Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sale Of The Century

Live auctions are pretty much a common event here on the prairie, and they often represent a good occasion for socializing, pie, coffee, humor and the occasional good deal.

I've accumulated a small collection of Thor industrial tools at mesne auctions over the last couple of years, which are hands down the best damn power tools ever made, and that comes from a guy who had to make his living with hand tools. So yes, there are good deals to be had, and the only real problem is where you put all the cool stuff you acquire. Running out of room is always a problem.

Every auctioneer I've ever met has been a natural born raconteur, compulsive entertainer, preacher, and something of a comedian at times. It's all part of the good humored leavening of redistributing physical things that could be seriously depressing if one was to think about the actual circumstances-a farm widow died with no family around, a small business folds along with the dreams of financial security of the proprietor, a young man's motorcycle is sold in the welter of medical bills, bankruptcy and repossession. All of this points to the fact that stuff is always around, and only people come and go.

A good auctioneer works the crowd, exhorting, pointing out the virtues and condition of this or that, all in an effort to get the best price, without wheedling or complaining-because that is the sign of an auctioneer who's lost control of the crowd.

Auctions are not a new thing, as the National Auctioneer's Association tells us .

The famous (and lascivious) diarist Samuel Pepys was, among other things, a clerk to the Admiralty and officiated at what was known in those days as a 'sale to an inch of candle'. In the age before Britain had a standing peacetime navy, ships of the line were promptly idled at the conclusion of one of Britain's incessant wars, and all the necessaries to run a navy were sold at public auction at Portsmouth and other places.

The lots of surplus naval stores-casks of overage salt beef, timber and cordage, superannuated canvas and rope for the oakum trade, and so on-were put out, and a one inch candle stub was lit. The highest bidder when the candle burned out took the lot of goods.

As it happens, Pepys relates the tale of one bidder who seemed to do better than everyone else at these events. The fellow told Pepys he had a secret. He'd watch the flame carefully-it would flicker and emit a small puff in the split second before it guttered out and that's when he'd throw his bid down.

Yesterday and today, all the things you'd need to make washers and dryers are on sale at the former Maytag plant in Newton, Iowa. Maytag closed this year after over 100 years of manufacturing farm equipment, home appliances and other things in Newton. The company had fallen on hard times as a series of lackluster managers presided over the creeping arteriosclerosis that ended in an acquisition by rival Whirlpool. That history makes this something of a larger sale than usual in these parts. It's a rough commentary on my schedule that I'm stuck here working while all this is going on.

Whirlpool, for reasons known unto itself selected the Ashman people to officiate, and they've produced a nice brochure that describes the material in detail. There are punch presses and forming presses, sheet metal brakes, plastic injection molding machinery, a fleet of forklifts, trucks, trailers, and enough other things to satisfy nearly any junk collector or vest pocket industrialist.

Ashman expects the take will be on the order of a couple million dollars, give or take, and the history's on the house.


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