Going once, going twice ... going to a Maine auction

Email|Print| Text size + By Letitia Baldwin
Globe Correspondent / April 4, 2004

BURNHAM, Maine -- Cars are piled up along a country road in front of a weath er-beaten hall. A Haflinger horse whin nies from the farm next door. Cumulus clouds race across the deep blue sky. The buzz of crickets fills the crisp air.

It's late Sunday morning and a good crowd has turned out for the weekly Burnham auction in this central Maine town's former Grange hall. A worn wooden sign announcing Houston Yankee Trader (hung by auctioneer Pam Brooks's husband, Everett ''Junior" Houston) hangs over the main entrance. People stream in and out, some bearing chairs, chests, musical instruments, and assorted bric-a-brac.

Inside the hall, where members of the Sebasticook No. 90 Grange once convened, a stuffed sailfish and heads of elk, bear, bobcat, water buffalo, gazelle, and other big-game trophies flank chipboard walls. Ceiling fans whir overhead. Folks, many clutching Styrofoam cups of coffee and nibbling homemade vanilla and chocolate doughnuts, sit or stand, taking in the action.

Holding forth from a lectern, with a microphone in one hand and a pencil in the other, Pam Brooks resembles a conductor as she orchestrates the sale of an Empire highboy, Baccarat paperweight, etched-glass cracker jar, wicker doll's buggy, mousetrap, and other household goods, furnishings, and knickknacks from an estate in Randolph, Maine.

In her deadpan chant, Brooks briskly opens the bidding for an Oriental rug.

''It is just as clean as it can be," she declares cheerfully, asking $300 for the Chinese-red carpet.

No takers.

''Are you bidding, Arthur?"

Someone offers $145.

''I have $145, $155, $165, $185 . . .," the auctioneer rattles off in rapid-fire patter. ''Sold at $185!"

Like many Americans, Mainers love a bargain whether it be a 5,000-watt Homelite generator bought for a song at the Burnham auction, five skeins of angora wool found in the classified ad magazine Uncle Henry's, or a pure silk, designer wedding dress snapped up for $99 at Marden's, the surplus and salvage store chain. Combing yard sales, resale shops, and flea markets can be an economic necessity as well as a form of recreation in the sparsely inhabited Pine Tree State, which ranks 33d in per-capita income nationwide.

''Maine people seem to be constantly on the lookout for a bargain," Robert E. Croul, an auctioneer and antiques appraiser in Newburgh, Maine, observed.

For Mainers and ''people from away," as those from anywhere else are called, country auctions are an increasingly popular destination. Held year round, usually on the same day every week, in rustic auction housesthat number about a half dozen in central Maine, their rural setting and informal air set these events apart.

Held in small Maine towns, country auctions are often staged in a barn or community hall. Admission is free; getting there is the only expense. There is no dress code; a dairy farmer clad in Carhartt coveralls and steel-toe boots fits in just as well as a woman dressed elegantly in a black shearling coat.

Most country auctions sell refreshments. Auction-goers can indulge in a Jordan's hot dog -- a bright red frank favored by Mainers -- or a steaming bowl of American chop suey. At the Burnham auction, homemade doughtnuts are served up, while Chesley's Auction Gallery in Corinth prides itself on desserts like cherry cheesecake, apple crumb pie, and pumpkin spice cake.

''Each has its own following. Each has its own particular charm," Croul says.

Before a country auction gets underway, auction-goers intending to bid must register and get a buying number. Seating is limited, so most people stake out their seat before perusing the goods. Items are examined closely for chips, cracks, and other defects before bidding starts.

At most country auctions, the auction house collects a 10 percent surcharge (''buyer's premium") on all sales. That means if you bid $50, you'll pay $55 for the piece. Some auction houses that accept credit cards charge 12.5 percent to cover their processing costs, but give a 2.5 percent discount for cash or check payments.

Before the main auction begins, the auctioneer sells off ''box lots" to the highest bidders. These are miscellaneous articles grouped together that otherwise might not sell. Box lots have shot up in value since the advent of eBay. A lot that once might have sold for $10-$15 now fetches $35-$40.

Mainers of all ages, from twentysomethings to grandmothers, often buy up box lots, then go home and resell the stuff the same day on eBay.

Raymond Strout, a Bar Harbor-based antiques dealer and collector, frequents country auctions.

''This is what the computer has opened up," Strout marvels. ''Let's say you picked up a book about California, but you didn't have a way of selling it before. Now you have 10 people in California who want to look at it on eBay."

While there's more competition, Strout still delights in the drama and dickering at country auctions. He says bidders try to psych each other out through body language and other tactics. He says an aggressive bidder might hold his or her card in the air and smile to suggest intent to get an item at any cost even though there is a price limit in mind.

''It is psychological warfare," he says, chuckling. ''When you go into an auction, there are no friends."

While bidding wars do break out, Maine country auctions rarely get ugly. Experienced auctioneers run a tight show. Setting a light, but firm tone, they keep the goods moving and the bidding civil.

''We are pretty low-key," Roger Chesley, proprietor of Chesley's Auction Gallery in Corinth, reflects. ''We are not Christie's or Sotheby's. Everyone knows everyone in that hall. It's like a family reunion every Saturday night."

Chesley's is housed in a red barn beside a stark white farmhouse. Majestic old maples and aged tractors line the back road leading to the weekly auctions.

One recent evening, at the onset of mud season, it was standing room only at Chesley's. ''Stomping at the Savoy" drifted through the air as folks eyed an airplane propeller, snowblower, bamboo fly rod, tapestry-covered hatbox, Uncle Wiggily picture puzzle, and other items.

In a high-pitched voice, sounding like a square-dance caller, Chesley reeled off bids for a 12-gauge Remington shotgun. ''I've got $150, $160 . . .," he ticked off.

Bob Hogan, a retired janitorial supplies salesman from Bangor, surveyed the action from a back corner. He's come to Chesley's almost every Saturday night for 20 years. He collects children's toys from the 1920s through 1940s.

''I got into it out of curiosity," he says, his blue eyes smiling. ''You never know what you are going to find."

Letitia Baldwin is style editor at the Bangor Daily News.

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