Archive for March, 2010

Auction Fever

March 15, 2010

“Wha-da-ya wib-bida bib-bid-da beee!”

The very first time I heard that foreign language, I decided it would be easier to become a Grand Chess Master than understand this bidding stuff and actually have a good time at an auction.  My wife, who was born with auction fever just as sure as she was with two brown eyes, had dragged me to my first Buddy Updike Auction about 20 years ago in hopes of finding some piece of Occupied Japan.  Naturally, I thought she’d have a better chance if we booked a flight to Tokyo, but she had insisted on driving east on route three toward King George, VA.

The Auction Man had scheduled an “Absolute Auction” for 10:03 a.m. My interest peaked.  An “Absolute” Auction told me that a certain very good brand of vodka had signed on to sponsor this event and market vodka to this rural gathering of bargain hunters. [And I had thought Virginia was Bourbon territory.]  I was also curious about the precise starting time of three minutes past the hour. Perhaps, The Auction Man was trying to emulate the Super Bowl, with its kick-off time of 6:43 p.m. eastern.  The Man – Buddy Updike – loomed large and may very well have played a little football in his day, I observed as we walked under the tent on the auction grounds that fateful morning.

I was immediately disappointed when I found that the only beverages available were canned sodas and that “Absolute”, in this case, meant that everything would be sold, even at rock-bottom prices. I got over that after looking around awhile at all the stuff up for sale from one guy’s garage or house.  Whoever he was, he had lived large, or at least a long while, and had never ever thrown a single thing out at the landfill.

The other attraction was the people. They were stoked on this opportunity to buy one man’s treasures and make them their own, well below retail. The cast of characters included a guy called a “picker” who bid on stuff for other people – usually dealers – and a bunch of regulars – judging by their pre-kickoff banter among themselves and the auction crew. A fun-loving bunch at that! 

Harry teased Sally, Mary ribbed Tony, and everybody barbed Buddy, who proved too quick-witted a contestant in this pre-auction sparring contest.

 Once everyone had “previewed” the merchandise and Buddy explained the rules, the carnival-like atmosphere grew eerily silent. At this point, I expected a coin toss or the introduction of players, anything I could anchor to my past experiences. Then came a recording of the National Anthem, followed by that foreign language: “Wha-da-ya wib-bida bib-bid-da beee!”

People in the back of the tent craned their necks to see the first item up for bid.  Several held up numbered cards, and auction guys pointed at them in a ritual heretofore unbeknownst to me… Cards up. Arms thrust, fingers pointing.

Buddy left the foreign language and shouted a new dollar number in English, then jumped back on that foreign language. Another card went up. Another arm thrust. Another finger pointed, and again, Buddy left the gibberish and shouted a new dollar number in English, then returned to the foreign language!

By then, I was craning my neck…

It’s a, a chair!  They’re bidding on a chair!  It’s about to sell for seventy-five dollars when my wife holds up her card, #186.  Arm-thrust finger point!  Buddy leaves the foreign language and calls out “$80.”… “I have $80, $80 dollars going once, going twice, sold!  To numberrrrr 186!”

Just then, every one of the auction guys arm-thrust and finger-pointed at my wife!  I took off my jacket, thinking this could be my Alamo.

They all smiled at her and joked around again.  Buddy declared, in perfect southern English, “Now that’s a deal. Give the lady a hand!”   So, there was everyone — clapping.  My wife was smiling, an auction guy brought her over this, this chair she had just bought for $80 that everybody in the place thought was such a great deal that they had to clap for her.

I’ve never seen anything like it.  Many hours in Macy’s New York and no one ever got an ovation for buying something, let alone a chair.  And quite the chair, I recall. One leg was missing. The caning was torn. It was old, probably 300 years old… But it was ours! My wife was happy, and the one thing I’d learned in marriage is when the wife is happy, everybody’s happy.

Caught up in the moment, my adrenaline flowed. Harry teased Sally again; Mary ribbed Tony, and everybody barbed Buddy. Then the auctions guys held up the next item up for bid – a lamp!  A real old oil lamp with no light bulb.  Buddy described it as something like what George Washington used to carry around when he was doing chores after dark on the banks of the Rappahannock at Ferry Farm.

“Now how does he know that!?” I leaned over and cynically nudged my wife.

“Be quiet, Rob, and watch. You might see something you like.”

Something I like… In retrospect all these years later, how right she was…

Then came that foreign language: “Wha-da-ya wib-bida bib-bid-da beee!”

And the whole thing started over again, like the second half kickoff.

It went on all day. Three hot dogs and two sodas later, I went home and poured myself a vodka rocks, twist of lime. I admired the weed whacker for $22.50, the set of tools for $18, and the huge sideboard for $245. Those were my takes… Virginia was in the back yard stripping her chair and re-caning it.  She added “Call Rim” to my HoneyDo List, in reference to a millwright in town who could replicate the missing chair leg.

I picked up a book on antiques and collectibles from the stack of a dozen or so that my wife had lying around. I must have walked past that stack 400 times over the years without so much as reading a title. Now I found myself dog-earring pages and dropping sticky notes inside.

I sat back, took a sip from my glass…  What a great day.  I had caught Absolute Auction fever.  Absolutely.

Postscript: Buddy Updike is retired as an auctioneer, but The Auction Man & Associates, a full service auction company started by Buddy in 1971, continues to specialize in real estate, antiques, collectibles and estate liquidation.  My wife and I attend fewer auctions and bid on very little at this point, but with auction season starting up again this spring, who knows –- the fever may recapture us yet.