIC AUCTIONS are held regularly at permanent auction houses, most of which specialize in “antiques.” (This term is used loosely; “used furniture” would be more appropriate but less inviting.) Someone in Europe was terribly busy in the twenties and thirties making thousands of plebeian armoires, dressers, bed frames, and vanities of soft wood covered with oak, walnut, or mahogany veneer. Today workers in Indonesia crank out Chippendale reproductions—secretaries, coffee tables, and fern stands—made from mahogany stained oxblood red. The shipping lanes must be gridlocked with ocean freighters headed for Texas, their holds crammed with these two styles of furniture, the mashed potatoes of the auction buffet. However, I’m always looking for the spicy tidbits—not the expensive, but the unique. And while few delightfully peculiar items make it to the block here, faithful attendance at your local auction house will turn up the occasional steal or quirky collectible.
These auction houses range from the pseudo-swanky to the downright dirty, from big-city sophisticated to corn-pone country. It’s tempting to believe that the best bargains can be found at the dustier, hotter, and more secluded auction houses, but discomfort doesn’t guarantee deals. I’ve watched sweltering bidders at a cramped and noisy Blanco auction drive the price of a homemade Coca-Cola trash can to obscene heights, while nonchalant buyers sipping wine in the air-conditioned comfort of a Houston showroom snatched up an 1870 lap desk and a silver-plated compote at thrift-store prices.
Auction-going isn’t shopping; it’s consumer warfare. And some auction houses aren’t entirely reputable. How can you identify the ones that are? “Make sure there’s adequate preview time,” says San Antonio auctioneer Gene Vogt. “We have people come to town and have what we call hit-and-run sales. They’ll get with a real estate agent, stuff an empty house with new junk, then say, ‘This is an estate auction with five hundred pieces, and you have an hour to preview the merchandise.’ That’s not enough time.” Unscrupulous auctioneers will plant bidders in the audience to jack up the price. Or they’ll take “air bids,” which are as substantial as they sound. “Those bids usually come from somebody in the back of the room,” says Vogt, “which might turn out to be the Dr Pepper machine.”
Jerry Hart, whose family has been in the auction business in Houston for 59 years, suggests that you attend a couple of auctions before you start bidding and take advantage of the preview inspection, not only to poke around under tables and in boxes, but also to quiz auction-house employees about what certain pieces are worth and ask other customers about the auctioneer’s reputation. Vogt concurs: “If someone has anything nasty to say about somebody, they’ll say it. It’s human nature.”
To find out what auctions are being held in your area, look in the classified section of your newspaper. If the partial listings of sale items in the ads aren’t tantalizing enough, get on the auction company’s mailing list. The catalogs and announcements you’ll receive can range from plain postcards to slick multipage brochures with photographs, detailed descriptions, and estimated values of auction highlights. These more elaborate catalogs can serve as the Cliff Notes of antique appraisal and collection.
Astute auction houses are clicking to the benefits of the Internet; it’s quicker and cheaper to update their catalogs on the Web rather than in cumbersome mailings. Garrett Galleries of Dallas tempts surfers with color photos of some of its pricier items, like a nineteenth-century gilt-wood throne chair fit for a large and pretentious king. Austin auctioneer Ross Featherston’s site ( www.austinauction.com) displays a grid of thumbnail photos representing typical items from his weekly auctions; click on