Internet can't replace real-life auctioneer

Gallery: The Web's eBay doesn't compete with Howard Street's auction house, led by Barr Harris, who is retiring.

January 08, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

A FEW DAYS AGO, I learned that one of upper Howard Street's leaders, auctioneer Barr Harris, was retiring, quietly, without fanfare. It's good news that his business will remain open, but I'll miss this unflappable gentleman.

Barr Harris is the quintessential Baltimorean -- meaning he was born upstairs (delivered by a midwife) at the auction gallery, 873-75 N. Howard St.

His father, a Russian immigrant named Jacob Harris, was a cabinetmaker who sold antiques.

In 1950, Barr changed the place over to an auction house. It's a place where on a crowded night, if you raised your hand, you bought a floor lamp and magazine rack for $22 -- and plenty of budget- minded Baltimoreans thought you'd way overpaid.

In its heyday, the Harris Galleries functioned as a source for many of the antiques and used stuff that got sold at other shops within the hamlet of 1830s buildings that Baltimoreans recognize as its own little neighborhood along Howard and Read streets.

And, like so much in real Baltimore that isn't pretentious and cloying, this quarter in the city remains delightful. In his 82 years here, Barr Harris has helped keep it just that way.

There were many times when half the audience came just to watch what was being sold. But, for the bargain hunters, there were always deals, especially at the end of the evening or afternoon when the crowd thinned out.

Barr Harris was a worker at the microphone. He plugged along without complaint. He is also a neighborhood leader who fought to keep Howard Street up -- as well as Bolton Hill, where he's lived for many years with his gracious wife, Lun Harris.

Over the years, I attended many of Barr's sales and raised my hand to attempt to capture some object I couldn't live without.

On these occasions, I recall some sage advice Barr gave me. One time, he told me not to bid on a small maritime painting. He thought it was a phony. I bid anyway and hung it in the front hall of my home. Every time I walked by it, I couldn't help thinking, "Barr Harris told me it was a fake."

Well, it was a believable fake. I took it to a flea market and had no trouble reselling it with no loss of investment.

The next lesson he gave me regarded the envy attached to possessions.

A homemade dollhouse was coming up for bids. It was a beauty and was made by some anonymous Baltimore carpenter.

Barr said it wouldn't bring much because it no prominent name attached to it. It lacked a provenance like Tiffany, Hamilton, Steiff or Coca-Cola.

"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 told me, with an obvious note in his voice that you should collect what you want, not what other people have.

I think of his sales on Friday nights of, say, 25 years ago. There were the local antiquarians and collectors who sat there, their eyes darting between the catalog booklets and the actual old books and maps up for sale.

The Harris catalogs of this period were remarkable works of salesroom scholarship.

You could read them and inspect the goods before you made a bid.

I have friends who seem to spend half the morning glued to a computer screen, bidding for wares in the online auctions.

No thanks. To me, an auction house on Howard Street is the place to buy that dollhouse made by somebody's uncle who lived in Walbrook.

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