BOOK AUCTION- MY FIRST!
by Ellen G.K. Rubin
(reprinted from Movable Stationery, December 1997; vol.5, no.4)
Wednesdays I pour over the Antique Weekly searching for announcements of book or antique shows. This newspaper is locally published to cover the antiquarian events primarily in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut region but touches on events around the country. The most tedious search is reading the fine print of auction announcements looking for those events that may have, or better yet, feature books. The collecting of movable books and paper has become a passion for me in recent years and broadened my chances for acquiring them is a favorite pastime. Most times a suitable auction is held in Maine or Michigan or some equally inaccessible place. (I live in New York's Westchester county.) and equally as often, it is held at a time when it is totally inconvenient. I understand I can always send in an absentee bid but buying a book that way is very risky. Moreover, I had never been to an auction before and was eager to attend one in person.
Well, finally the confluence of a well-timed event with books as the focus presented itself this summer. Located in Fairfield, Connecticut on a Saturday night, this auction was an opportunity not to be missed. The event was being run by the Connecticut Book Auction Gallery at the Masonic Temple of Fairfield. I called ahead to check the viewing times, and to ask if the venue was air-conditioned; the northeast was in a heat wave. While not air-conditioned, the woman assured me there were plenty of fans. I assured my husband in turn that if the heat was too extreme, we were free to leave. But when we arrived two hours before the auction began, it was clear no amount of fans could sufficiently cool us. Now seeing this large room filled to the rafters with books, I was more smitten by the lure of the hunt than by the heat and so "promised" him I would leave only when the heat was too oppressive.
What made me stalwart was the lure of a particular book which, unfortunately, was number 458 of 504 items. I had been hunting for years for the animated books of George J. Zaffo who worked in the mid-1940s and, according to Pop-up and Movable Books, had done five children's books. I was taken with the vibrant colors of the movables as well as the multi-faceted movement of a single tab. The themes of the books themselves, transportation, invited movement and I thought Zaffo made the best of them. As luck would have it, I already had four of the five books, and the fifth, The Happy Little Travelers, was being auctioned this night. Reported in "good" condition with a dust jacket. I was hooked!
There were several other promising movables that I made note of and would bid on if the cost stayed reasonable. I knew what the relative value of the Zaffo would be but when I examined it, it was closer to "fine" and I knew I would pay "up" for it. What I also learned was that books piled in the front of the room and not listed in the catalog could be selected for bidding as well. Amazingly, all books left at the end of the night, would be auctioned off in one lot. There were several books piled in cartons to be sold in lots as well. Two hours was never going to be enough! But this was to be a labor of love pouring through all these books hunting for the BIG one. Competition was fierce, I might add, as this auction was well attended by collectors and dealers from the Tri-State area. There wasn't enough time to do the inventory justice. My husband stayed amused by surveying the large amount of erotica there happened to be for sale that night. It was a tactical error not to have brought the newspapers he loves. It was hard to believe in a room full of books, he had nothing to read.
I chose a few books from the piles and perspired into the cartons. Occasionally, there were interesting books in them but more often than not, I could not justify buying the whole lot for a single book. After receiving my number-paddle and reminding myself to keep it in my lap until I wanted to bid, the auction began. The auctioneer, Walt Layman, was efficient, humorous, and kept the lots going briskly. Since this whole experience was new to me, there were several surprises. Some books sold for a pittance, and some for several thousand dollars, but a few books were not bid on at all. Often an absentee bidder would take the prize with the high bid. Some bidding for books I wanted went so fast, I lost them in my hesitation.
The heat continued to be oppressive and the snack bar offered only soda and donuts. My husband asked to leave but he wound up standing on the street where it was significantly cooler. He reminded me of my promise but the auctioneer was only at #225. I begged. I won. Finally, lot #458 was next. My heart began to pound and my already sweaty palms sweated more. The paddle was damp. Bids started at $1 and stayed in $1 increments until $20 then went to $2 increments until $50 when the increments jumped to $5. Although I had been listening carefully and had even bid on one or two books, this WAS THE BIG ONE! My husband kept asking, "How high did you say you would go?" We had agreed on a ceiling for each book bid on; the recommended way to bid. It was shocking when the increments jumped by $5 and the bids got dangerously high. Luckily, my competition dropped off just as I hit my ceiling, and the book was mine! The helpers brought it to me. The series was complete and my first auction experience a success. Though curious about who would buy up the long tables of unsold books and for how much, I agreed to go. My husband was mumbling something about "not looking a gift house in the mouth." I had managed to get some books for as little as a dollar, but I was most happy to carry away my sought-after prize. Needless to say, I continue to pour over the weekly ads for auctions, and I know I will " sweat' less at the next one.