Sold on the fun of country auctions


April 12, 2001|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CATHY KERR strides into Gregory and Warfield's antiques and collectibles auction at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship one recent Saturday night. She spies the item she wants almost immediately. Back in the corner of the exhibition hall is a pretty little table, its top curved like the petals of a flower, its three-legged base sturdy and strong.

"I want it to use as a night stand," Cathy says.

The table is far down the list of items to be sold this evening. So Cathy and her husband, Jim, settle in to watch the flotsam and jetsam of other people's lives go up for bid: antique glassware, old clocks, a collection of miniature brass cannons, quilts that have seen better days, a Hoosier cabinet painted lime green, old-fashioned dolls in various states of dress, a mahogany dining-room set, a box of ukeleles, a baby grand piano, humorous postcards someone sent to a couple living in Washington, D.C., more than 40 years ago ... the array seems endless.

Nearly three hours later, more than half the merchandise in the room is gone. Many of the prospective buyers, who perched on metal folding chairs (cushioned with well-worn throw pillows), have gone home.

But Cathy and Jim are still in the wings, waiting for that table. Finally it comes up.

Auctioneer Denny Warfield starts the bidding at $100. When someone else meets the initial bid, Cathy quickly raises the card bearing her buyer's number. She's in. It soon becomes obvious that it's just she and another buyer, dueling it out.

At lightning speed, Warfield raises the bids by $10 increments. "130 here?" he asks, his eyes on Cathy's competition. Receiving affirmation, he looks across the room at Cathy. "140 here?" he asks.

Each time he looks her way, Cathy, her cheeks flushed but her face somber, hesitates only a second before nodding yes. When the bidding reaches $180, the other prospective buyer bows out. And after waiting for hours, Cathy has become the proud new owner of that pretty little tilt-top table in less than a minute.

"We can go home now," she says brightly, smiling at her husband. Jim just rubs his chin and groans. The $180 price was more than he expected Cathy to pay. Fortunately, he understands how difficult it is to stop bidding when you've set your heart on something.

The Kerrs, of Frederick, have been frequenting the country auctions that dot the landscape around the Baltimore-Washington area for more than a decade. The couple say they suffer from a bad case of auction fever.

It's easy to catch. All you need is some money, some patience and a place to put whatever you bring home.

Mind you, auction fever can be a hard thing to shake in Maryland during the spring. According to auctioneer Phil Gregory, the number of auctions peak this time of year. There are "sales" (as they're commonly called by regulars) every weekend, as well as most weekdays.

You can purchase everything from knickknacks and furniture to vehicles and real estate - usually at prices well below retail.

The afflicted crowd into auction galleries, fire halls and even drafty barns - searching for that one thing (or many things) they just can't live without. Newcomers are as welcome as old-timers.

Dave Betz of Jarrettsville spent a recent Friday night in the hall of the Long Green Volunteer Fire Department, looking for old books at an estate sale run by Isennock Auction Services Inc. of White Hall.

Though you would assume he is a voracious reader, in truth, Dave and his wife, Julie, have turned auction-going into a lucrative hobby. Dave attends the sales and purchases items that tend to have a good resale value, like books. Julie then markets his purchases to the world via the Internet auction site eBay.

Jimmy Summers, a Frederick County auctioneer who will soon open his own auction gallery in Emmitsburg, says eBay and similar Internet sites have really boosted interest in auctions.

"There's a lot of people that go to auctions and buy and buy, and then they have yard sales or sell the stuff on the Internet to get extra money," Summers says.

Dave and Julie Betz's practice of reselling items is proving more successful than the couple ever imagined.

"We've had a couple of things that we've bought for under $100 and we've sold for a couple hundred [each]," Dave says. The extra income has allowed Julie to continue to work just part time so that she can spend most of her time with their three children, he says.

At the Isennock sale, Dave bought five large cartons of books for $32. The eclectic offerings in one box alone included "Documents of Vatican II," "Hints From Heloise" and an old Western novel titled "The Mustangs."

Of course, low prices aren't the sole appeal of auctions. For many people, auction-going is a form of entertainment. "It's a night out," says auctioneer Gregory. "If they spend $50, what difference does it make?"

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