One fine May day, I returned to my enchanting room at the Windham Hill Inn in West Townshend, Vermont, and posted this Facebook status update:
Kim Knox Beckius will be on the wrong side of the marital "who owes who" equation for a very long time after what she did today.
Of course, my friends immediately wanted juicy details of my transgression. For the first time in my 13-year career as a travel writer, I had to call my husband to come and rescue me. No, I didn't crash my car or run out of gas. No, my wallet wasn't stolen. No, I hadn't fallen deathly ill.
If only I hadn't thought going to a Vermont auction barn would make a great story! If only I hadn't raised my number one too many times. If only I hadn't envisioned the chest of drawers held aloft in front of the crowd at Townshend Auction Gallery fitting easily inside my mid-sized sedan.
A Skilled Auctioneer
As you've probably already guessed, the chest of drawers I'd inadvertently won in a too-brief bidding battle didn't even come close to fitting in my car. And, in an instant, my story angle changed from focusing on the fun of observing auction fervor and picking up a few small bargains to: How not to be an idiot like me when you're at an auction two hours away from home.
"What a way to get engrossed in your work!" my About.com colleague, Cruises Guide Linda Garrison, posted on Facebook in an attempt to console me. It's true: Somebody has to make mistakes on the road so that you can learn how to avoid them. I hope the tips in this photo tour will help you score some incredible deals at Townshend Auction Gallery... without winding up beholden to your spouse.
Tip 1: Observe the Auction Process, and Only Register if You Plan to Bid
I hadn't planned to attend an auction during my weekend in Vermont, but I spied Townshend Auctions' sign as I drove north on Route 30 to my accommodations on Friday evening.
When I arrived at this country auction barn in Townshend, Vermont, on Saturday morning, an outdoor sale of tools was already in progress. There were many active buyers, and I had no interest in tools, so it was easy to avoid being swept up in the bidding.
My plan was primarily to observe and to see what prices the items up for auction fetched. I know nothing about antiques, but I've always loved auctions, and I figured this would be an opportunity to learn about buying furnishings at auction, as my husband and I were in the process of purchasing a remodeled 1880 farmhouse.
The first mistake I made: registering for a bidder number. I wanted to be prepared just in case I decided to bid, but once you have an auction paddle in your hand, you're on a slippery slope of temptation!
Tip 2: Attend the Auction Preview
Vermont's Townshend Auction Gallery usually holds auction preview exhibitions on the Friday afternoon prior to a sale and in the early morning hours before a Saturday auction gets underway. Because I lingered over breakfast at the Windham Hill Inn... and spent time observing the tool auction outdoors... I only had a brief chance to preview the items that would be up for bid.
I never previewed the chest of drawers I bought. If I'd been smart, the fact that I hadn't really examined the piece, nor measured its dimensions, should have made me hesitant to bid. Next time I attend an auction, I will definitely bring a tape measure.
Tip 3: Know What You're Buying
One object I did see during the auction preview was the primitive wooden tool in the center of this picture. I didn't know it was an antique cranberry scoop until Kit Martin announced the item and began the bidding process. I might have been interested in owning this unique New England antique, but it sold for $125 (plus 15% buyer's premium), which seemed pretty steep. Search for "antique cranberry scoop" online, however, and you'll be shocked to see the price these rare tools from yesteryear can command: one antiques dealer has a cranberry scoop listed for $1,250.00!
So, I'll do a bit more homework prior to attending another auction. One drawback of this auction house's southern Vermont location: I had no service on my Verizon smartphone, so I couldn't research items on the spot to determine what a fair price might be.
Tip 4: Keep Your Emotions in Check
I really shouldn't blame auctioneer Kit Martin for my buying blunder. It's his job to goad buyers into bidding on impulse as he attempts to capture top dollar for clients who have consigned items or entire estates. The auction hall filled after the outdoor tool sale was complete, but antiques dealers and big spenders were conspicuously absent from the crowd. As Martin became increasingly grumpy, my inclination to bid and "help him out" intensified.
"I really need to sell fast today. I have so much to sell," Martin began, but as the bids failed to climb, he grumbled: "It's a buyer's day, that's for sure." His increasingly grumpy remarks were too irresistible not to jot down:
"That's a hundred-dollar platter for 10 bucks!"
"Is there anything here that anybody wants? Seriously, 'cause I'll go fishing."
"We'll just take this stuff to Boston. Cancel all the auctions here."
"You can't even give stuff away. I am shocked."
"No antiques dealers here today. Ain't nobody here: just people who have no family to go visit!"
I could have found this banter insulting, but instead, I felt sympathetic: a dangerous emotion at an auction! And some of the deals bidders were landing really did seem incredible. When an ornate cast-iron stove made in Troy, New York, sold for $35, Martin complained: "That's a $300 stove anywhere else in the nation."
Tip 5: Seize the Deals
Unlike some auction houses, which provide attendees with a catalog or listing of the day's offerings in the sequence in which they will be auctioned, Townshend Auction Gallery ran this sale in random fashion, and this made it difficult to anticipate when the items that had caught my eye would be presented and to budget how much to bid.
I watched as an Arts & Crafts oak rocker sold for $50, an antique Bar Harbor wicker chair fetched $40, and a Victorian fireplace screen brought only 10 bucks. I spent five whole dollars on a firewood box and dropped another $45 on two framed prints that caught my eye. I kicked myself afterward for not bidding on an oak poker table with a felted top that sold for a mere $30, but I was glad I bowed out at $90 and let another bidder take home an antique bed warmer for $100. Those, I learned later, you can buy for considerably less on eBay.
Auctions are fast-paced, and there's no guarantee you won't regret a decision now and again. But, when you see something you like—and the price is right—don't hesitate to seize the deal.
It was nearly 1 p.m. when weary auctioneer Kit Martin asked for an opening bid of $50 on a chest of drawers that looked attractive from a distance. I waved my paddle as a gesture of support. Another bidder jumped into the fray, and I was sure I needn't worry I'd wind up with the piece. I bid again, reflexively. The other bidder dropped out. And that's when my marital woes began.
All's Well That Ends Well
So, how angry was my husband about making an unanticipated trip to Vermont on a Sunday morning? Actually, Bruce took it very well. He assured me that it was only a matter of time before he'd do something equally boneheaded and even the score. And, although he had planned to catch up on work, he later told me he'd felt his stress ebb the moment he crossed the Vermont state line.
My seven-year-old daughter, who had to accompany her dad on the trip, was thrilled to ride back with me. We stopped at the Grafton Village Cheese factory and store in Brattleboro, and we pulled over to photograph two covered bridges along Route 30 including one that sheltered a swarm of mating Swallowtail butterflies. "Bye-bye butterflies: I'll never forget you," my daughter said as we turned away from the cloud of flitting yellow insects, and I knew I'd scored the auction's best deal.