Auctions get new bidders Buyers: Those clamoring to buy at farm auctions are increasingly likely to be suburbanites or professionals.

March 29, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

A mahogany armoire stands in mint condition. A shiny mink coat hangs in the corner. A faded orange-colored box of Wheaties, bearing Cal Ripken's autograph, rests by a fishing pole with no reel. Dill pickles float in a pot-bellied jar. A chipped, one-eyed ceramic duck boasts a powder blue bow around its neck.

At any price, that duck has caught Nancy Broschart's eyes and pocketbook.

At $1, the Gaithersburg woman shoves her white card -- labeled No. 26 -- in the air. At $2, she edges closer to the end of her seat. Across the room, another card -- No. 10 -- goes up. By $5, Broschart is flaying her card and her arms wildly. At $6, the duck is hers.

It's capitalism in its purest form. As the number of farms and large estates in the Baltimore suburbs steadily dwindles, the number of farm auctions is growing.

And now, instead of farmers looking for second-hand tools and ** equipment, the crowds of buyers more and more tend to be suburbanites and professionals -- armed with credit cards and ,, competing for that precious piece evocative of a lost era.

"I got it. I got it," Broschart shouts, as the auctioneer bangs the gavel for her purchase of the chipped duck. "I feel like I'm gambling. I just get so excited, I get to waving my arms, my hair gets wild -- all for this cute little duck. I was ready to outbid anybody at any price."

Adds her husband, Bill: "It's very addictive, and it's certainly better than watching TV."

The number of such auctions and buyers, based on anecdotal information, has more than doubled in Maryland in the past decade, says auctioneer Jane Campbell-Chambliss, of Annapolis, president of the Auctioneers Association of Maryland. has the number of competing auctioneers, according to the )) association, which says there are 5,000 this year, compared with fewer than 2,000 in 1987.

At the Howard County fairgrounds in West Friendship, one of the state's main venues for farm auctions, weekly auctions held year-round on Tuesday nights now draw an estimated 200 to 300 buyers searching rows of potential collectibles or, in some cases, rusted junk. Auctioneers' annual "spring sale" held March 15 drew 4,000 buyers to the fairgrounds to bid on used goods filling five barns and a warehouse.

It's the "thrill of the bid" that draws them, says Phil Gregory of Laytonsville, an auctioneer for more than 30 years. "They get to bidding on something, and they just get caught up in a buying frenzy."

Browsing, then buying

Take Lee Norwood, a retired Westinghouse executive, and his wife, Shelby.

Just hours earlier, the Woodbine couple had promised themselves that they would not go to a recent Tuesday night auction at the fairgrounds. Now, they're browsing the packed aisles of a fairground warehouse, noting items they want -- a 1950-style lime green toy police car, a blond doll in a red velvet dress, an 1835 nickel and a 1923 silver dollar.

Five hours later, they walk out laden with boxes and about $500 lighter.

"It's a disease. It's like the measles or the mumps," says Lee Norwood, 58. "It's like an alcoholic or a chain-smoker. You hear the roar of the auctioneer's voice. You see the people around you who want the same thing. It's the atmosphere of it all."

"You just keep your card up until you've brought it," he says. "It's like you get blinded and you forget about the cost."

Enter Gregory. His aggressive back-slapping style almost seems badger participants into buying something, making him seem like a game show host.

Patter

"Who'll give me 50? 60? Come on now," he shouts, as white cards pop up for a 1950-style blender. "Folks, this a real beaut. You won't find another one like these. It's just like the one old Wally Cleaver's mom used. Now give me 55?"

From each corner of the large open room, white cards shoot into the air. Within seconds, Gregory's gavel smacks the podium. "Sold to No. 2 for $22.50."

When he began auctioneering, it took him weeks to handle such tongue twisters as the "rubber baby buggy bumper" and to count backward from 100 without taking a breath -- all in the auctioneer's traditional speedy staccato. He revels in the spotlight.

"It's like singing the national anthem," says his partner, Denny Warfield of Woodbine, "when you're up on the block calling out numbers on things. It's your prime time to get the most money for it."

Waiting to bid

And just when you thought you had seen it all, in comes another rarity -- such as a 1920-style fly-swatter once used with horses. It looks like a tangled web of thin, worn, brown leather strips. But to its buyer, Marshall Fleming of Popular Springs in western Howard, it's the one item worth waiting two and a half hours to bid on.

He paid $20 for the fly swatter. "Hang it on the wall and you've got a real nice collector's item," he says. "Maybe I'll turn around and sell it next week and get twice as much."

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