Harris gallery features the dean of Antique Row AUCTION ACTION

Jacques Kelly hTCGR: PHOTO 1

September 23, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

Exactly 75 years ago today, a midwife delivered a wailing baby atop a downtown cabinetmaker's shop.

That baby is today the dean of downtown's Antique Row and very vocal at the same address, 873-75 N. Howard St. Barr Harris, the proprietor of Harris Auction Galleries, is the man at the microphone and gavel. Raise your hand around him and you've bought a sofa and two chairs.

For nearly all his adult life, Harris, who was born Barney but is universally known as Barr, has conducted auction sales along the city's best-known block of antiques, used furniture, uncertain provenances and pedigrees.

"Barr's gallery is a real Baltimore kind of place. It lacks a lot of the pretentiousness you find in other art galleries and antique shops. You don't feel nervous about being there," says John Huppert, a Harris regular who's been dropping in the place since he was a student more than 20 years ago.

"You can make some good buys there, but you have to have the time to look and wait. I bought a photograph of Marilyn Monroe signed by Milton Green, one of her most famous photographers, for $110. Barr had two copies of it," he says.

The auctioneer himself is modest about the place: "We've always been a small type of gallery. There's never been enough money to compete with the Washington auction houses. Certainly we're no competition for New York. We started out as a shoestring place and never got much beyond it."

Harris' father, Jacob, was a cabinetmaker by profession who was born in Russia and learned his trade in London before emigrating to the United States. Atop his Howard Street shop the elder Harris raised his family while he made and repaired furniture downstairs.

Barr Harris did not start out selling antiques, rugs and collectibles. Much of what once passed through his doors was general household merchandise. Landlords often bought large quantities for furnished homes and flats.

His first employment as a junior auctioneer was at the old firm of Galton Orsburn, which once stood on the site of Maryland General Hospital. About 40 years ago, Harris expanded his father's shop with a seating area where the sales are held.

"We didn't get Tiffany lamps in the old days. When they started bringing big money, people got motivated to dig them out of the cellars. The big prices for antiques will force a lot on to the market," he says.

On auction day, Harris sits on a platform in a corner of the room. Lun Harris, his wife of 51 years, often stands on the auction floor and records bids.

The wall behind the auctioneer is draped with a Maryland state flag. The rest of the room is filled with mirrors, paintings, prints, old marriage and baptismal certificates, clocks, posters, sketches and autographs. Everything is sold "as is."

Long-time observers of the Harris auction scene say the bidders are often as interesting as the merchandise.

At a recent sale, the crowd studied catalog sheets with the same intensity that grips horse players.

Half-glasses dangle from the nose of one serious bidder. Another grand lady wears lots of makeup and has her hair coiffed to perfection as she examines a $20 U.S. gold piece that's been made into a necklace. The rug dealers' eyes dart back and forth. Some bidders are stern and uptight. Others quietly chatter throughout the sale.

Newcomers or amateur bidders get the visual once-over from the old hands here who constitute most of the bidders. By Monday morning, most of the goods sold here turn up in the inventories of other local antiques shops, often just a few doors away on Howard Street.

Harris' eyes and vocal cords hold up fine during the four-hour Sunday afternoon sales he conducts about every three weeks. He's able to spot the numbers on a bidder's paddle in the last row of seats, where the smokers all congregate under a tobacco haze. His style is not intimidating.

He's also picked up some valued insights into human nature and the psychology of bidding.

"If an item is truly unique, people don't want it. I could have a beautiful handmade toy that some father carved 75 years ago for his child. It could be a toy streetcar. But at auction it would not bring much. But let it be something manufactured and made by the hundreds, and people would bid it up.

"What makes things valuable is that people all want the same things. If it's truly one of a kind, people won't want it," he says.

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