Going, going, gone!
When the gavel goes down, and the bidding starts, Sacramento auctioneers prove that money can be made from memories
It’s May 26 at the Auction Block Co. near 57th and J streets, and things are a mess. There’s supposed to be an auction here in eight days, but no one would know it from the look of things. Stuff is everywhere, a chaos of clutter that makes walking through the place a challenge. In the remaining days before the sale, two petite women, Debbie and Sally Metzinger, mother and daughter, will have to inventory everything in sight. They will unpack it all, tag it with consignment and catalog numbers, and arrange it for display. Some 600 items will be sorted, photographed and described; the information will be fed into a computer.
Debbie and Sally also will have to write and mail out fliers for their regular customers, plus research any of the items that may be “sleepers” in order to get an approximate assessment of value. They will hang artwork and organize the “smalls”—auction jargon for glassware, pottery, jewelry, postcards and ephemera—in the display cases. They will wrestle the furniture into pleasing order. Tables to be auctioned off will be adorned with china settings and silverware. A rug will be rolled out under that antique divan in the corner, now nearly buried behind boxes.
They’ll get a little help from Craig Metzinger, Debbie’s husband and Sally’s dad. He’ll do most of the auctioneering on the appointed day. But he’ll be busy for much of the time leading up to this auction, working on the entirely separate auto auctions he conducts every Thursday and every other Tuesday. So, these two women prepare for the onslaught almost entirely by themselves while they tend to Madeline, Craig and Debbie’s 13-month-old grandchild. On the day of the auction, Jill, Madeline’s mom, will be on hand selling snacks to the people who come to bid. It’s a family affair. Betty, the middle daughter, will be on the computer, making sure bids are matched to bid numbers and checking out the buyers when the bidding is done. She’ll probably be wearing her Wonder Woman T-shirt, as she often does on auction day, as a reminder of how strong women can be.
If your idea of an auctioneer has to do with notions of energy, speed and adrenaline, then Craig Metzinger fits the role. At age 51, he’s short and wiry and always in motion. To maintain his energy level, he used to drink six or eight cokes a day, but now he makes do with bottled water.
He’s quick-witted, and it would be a rare auction where laughter was not dispensed, along with the stuff being sold. Auctioneering is a people business, and it’s hard to imagine a successful auctioneer who lacks charm. Craig is very good with auction crowds, with a ready quip and a sometimes corny sense of humor. He loves to tease customers during the auction, and the customers take to his teasing.
From beginning to end, an auction is a labor-intensive business. It’s also an endeavor that reminds us of something crucial—that the things that adorn our journey through time are not with us for very long.
It’s all about the “stuff,” the never-ending array of things cast off by those who once owned them. Or, just as likely, when time casts the people off, the stuff winds up being part of an estate auction. The stuff constitutes the relics of the decades and the centuries as they recede in time. Everything comes into the auction room in disorder and leaves the room on the day of the auction, taken away by collectors and dealers who put it with their “stuff” until the day it makes its way into other hands.
It’s all about stuff, as people assess the value of things, hoping to find a treasure overlooked. Buy it at auction for $40; sell it on eBay for $400. That’s the driving impulse for many of those who poke their way through all these items. About a quarter of the people who come to this auction are dealers who hope to buy what they can sell at a profit in their shops. The other people at the Metzingers’ auctions are just retail customers, looking for stuff at bargain basement prices.
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 once saw in your mother’s cupboard. Depression glass that once collected dust, the stuff your mother bought at Woolworths because it was cheap, now commands hefty prices at auction and on eBay. The trendy toys you played with not so long ago are now prized for quaintness. Farrah Fawcett memorabilia, the first Madonna album cover, Barbie dolls and Beverly Hillbillies lunch boxes—all gain value as new generations redefine nostalgia.
That’s one of the things Debbie Metzinger loves about being in the auction business. She’s a collector of stuff herself, and she has been known to cry when she gets outbid on an item she really covets. Sometimes Craig doesn’t see Debbie raise her hand to bid because she’s hidden back behind the computer. “I like local memorabilia,” she says. “Craig and I grew up here and in Rocklin and Roseville when those were still small towns. My folks had a cabin at Donner Lake, and if something comes up at auction that reminds me of my childhood, I’m going to bid on that.”
She rustles through the stuff with a collector’s avidity, unwrapping things from the old newspapers they rest in, turning them over in search of makers’ marks, exclaiming over them—“Oh, that’s so cute” or “I never saw one of these before.”
On the last evenings before auction preview, Debbie likes to linger with the stuff she’s put together, likes the quiet time to herself when she can take a last look, both reappraising and re-appreciating the things that have occupied most of her waking moments in the weeks before they are to be sold off. For the upcoming auction, she’s already fallen in love with a child’s Hoosier cabinet. “I’ve never seen a child’s version of one of these before,” she says. “The grown-up ones can bring up to $2,500 in good condition. This one is very unusual. It should bring maybe $1,200, but it probably won’t, unless there’s someone here with a really good eye.”
The search for bargains is a major driver at auctions, of course, and when auction-goers swap stories, those stories are nearly always about prices both high and low.
“Hey,” Craig says, “it’s all about numbers, this business. Not just prices, but all the numbers that go into making an auction—buyer’s numbers, seller’s numbers, catalog numbers, price, value. Numbers are my life.”
But he doesn’t sound too unhappy about it.
Hidden treasure hunt
Part of the fun is in the unpredictability. Debbie tells the story of a man who came by, wanting to auction off his camping equipment. She looked at the stuff, but it seemed to have little value. “What about these other things?” she asked, pointing to artwork in the back of the man’s van.
“Oh,” he said, “I was just going to take that to the dump.”
“We might be able to sell it,” Debbie said. “Maybe you should let us have a look.”
The guy was almost annoyed at the suggestion, and he began flinging the art out of the back of his van into the parking lot.
“The next day, as I was hanging one of the pieces—a painting of a horse—I was looking for an artist’s signature. I saw what appeared to be ‘Kitty,’ written in the right-hand corner. Sally was cataloging, and I told her to just put the artist’s name down as ‘Kitty.’ Close enough.” She chuckles.
Well, it turned out that Kitty was the name of the horse. “The artist’s name was Olaf Wieghorst, a well-known 19th-century artist whose work is prized by collectors,” she says. “When I put that in the catalog, the phone started ringing almost immediately. We had calls from as far away as Pennsylvania.” In the end, the painting that had been tossed out into the parking lot so carelessly brought $5,500 at auction.
Craig rings in with another story. “Not too long ago, we had some framed slave-indenture documents, English bills of sale for the purchase of three slaves with wax seals and all. One of the slaves was sold around 1790, and the other two documents were from the early 1800s. We knew that Chris Webber of the Sacramento Kings collects slave-era memorabilia, and we tried to contact him, but he was on the road,” Craig says, sighing. “Anyway, at auction, the pieces sold together for $450. The very next day, the guy who bought them turned down an offer of $5,000. I heard later that he’d sold them for 20 or 30 thousand. Nice profit.”
Craig’s story reminds Debbie of an estate sale they handled, the contents of a big house in the Fab 40s. “There was elephant statuary all over the house, really nice pieces,” she says. She pauses before adding, “They were Republicans. There were pictures of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, candid shots taken at parties there back in the ’60s and ’70s. The owners of the house died, and the heirs were going to put the house up for sale. They said that they were going to leave behind a gorgeous fireplace screen, art nouveau. Really nice. We talked them into putting it in the auction, and that screen alone brought $2,200.”
EBay and Antiques Roadshow have contributed to a big spike in interest in auctions. One person’s junk is another person’s treasure, as the saying goes, and more and more people are out there scouring the junk in search of a treasure, looking for that neglected or overlooked gem they can snag for a couple of bucks and sell for thousands.
There’s money to be made from memories. Regular viewers of Antiques Roadshow know the drill. A person buys an object for two bucks in a garage sale or in a box lot of junk at an auction. The person brings the object to an appraiser on the Roadshow, and the appraiser coyly asks the person if they have any idea of the value of the object in question. The person is inevitably clueless about value, but suspense is allowed to mount for a moment or two before the appraiser reveals the fact that the object, purchased for a mere pittance, is worth thousands of dollars. Joy, tears and astonishment ensue. The pursuit of something for nothing—or for very little—is one of the subsets of human experience, and one place that particular itch gets scratched is at auctions.
But there is, in all this stuff, an implicit memento mori. Here is a wedding dress, yellowed with years, once a prized possession. Now it’s an idle curio without much value. Here is a signet ring, once part of the image a man chose as part of the way he presented himself to the world, now a trinket in a tray.
F. Scott Fitzgerald finished his novel The Great Gatsby with this: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” When he wrote those words, Fitzgerald surely wasn’t thinking about auctions, though the line seems applicable. Going to an auction is to steer your boat deeper into the current, to take in the oars and let yourself drift into the past. Everything found at an auction is tinged by time—curled and faded around the edges, chipped and cracked, or remarkable because it has escaped fading or cracking.
Or, to quote William Faulkner, a contemporary of Fitzgerald’s, “the past is not dead; in fact, it isn’t even past.”
If you don’t believe Faulkner, go to an auction and see just how present the past is. Over there, on the other side of the auction room, could that be the very same rocking horse you had when you were a kid? And there’s a stack of old magazines, topped by one with a young Jackie Kennedy on the cover, a magazine you distinctly remember flipping through, though you no longer remember where you were when you did.
It’s a museum of memories here, and they’re all for sale, bits and pieces of the remembered past or the past that is just beyond the reach of personal memory. There is stuff here from the Depression and graduation pictures of people now long dead, arrayed in front of buildings that have been torn down.
If you have a particular cast of mind, there is something a little depressing about an auction. All of this material stuff was once coveted and treasured by the people who once owned it. Even photographs, items most people prize most highly, often wind up at auction, fading old pictures of people no longer identifiable to anyone, gathered before a camera 70 or 80 years ago, smiling while on vacation in front of a landmark that is almost but not quite familiar.
Such thoughts do not, however, deter very many people. “There’s a shot of adrenaline to be found at an auction,” Craig says. And Debbie adds, “Auctions create an urgency to buy. It’s buy it or lose it at an auction.”
Craig and Debbie don’t do reserves very often. Reserves withhold items from sale if the bids aren’t high enough. Though Craig will pass on items that don’t draw the auction minimum bid of $10, he will never suspend sale of an item after a minimum bid has been entered.
“I walk the edge of a line,” he says. “I make more money, and the consigner makes more money, as the bids go up, but you also want to people to come back to future auctions, so it’s a fine line. You want people to leave happy with the prices they paid, and you want the consigners happy, too. As I say, it’s a fine line.”
Show me the money
It is June 3, the morning of auction. Debbie and Sally’s work has transformed the place, turning it from the mess it was into the auction showroom it has become. About 30 people are milling around during the preview before the auction starts at 10 a.m. Now the crew is augmented by the “Vannas,” so named for Vanna White of Wheel of Fortune. The Vannas, male or female, are the people who hold up the items as they are being auctioned off and who sometimes “ring” as the bids come in. Ringing is auction jargon for spotting and announcing new bids with a kind of yelp that lets the auctioneer know about bids he might not have seen.
The 600 items to be sold off today are not just everything but the kitchen sink; they are everything including the kitchen sink. Not only a kitchen sink, but there’s also a Victorian elephant-trunk toilet and an old pine kitchen hutch from Czechoslovakia. There’s tray upon tray of jewelry, and there are artifacts no one has quite managed to fully identify. Are they from ancient Egypt? No one knows for sure. And there’s enough furniture for several households to start up housekeeping.
Craig climbs up to take his place at the podium to begin the bidding. He explains the rules—each item sold is subject to a 12-percent premium, which is the auctioneer’s fee. Buy an item for $10, and it will cost you $11.20, plus tax. That premium is what the Metzingers get for the work that goes into the auction, and it also pays for the rent, the utilities, the mailings that promote the auction, the salaries of the crew on auction day, the licensing fees and a half-dozen other incidental costs of running such a business.
When the gavel goes down to start the bidding on the first item, the turnout proves disappointing. The good weather and the lure of other Sacramento events have worked against the auction house today, and only a few dozen bidders are in attendance. A small house is good for buyers, but it works against sellers.
It’s clear from the first item sold that it’s going to be a rough day. Though Craig is as quick-witted as ever, and though the small group of bidders is in good spirits, the rhythms are slightly off, and lots of items are passed without drawing any bids at all.
But, inevitably, even in a small group of bidders, there are items that spark competitive bidding. The Victorian elephant-trunk toilet, for instance, sets off spirited bidding between two would-be buyers, and Craig slips into auction patois. It’s known as “the chant,” that rhythmic calling out of the bids as the hands go up in the room, and, unlike at the auto auctions he works, Craig seldom gets the chant going as fast as he is capable. He can do 200 items an hour if there’s a need to go that fast, but he likes to hit a pace of 125 an hour. “People are intimidated when an auctioneer goes too fast,” he says, “and I want this to be a fun experience for people, not just another source of stress.”
Started with an opening bid of $10, the elephant-trunk toilet sells for $175, and the accompanying water-closet tank with brass pole goes for $270.
The big pine hutch from Czechoslovakia is a steal at $100. A Victorian settee goes cheap at $125. Consignment jewelry from overstocked jewelry wholesalers goes for a fraction of its ERC (estimated replacement cost). And a cast-iron mailbox brings just $50. A 12-volume set of the works of Washington Irving, bound in leather and published in 1857, brings $65, or just over five bucks a book. A beautiful cherry wood dresser goes cheap at $50, and a heavy English oak sidebar goes for a mere $25. A pair of heavy old Spanish spurs with enormous rowels sells off at $65.
But a very old baby crib with rusted metal webbing (now sold as a doll bed because it no longer meets health and safety requirements) brings in a surprising final bid of $325.
Craig takes a break somewhere near the midpoint, and Debbie, who is also a skilled auctioneer, takes over. A guy in the front row keeps urging her to slow down. The auction has been dragging a bit, and her pace—and the rhythm of her chant—is faster than her husband’s. Craig returns after Debbie has auctioned a dozen or so items, and the buyer who’d urged her to slow down settles happily back into Craig’s somewhat more relaxed rhythm.
It’s a funny thing about the dynamics of an auction. Under normal circumstances, no one on the planet probably needs an old bidet, but when such an item comes up for bid, people suddenly discover desires they didn’t know they had. That old bidet is transformed from old junk to a possible garden planter, a great conversation piece for those evenings when company shares wine and hors d’oeuvres in the backyard.
And that broken-down old hutch that is going cheap just might, with a little paint, be the perfect “shabby chic” décor for the family room. An auction is a place where buyers are bound to discover things they don’t need but absolutely must have.
A view into the past
By early afternoon, the auction showroom is emptying out as people redeem their purchases. The last few items are sold to the few desultory stragglers, picking up the additional bargains produced by exhaustion and weariness. The carefully arrayed stuff Debbie and Sally worked so hard to arrange is being hauled out the door item by item. In a few days, the whole process will begin again as more stuff streams in for the next auction just a few more weeks away. Perhaps, in one of those boxes as yet unopened, there will be a rare first edition of a book by Mark Twain, or a heretofore unknown letter from some historical figure. Perhaps.
When the work is done, the crew members take turns sharing their reasons for being drawn to this work. Sandra Olszewski, one of the Vannas, works the auction as a hobby. The work is very demanding on auction day, so it is natural to wonder why an attractive woman who teaches French and Spanish at Woodland High School would want to give up one or more Saturdays a month to schlep stuff on an auction floor.
“I’m a collector myself,” she says. “Glassware from the ’20s and ’30s, mostly. When I was still in high school, my grandmother gave me some old dishes, but I didn’t much appreciate the gift until I was in the library one day and saw a book with pictures of those very same dishes. Seeing those dishes in a book hooked me on wanting to know more about old things I’d always taken for granted or barely noticed.”
Olszewski spent the first 12 years of her life in France, and she thinks that may have helped fire her love of old things. “I think it came with my childhood,” she says. “In Europe, old things are everywhere, things much older than we have here.”
“The teacher side of me feels like I’m preserving history. We live in a disposable society—plastic forks and paper plates. We even throw away the past, but all these things are part of history, and if we don’t connect with them, we lose it.”
Susan Saner, another member of the crew, does the work for a love of the things she sees. “I love the merchandise,” she says. “I’m always curious about value. … I’ll see something I think is almost worthless, and it’ll draw a big price. It’s fascinating, and I really like interacting with the people who come to auctions.”
Kanani Nolan, surely the most animated and funny of the Vannas, has been working with the Metzingers for as long as they’ve been doing auctions. She, too, is fascinated by the stuff, and she loves performing for the buyers, joking with a wry sense of humor. Before she worked auctions, she was a regular visitor to auctions. “You wonder what these things have seen in the past,” she says. “You wonder where they’ve been. And the interaction with the buyers is just fun. You can’t judge a book by its cover. People who don’t look like they could rub two pennies together wind up bidding on some of the highest-priced stuff. So, it’s always surprising, and it’s never the same twice.”
And, at the end of the day, Debbie Metzinger, the woman at the center of all this, offers an assessment. “It was a brutal day,” she says. “You hope for a happy medium between buyers getting good deals and sellers getting fair prices, but we lost money today. That’s the business. You win some; you lose some.” She sighs and smiles.
“I remember as a little girl going to auto auctions with my dad. He was a gambler, my dad was. Roy Boatwright. Lots of people around here will remember him. He built the building across the street. It used to be the Karmel’s Cookie Co., and he ran it with my uncle, Lewis. He was a gambler, my dad was, and he got in the car business because he won a Fulton Avenue car dealership in a poker game. I’d go to auto auctions and sit on dad’s shoulders when I was a little girl, and all the other buyers would fuss over me just like the buyers now fuss over my granddaughter, Madeline. I’ve been around auctions all my life. It was the gambler in my dad that made auctions appeal to him, I guess, but whatever we needed when I was growing up, we got at auctions. Dad died in ’96, and I think he’d understand what the family is doing together with this business. It’s all a gamble.”
This time, the gamble didn’t pay off, except for some buyers who got lucky on a slow auction day. And because the gamble didn’t pay off, and because she loves what she does—loves the stuff and the memories that come in with the stuff—Debbie is already at it again, preparing for another auction on June 24 when her family, both living and in spirit, all will participate as Craig runs the chant, the Vannas ring the bids, and stuff sells off once more, memories on the block, both new and yet to be made.
A statement in “Going, going, gone!” may have left the impression that the auctioneers’ fee, 12 percent of the sale price, is their only source of profit from the sale. There also may be a fee paid by the seller, much as a consignment seller pays a fee to the store owner for space in the shop.