By Lisa Schmelz | Photography by Holly Leitner unless noted
Parker Thur is a seven-year-old boy, and proof that not all children crave the latest shiny new plaything. Not long after he started walking, Parker’s father, Luke, started taking him to auctions.
Presently, Parker, who is wearing an Antique Archeology ballcap and has been to the revered store in Iowa to pay homage to the television hosts of “American Pickers,” is partial to old toy trucks. As he answers questions, he is inspecting several at an auction on the outskirts of Delavan.
“I like the rust on them a lot,” replies Parker, when asked what he looks for in a Tonka 45 years his senior. “I guess I just look for rust.”
Parker also pays close attention to green — as in the cold hard card cash of bids. Bidding for the first time by himself, he is laser-focused on auctioneer Bob Johnson of Badger State Auctions, as he tries to score a mint-condition, 1955 Ford Ranch model truck, manufactured by the Nylint Corporation in Rockford, Illinois. Parker appears nervous, but knows the drill. Raise your bidding card with the number facing the auctioneer, and wait to be acknowledged. After that, a simple nod of the head will do for every increase. Ultimately, those bidding against him bid no more. For just $22, Parker becomes the new owner of the collector Ford. Later, his father bags some rusty toy dump trucks.
Very few items at the Garber Farm estate auction on this overcast morning have the rust-factor that impresses Parker. Still, like most auctions, everything here is coated in a story and available to the highest bidder. Often the bid is a bargain. Better yet, it comes with an experience traditional retail cannot match. You don’t just buy stuff at an auction, you compete against other people who want the same thing.
“I always tell people the bidding- public determines the value for anything,” explains auctioneer Johnson, who retired last year after 32 years as an educator and dean of students at Milton High School. “For anything, for the most part, a bid will tell you the value.”
For those not here to bid, there was something else to be had: Free time travel.
“My parents had these lawn chairs,” exclaims a woman without the tell-tale auction bidding card. “Man, these are the exact chairs we had growing up.”
Will she bid on the chairs or the weathered croquet set next to them? How about the toboggan standing upright against the barn?
“No,” she replies, declining to give her name. “But it’s fun to see they’re still around.”
Not far off, Johnson, who has been in business for 16 years, is leaning out the camper window of what he calls his “sound truck.” Microphone in hand, he calls out bids in a hypnotic, yet rapid, pace. This isn’t a conversation. It is, according to auctioneer training guides, “a conditioned pattern of call and response.” Most of the crowd follows him everywhere.
They bid low, they bid high. Some just stand slack-jawed. Many bidders have eBay sites to fill, others are collectors, and some are on a mission for things they don’t make like they used to. The women clustered around a flatbed trailer out back covet the avocado green and harvest gold Tupperware.
“This is the old stuff,” says one woman to her companion. “I don’t like the new stuff. Do you see lids for these bowls? Look for lids. I don’t want to bid if there aren’t lids. I have enough stuff without lids at home.”
Lids are found and a successful bid is made. And so it goes across the Garber farm. In just a few hours, nearly all the contents of this home and farm are sold to the highest bidder. Furniture, appliances, jewelry, kitchenware, VHS tapes galore, records, toys, sewing patterns, lamps, patio furniture, tools, farm equipment, and all the other things a family collects through the generations are gone.
Johnson appreciates the sacredness of his work. When someone dies, as was the case with this estate auction, and he’s contracted to clear out their earthly possessions, he knows what’s really at stake.
“There’s a lot of memories, a lot of history, in an estate auction,” he says. “They’ve lost a loved one, and it’s hard. But they can’t keep everything, and we help them through that process.”
More than that, auctioneers like Johnson find new hearts for the things we can’t take with us to the other side. Before Parker and his dad get to their car, the Edgerton second-grader knows exactly what will become of their loot.
“This one, I’m gonna put on my shelf,” Parker says of the collector truck. “But the ones with the rust on them, I’m gonna play with.”
8 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Learn the ropes before you start swinging. If you’ve never been to an auction, attend a few before you bid big bucks on anything.
- Research before you leave home. Most auctions offer online listings and photos of merchandise. Find out what, if any, registration fee there is and what payments are accepted. Learn about items you want to bid on – especially their value.
- Be prepared. Have a way to transport anything you purchase or ask in advance about transport options. Bubble wrap, gloves and a dolly come in handy.
- Preview early. Don’t bid on things you haven’t been able to inspect or authenticate. A flashlight, magnifying glass, and fully charged cell phone, with internet access, are helpful.
- Pay attention. Auctions move quickly. Know what is being bid on so you don’t end up with a pinball machine instead of a ping pong table.
- Protect your bid. Do not leave paid or unpaid merchandise unattended.
- Be polite. If you get outbid, accept it and move on.
- Enjoy yourself. Auctions are as much about atmosphere as they are merchandise.