Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Fair Warning

Some people prefer high-stakes poker. Others would rather parachute off the New River Gorge Bridge. Still more like to tempt fate by snorting Diazinon crystals. But for my money, it would be hard to top the adrenaline rush that accompanied the Wilsons’ introduction into the cutthroat, fast-paced world of decorative art auctioneering.

To understand how we found ourselves in a room in Oak Park looking at Shaker duck decoys, it’s necessary to take a quick trip into some ugly family history. Let’s step back a little over a year ago, when Clair’s grandmother passed away. (Yes, my blog is death 24-7 these days.) You see, the Davises, Mary Ellen & Jerry, were very gifted collectors. They ran a department store, (which got a mention in Time when the U. S. Government attempted to destroy it with a nuclear bomb), so they become connoisseurs of modern furniture. In addition, Jerry’s upbringing out west brought him into direct contact with several Native American tribes, so he became an astute collector of baskets and rugs. A visit to the Davis home in Kanab, Utah, was evidently like entering a mashup of the MoMA and the Museum of the American Indian.

When Mary Ellen died, she left all of this stuff that was collected over the years to her son. This became an immediate source of friction, since (a) she left none of it to her daughter, and (b) her kids hate each other. The reasons for this are complicated, and I think there's plenty of blame to go around. Nevertheless, you might imagine that, even in the worst of circumstances, had this happened to you, you would still have to admit that family is family, and you would set aside your petty differences for this one moment, and you might be magnanimous and permit your siblings to choose one or two items to keep, as a remembrance of your parents and to carry on the family's history.

If this sounds like you, then you would have been woefully out-of-place at this funeral. I've never encountered an environment as toxic as this one. Put it this way: there was a security guard at the house after the funeral, presumably to make sure we didn't abscond with anything. This, needless to say, did not clear the air. My advice to you: stay on good terms with your brothers and sisters.

The upshot of all this, after all the finger-pointing and threats of legal action and whatnot subsided, was that Clair's uncle decided to sell everything. Every basket, every chair, even a sculpture signed by Mary Ellen that she might have made herself. No nostalgia. No legacy. All gone. The whole shebang.

The furniture, which featured Herman Miller cabinetry and a Noguchi coffee table, was sold in December. At a really basic level, this is just sad. What kicks it up a notch to annoying is that Clair and I didn't hear about it until January. It's hard to know if that was designed to prevent us from getting anything or just a maneuver to stop any attempt to halt the sale. Doesn't matter now, I guess. But amidst the nastiness, I saw a glimmer of hope.

A second auction. In March.

The baskets.

For the past two weeks, Clair and I have been assembling a package of information and money to try and keep at least a few of these baskets in one branch of the family or another. Between ourselves, Clair's mom, and her brother, we put together a decent little bankroll for heritage reclamation. Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We're stealing it back.

We had actually looked at the whole collection the week before, but Clair was getting a case of the nerves, so on Saturday -- the day before the auction -- we went back to see everything again. There were only a few of us the first time, but the gallery was packed on this day. People pawing over everything, like some upscale garage sale. It was a little unsettling.

Of particular concern was a mousy-looking man who looked like a dorkier version of the father from Cakey! The Cake From Outer Space. He wore a polo shirt that said "National Counterterrorism Center," wielded a digital camera, and hovered over a few of Mary Ellen's baskets with unsettling intensity. I'll just come out and say it: he gave off a strong pedophile vibe.

At one point, Mr. Counterterrorism Pedophile -- who was staring at a particular basket with a diamond pattern like he was taking a color-blindness test -- snapped his fingers melodramatically and announced, "Of course! He'll know!" A security guard and I exchanged glances, as we silently agreed that it was time for the ham to come out of the oven. But there was still overcooking to be done. Later, when the lech answered his cell phone, did a bad-spy glance-around, and stage-whispered into the phone, "Oh, yes, this looks very good," like he was in The Second Thomas Crown Affair. Trust me, if you see this guy around your kid's school, shoot first.

Sunday morning was nervous indeed, as we gathered our wits and our study aids one last time. The large crowd, plus the antics of Agent 00Dork, had made us nervous. Clair warned her family to prepare for the worst. And then, like Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy off to foil the Duke Brothers, we marched into the gallery, ready for battle.

Our first item of interest didn't show up until the late 300s, We arrived a little before #100. So I took this as an opportunity to study. And man, did I get an education. You've heard about auctions. You've seen movies. You've visited eBay. They're fast. But until you're actually in one, you can't possibly know what that means. Let me put it this way: this gallery sold nearly 1200 lots yesterday. They averaged about 100 lots per hour. Sweet jeepers.

Try and imagine something between a genteel auction of some Picasso and a livestock sale. Take the calmness of the former and the speed of the latter and you will sort of get a sense of how this went down. A nice woman would rapidly plow through a series of numbers which turned out to be bids, while people on telephones took orders, and the occasional spectator threw out a bid on a hideous green vase. At the end of each lot, the auctioneer would announce "fair warning" to signal that this was the last chance. But she did it in this high-pitched, sing-song way that, written down, might look like this:


That still rings in my ears.

Finally, the first item on our list appeared. I consulted our chart. We weren't too interested in it, but I wanted to gauge the market.

It went for $2,300.

That's a lot of money.

Several more lots would go by before I mustered all my courage and raised my paddle for the first time. And then there was a lot of blurry stuff I don't really remember, and there was a "FAIR war-NEENGGG" in there somewhere, and then we had won ourselves a basket. For $1,900.

That's a lot of money.

After that, the adrenalin never really stopped. Items came, items went, won a few, lost a few. Purely from a spectator's point of view, the highlight of the day was this item:

It's a Mission basket with a snake coiling around the bowl and an insect near the top. My mother-in-law didn't think she wanted it, because it creeped her out as a child. Still, it was in very good condition, and looked unusual. It was valued around $3,000, but we kept it in the back of our minds.

In no time, the bids were approaching $4,000, and with several important items still to come, I quickly gave up. But as the price continued to rise, I switched to fascination. And you could tell everyone in the room felt the same way. Two telephone bidders were going at it against each other. After $10,000, a man in front of us turned around with a look a "what-the-hell" expression. And still, the price climbed. And climbed. And climbed.

Final sale price: $25,000. Plus another $5,000 for the house.

We informed Clair's mom by text message, and her response was immediate: "Casino money." It seems that all those Native Americans who deal poker on tribal lands are using their profits to buy back all their treasures. And even though this treasure probably didn't date back more than 50 or 60 years, they wanted it just the same. And I just know that's who the Pedophile Spy was working for.

Fortunately, they didn't want everything. As the day wore on, I clutched our paddle nervously, managed to eke out several victories, including:

A Pima basket with a horse:

A Tlingit basket with lid (at Clair's urging; good call):

An adorable little Shoshoni basket (2 inches high) with a teeny-tiny handle; this picture is pretty close to actual size:

And the only non-basket item on our list, a Navajo rug covered with what the catalog called "a whirling log pattern", and what Clair's mom says the Navajos referred to as "thunderbirds", but which most people will identify as "inappropriate":

Look, they were around long before the Nazis, and meant something totally different to the Navajo people. We're not evil. You really have to trust me on this one.

When the smoke cleared, we had managed to acquire about a third of Mary Ellen's collection, and didn't bankrupt ourselves to do it. We didn't get everything; in particular, an item my mother-in-law wanted dearly went to the casino people for $15,000. But we got a lot, and we got most of the things that we wanted the most.

While checking out, we managed to bethe official auction buzzkill as people learned the reason for our buying spree. (It seems "eager collectors" is a much happier story that "heritage salvagers".) We retrieved our half of our basket bounty (the other half being shipped to Clair's mom), and retreated to a restaurant around the corner for food and drink and decompression.

"We did alright, Clair," I said over a rare glass of wine.

"We did good," she said.

And it felt good. I had successfully bid on valuable items at a live auction. I had confronted an extremely tense situation and emerged victorious. I had helped to restore some of the legacy of my wife's family. It felt real good.

And let's just not have to do that ever again. Okay?


Karen said...

Fabulous post Shane. So glad you were able to buy back some of Clair's family history.

Charlotte said...

Not only did you do did great. Family history is important.

matt said...

This was an excellent story Shane. I'm glad you guys were winners. Thanks for sharing.