Other people’s stuff
Chico auctioneer Jack Harbour and the things he sells
It is a mild late summer morning in Chico, with temperatures in the 70s, making it entirely pleasant to be standing on the asphalt surface of Chico Mini-Storage at the corner of East Lassen and Cohasset.
Storage facilities are one of the places long-shot hunch players gather these days, looking for hidden treasure in storage units being auctioned off because the people who owned them failed to keep up the rent on the spaces where they’d stashed the overflow of stuff they once owned, but are now losing.
About 40 people are assembled, all hoping to pay very little to get a storage unit that contains some overlooked and abandoned item of great value—an antique firearm, a precious diamond necklace, or a rare book worth thousands. Such are the dreams.
The master of these ceremonies is a guy named Jack Harbour, a man who’s been in the auction business for decades. When he was 14 years old, his auctioneer father handed him the microphone in the middle of an auction, then walked away, leaving his son to carry on chumming in the bids with the auction spiel young Jack had picked up while watching his dad do it. That was 42 years ago, and Jack Harbour is still at it. Talk about passing the baton to a new generation. You can’t get closer to a hand-off than that.
If you do much channel surfing, you’ve seen the “reality” shows that have prompted interest in buying other people’s stuff in hopes of scoring a big profit. Auction Hunters, Auction Kings and Storage Wars all feature weekly episodes in which the protagonists get some very cool stuff without having to pay much. There are other such shows, too—Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Hardcore Pawn, Cash and Cari—all of them built on the theme of acquiring things on the cheap.
These “stuff-centered” reality shows are fairly cheesy productions. The shows are “real” enough, I suppose, in that they feature people who inhabit human flesh, have Social Security numbers, and may or may not file income-tax returns. But much of what viewers see on those shows is obviously scripted, with each episode following an arc that runs from suspense to surprise, with a little human drama thrown in of the kind pioneered by the Survivor series.
In the case of some of these auction-based reality shows, viewers are introduced to a regular cast of characters and the conflicts that develop among the personalities who bid on stuff each week. Occasionally, they even come to blows over that competitive bidding.
In all his years of auctioneering, Jack Harbour has yet to see fists fly at an auction, but you have to watch only a few of these “reality” auctions before you see people getting physical.
“It can be frustrating to be outbid, of course,” Harbour says, “and I sometimes see tension on people’s faces when they’re in a bidding war with someone, but I’ve never seen anyone get really angry. Those storage-unit shows have to create drama in order to keep people watching, so they pump up the conflict.”
Harbour also knows that the weekly unveiling of storage units with big treasures is far more uncommon than the producers of those shows would have viewers believe. The idea that people are going to buy a storage locker for 10 bucks and then find a gold nugget buried deep in a plastic bin is a pretty elusive prospect.
The glue that binds each episode of these shows together is the same as that found on Antiques Roadshow, the infinitely classier long-running PBS series, where the appeal rests on that “finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers” idea that you’re going to buy something at a garage sale for a quarter and have it appraised on the Roadshow for a quarter of a million.
“I’ve watched Antiques Roadshow, too, of course,” Harbour says, “but it’s kind of predictable. And I don’t always trust their appraisers. What is a qualified appraiser? There’s no sheepskin that qualifies a person for that. You become an appraiser because you’ve had experience buying and selling certain things, but buyers are fickle. I could call myself an appraiser tomorrow, but what would that really mean? It means I can make a pretty good guess about what an item might bring in an ideal situation.”
Lots of people think they know value these days because of the Internet.
“People think, ‘That’s worth $200 from what I saw on eBay,’ ” Harbour says, “but it’s really only worth what someone’s willing to pay when the auction is going on, and no auctioneer can make the market do what it’s not willing to do.”
Those “reality” shows prompted a flood of people to his storage auctions, but that wave of interest has already begun to recede. “If you’d been here a few months ago,” Harbour says, “you would have seen maybe a couple hundred people, but lots of them quit showing up once they figured out that what they see on those TV shows isn’t what they’re likely to find at real storage auctions.”
There are 20 units up for auction on this fine morning. That’s 20 mysteries, 20 stories of people who couldn’t pay and walked away. These are hard times for most everyone but that fabled top 1 or 2 percent of the population sitting on most of the nation’s money. When the owner of the storage facility shoves up the metal door of a unit, he’s always revealing someone’s bad luck.
The patrons peer inside to see what bargains might lurk there. The rules of this particular game forbid going inside, or even touching the stuff, so it’s a grab bag every time, an attempt to guess at a glance just what might lie within.
There’s no disguising the fact that some of these owners were no strangers to food stamps, unemployment checks and welfare payments, people who let these sometimes dismal possessions slip away because the accrued rental fees had come to exceed any conceivable value of the contents.
One of the larger double units is crammed with what appears to be a young man’s stuff. There’s a candy-apple red drum kit, surely worth what the unit goes for all by itself. Two middle-aged women snap it up for $350 after spirited bidding, and they seem happy with what they paid. The unit also includes a washer/dryer, a refrigerator, a rack of clothes that includes a couple of expensive-looking leather jackets, and a bicycle.
“You open those storage-units, and there’s a story behind every door,” Harbour says. “Sometimes you look at what’s in there and how it’s packed, and if it’s neat, it might suggest their values. And if it’s not neat, that’s a story, too. Then there are the units people refer to as ‘tweaker’ units. Sometimes people have even been living in those units.”
All 20 storage units are sold off before noon, and the buyers begin to sort out the stuff they’ve bought. Much of it goes directly into Dumpsters, but the people who bid and bought on this particular morning will most likely be back at the next auction, looking for treasure once more.
A few days later, Jack Harbour is about to open the bidding for the weekly Friday-night auction he conducts at his auction house on West Eighth Street in Chico, by the railroad tracks. These auctions are different from the storage-unit auctions, and Harbour leads off with an explanation of how things work.
“There’s a 10 percent buyer’s premium,” he tells the 100 or so potential buyers who are sweltering in the early evening heat. “If your bid of $10 takes an item, you’ll pay $11 for it. I hope you’ve previewed what we’re selling because it’s all sold as is. You take the item the way you took your spouse: for better or for worse.”
The auction audience sits before him on folding chairs, fanning themselves, all of them hoping that what they take home will be for better, not for worse. Much of what is sold at these Friday-night auctions comes from estates, dead people’s stuff the relatives of the deceased didn’t want to deal with. Because memories reside in those things, it’s often painful for loved ones to make determinations about how to dispose of possessions left behind.
“It’s really rewarding when I get consignments from people who may be flying in from out of state to dispose of a deceased relative’s property,” Harbour tells me before the auction begins. “When they hire us to do an auction, we take the burden off them. They can go back home, we inventory it, clean it, catalogue it, set up the sale, and about 30 days later they get a check.”
Few people who attend an auction can escape the sense that they are themselves tending toward antique rather more quickly than they ever might have imagined. Walk through an auction showroom, and the things that are now avidly sought collectibles were the things you used to see in your mother’s cupboard.
Depression glass that once collected dust or the stuff your mother bought at Woolworth’s because it was cheap can now command hefty prices at auction or on eBay. Farrah Fawcett memorabilia, Led Zeppelin concert posters, Barbie dolls and Beverly Hillbillies lunch boxes—all gain value as new generations redefine nostalgia.
But there is, in all this stuff, an implicit memento mori. Here is a wedding dress, yellowed with years, once a prized possession, now a moldering rag without much value. Here is a box of cufflinks, once part of the image a man chose as part of the way he presented himself to the world, now trinkets in a tray, likely to be sold for a few bucks.
When the auction begins, Harbour doesn’t spend much time behind the auctioneer’s podium. He is in constant motion, prowling the stage, moving with the flow of his words.
The sign on the podium reads “You Snooze, You Lose,” and a woman sitting near me proves the point. She’d told her husband she wanted to get a signed watercolor seascape, but when bidding on it began, she wasn’t paying attention. The painting sold for $3, and her hand went in the air just milliseconds after Harbour pronounced it sold.
When I get home from the auction, I Google the name of the artist, E. John Robinson. Turns out he’s famous, having written books on painting seascapes. He did well over 4,000 paintings, mostly scenes of the ocean near Mendocino. He died a few years back, and his work is avidly sought by collectors. The woman who got the signed print for $3 got a deal.
On this warm Friday night, Harbour auctions off some 500 items, the syllables tumbling out of him nonstop, moving things from dolls to doilies, from samurai swords to Seth Thomas clocks, from Rosewood pottery to rock-’n’-roll memorabilia.
“I go to auctions,” a woman tells me before the auction begins, “because there’s stuff at auctions you just don’t see anywhere else.” That observation takes on meaning when bidding slows on a miniature rolltop desk and Harbour asks bidders, “Where you gonna buy one?”
That miniature desk was, most likely, a salesman’s sample. It is fine in its detail, a curiosity, an objet d’art and a collectible. It gets snapped up by Ken Henderson, one of the auction crew, a half-dozen guys who wrangle all the heavy stuff during the week, and then hold it up for display when Harbour’s auctioning it off.
“Ken is pushing 70,” Harbour tells me, “and he can outwork most 22-year-olds. He’s a retired mechanic, and he likes to clown around. Some people like that, some don’t, but he doesn’t over-do it. He’s a pretty good egg. He’s been working with me about 10 or 12 years.”
“I like working with Jack and the guys,” Henderson tells me after the auction ends. “It’s like a family.”
He adds, “I buy and resell stuff, too, always in the hopes I will double my money. You get a feel for it after awhile. I once bought a piece of Van Brickle pottery for $35 and sold it for $270 a few weeks later. And I got a Roseville bowl for $3 once. It had a little chip, but it sold at an auction for $350 not long after I bought it. That’s about the best I’ve done, but it’s a lot of fun.”
On this particular evening, Henderson manages to outbid everyone else who wanted the miniature desk, getting it for $170. He hopes to put it on consignment and resell it at a profit in a few months.
Stuff sold at auctions generally falls under the heading of things you don’t need but can’t live without, a phrase you hear spoken at most any auction. As if to prove the point, on this particular evening a robotic dinosaur, an item that the guy who bought it surely didn’t need but suddenly had to have, sells for $60.
And Allen Rice, a self-employed draftsman from Paradise, buys a baronial chair for $80, but he’s not sure why, or exactly where it’ll go in his house. His wife, Julianna, makes a successful bid to acquire a painting on birch bark, created somewhere in Latin America by the look of it. She gets it for $12.50, and when she collects it at auction’s end, she says: “This could be something,” though she’s not quite sure what.
When I check with her later, she’s done a little research, and the painting seems to have been done by an anonymous school child in Mexico. So, it’s probably not a priceless bit of folk art, nor is it the work of an artist whose prices are about to soar. But it’s still an interesting composition, beautifully framed, and worth considerably more than what she paid for it on that basis alone. I offer to buy it from her for more than she paid, but she likes it and is going to keep it.
Which is a pretty good rule of thumb. It’s best to buy stuff because you like it, and not out of an expectation of hitting the jackpot. Your appreciation of the thing itself may be the only value your auction purchase will ever have.
It’s nearly 11 o’clock by the time the last item is auctioned off. For four hours, Jack Harbour has been doing a full-tilt auction boogie, without a single break in the action. He clearly has the bladder control of a much younger man, and if they paid him by the syllable he’d be rich.
There’s no way to accurately calculate the number of words that issued from Harbour’s mouth over those hours—the numbers, the repeated vocables, the brief descriptions of items up for bid, the jokes and banter with the audience. And it is an audience, as well as a gathering of bidders, because this is a show he puts on, a weekly performance piece.
It was a tour de force, and when the auction is ended, I say, “Jack, if I’d just worked as hard as you just worked, they’d have to put me in intensive care.”
He chuckles. “What you see when you’re at the auction is the easy part. It’s exhausting, but it’s the culmination of an entire week of preparation. You can think of it like having sex; There’s all the foreplay and then the sex part, but the auction is the orgasm. That’s probably a strange metaphor, but that’s something like how it is.”
A train rumbles by just 20 feet or so from the back of the building, and Harbour has to shout so I can hear him. “I have about a three-hour window to get things sold,” he says. “If I don’t get it in during the first three hours, I might as well throw those last items out in the street. The bidders are just worn out.”
On this particular late-summer evening, lots of things sold for a buck or two, and the highest winning bid on any of the items was less than $600. A hunting bow with its own case and arrows went for just less than $300. A beautiful and quite old oak claw-foot table went for a mere $30, a certifiable bargain.
The auctioneer expedites the movement of things as they change hands from person to person, and from generation to generation. “This is what I do,” Harbour says, wearily, as bidders gather up the last of the things he’s just spent four hours auctioning off. “It’s what I’ve always done. I grew up in the business. I’ve eaten, breathed, and slept this stuff my whole life.”
I have no idea what time Jack Harbour got to bed, but I do know he was up bright and early the next morning, driving to Redding to auction off a bunch of storage units, leaving Chico not long after sun up in order to start the bidding by 10 a.m.
A few days later, I call him for a summing-up interview. “Any observations on the likelihood of finding a big treasure in a storage unit or at a Friday-night auction?” I ask.
“I don’t always know what happens to stuff after we sell it,” he says. “We did have a violin that came through here awhile ago. I sold it for $125, and it later sold for $25,000 up in Seattle. Once in a while, one of those little grab-bag lots we put together will just start to skyrocket in the bidding, and I think, ‘What did I overlook there?’”
He acknowledges that it can be difficult to see the value an item might have.
“I went to see a Smithsonian traveling exhibit,” he says, “and they had the table and chairs where Lee and Grant signed the surrender papers at Appomattox. I looked at the table and chairs and thought that if that was at my auction it would bring about $50.
“Most people don’t know what they’re looking at, especially here in Chico. There just aren’t as many antiques-savvy people here as you’d find in places like New York or New Orleans. And, because we don’t have the longer history they have back East, not so many older antiques are to be found.
“If some 17th-century colonial table came through here, it might look like a piece of junk, and most people would overlook it.”
Like many other things, the auction business is changing with the times and with the technology.
“The business I’m in is nothing like what it was 30 years ago,” Harbour says. “I seem to be working twice as hard for half as much. People’s homes are worth less, and lots of people have lost their retirement. Utilitarian items sell, but they don’t draw the money they used to get. But you can still furnish a three-bedroom house very nicely at an auction, and for under $500.”
How does he feel about having spent his life selling other people’s stuff?
“I like it,” he says, “but I think it’s becoming a lost and dying art. People who do what I do—the live-auctioneer thing—are being pre-empted by online auctions.”
He then sums it up.
“I once had an acquaintance in the bar business,” he says. “That guy owned a couple of adult beverage establishments, but he never touched a drop. He always told me, ‘Jack, that stuff is just made to sell.’ But that applies to just about everything, doesn’t it? It’s all just ‘stuff,’ and at one time or another that ‘stuff’ had to be sold. That is what I do; I sell stuff, no different from Macy’s or Walmart. A different venue, but probably a lot more interesting.”