Ringside seat at auction made bid for family attention

August 24, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

IT SEEMED LIKE every night for 20 summers or so, we walked north along the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk to the evening's best show in town. There, beginning about 8:30 p.m., was the auction.

Its name is the Stuart Kingston Galleries, still very much in business, but things were a little different in 1958, when my family filled half a row of folding chairs for the summer season. I've often said the greatest theater is people theater, the drama of observing others in action. This boardwalk auction delivered free entertainment, a delightful mix of The Price Is Right and Tiffany & Co. We wouldn't have missed it.

Many people still dressed for an evening out. Coats and ties were not at all uncommon. Women had their wraps and jewels; the odd mink stole on a chilly night (after all, this was the last act of the Mamie Eisenhower era) was not an unusual costume. The dress grandees took the front seats. The madras and Bermuda-short tribe filled in around the edges. Everyone smoked.

The very proper Henlopen Hotel sat next door to the auction house; it had more rules and dress codes than the IRS. The live house orchestra (no rock, no jazz, heavy on the show tunes) accompanied the nightly dancing. As the Henlopen's dining room thinned out, the auction caught the action.

The gallery itself looked like one of William Randolph Hearst's treasure storerooms of mahogany banquet tables, silver candelabra, vitrines of Chinese snuff bottles, Czech chandeliers and baronial tapestries. There were walls of gilt-framed pictures in the Haussner's restaurant tradition. The doors on the vault, where the jewels were kept, directly faced the audience. It was Fort Knox by the breaking waves.

Just to get the ball rolling, there was a free drawing every night. The winner received a plush stuffed animal; my family was large and we often were among the winners. This broke the tension and got the evening off. The first bids were for the small items, the alligator wallets, the umbrellas, silver filigree ballpoint pens. A bidding frenzy erupted for the Hummel and Royal Doulton figurines that came with names such as "Apple Tree Boy" and "The Old Balloon Seller." The auctioneers - Frank Kennedy, a Mr. Freeman and, of course, owner-brothers Maurice and Mel Stein - arrived in their deep suntans. They were natty dressers: dark suits or silk sports jackets, pastel shirts and creamy ties. In the 1970s, they sported Gucci loafers.

The salesmen often put on a great show by pitching airborne soup tureens up and down the aisles; everyone drew a breath. Nothing broke.

The heaviest bidding centered on the diamond rings, watches (in that era, Movados were popular) and the Oriental rugs. Many customers went home with more than a sunburn.

One of the requirements for a sale - or at least it was said - was that there be an opening bid, followed by a second offer.

I'll never forget the night that the rug engineers (the strong young men who hoisted the goods) unrolled an expansive Turkish carpet. It was enormous, far larger than any room in our home. Maury Stein knew this ocean of red wool would be a hard sell; people just didn't need rugs the size of a parking lot.

Great Aunt Cora, attired in a green turban hat, arrived in the midst of all this. She took her customary seat and lit up a customary Chesterfield.

"I have an opening bid of $1,000 from Mrs. O'Hara," he said, unaware that her name was actually O'Hare. The audience gasped. So did she.

There was no second bid, so there was no sale. Cora lit up another Chesterfield.

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