J. Bear Savo

BEHIND THE BLOCK: More silly conversations with customers

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Being asked to appraise a sentimental block of cheese is perhaps the most ridiculous conversation I’ve ever had as an auctioneer. Of course, there have been other silly dialogues. Many others. Here are three of my favorites…

Fur your information

A woman called to inquire about selling a fur coat, and it sounded as if she was chewing on it.

“How old is the coat?” was my first courageous query.

“Well,” she mumbled, “my daughter got it when she was nine, and the lady that gave it to her had it for a few years before that.”

Well, that answered that. I, being omniscient as I am, knew her daughter’s exact age. I realized my own blunder by even asking the age of the garment. Being all-knowing, there had been no reason to inquire at all or to even continue asking questions. However, not wanting to frighten this mere mortal, I decided to pocket my ESP and continue qualifying the caller in the traditional way.

I asked her how much money she hoped the coat would bring. When she claimed that she had no idea, I gently told her, “Well, the average fur coat brings $25 or less at auction. Sometimes we get lucky and one will bring $75 to $100.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” she exclaimed clearly. Her surprise must have caused her to spit out the coat. “When I brought it to the dry cleaner, the lady there told me that it’s worth about $2,000.”

“Yes,” I laughed, “an appraisal from a dry cleaner is more valid than an appraisal from someone who actually sells stuff.”

There was a short pause as she put the coat back in her mouth. Her muffled reply was, “It’s a beautiful coat.”

“OK, look,” I said. “There’s a woman in Olyphant who runs a very nice clothing consignment shop. I’ll get you her number. She’ll most likely be able to help you better than I can.”

“I don’t think so,” the caller spit out the coat again. “My daughter brought that lady a bunch of jeans that she paid $30 each for, and she only got $8 each when they were sold.”

“Well, how much do you think used clothing is worth?” I barked. “And $30 is not expensive for a pair of jeans.” I took a breath. “Why don’t you call some furriers?” I suggested. “See how much you’ll get from them?”

After explaining what a furrier is and that she should open the yellow pages to “fur” in order to find one, I said goodbye and hung up the phone.

It’s about time

An elderly gentleman once attempted to convince me that his pair of small and damaged Victorian vases were 300 years old. I politely disagreed with him and dated them from the 1890s.

“No,” he argued, “I was told they were over 100 years old when they were given to me and I’ve had them for 100 years.”

“You’ve owned them 100 years!” I exclaimed. “Well how old are you then?”

“I’m 80 years old,” he replied.

“Then how have you had them for 100 years if you’re only 80?” I asked.

He had no answer.

Don’t Bolshevik me!

Once upon a time, I had a very interesting lithograph in one of my auctions. It depicted small portraits of all the former monarchs of Russia, and under each was the ruler’s name and his or her period of reign. The writing on the litho was – quite naturally – all in Russian.

During that auction’s preview, a woman stopped and stared at this lithograph for a very long time. Finally, she called me over, pointed to it, and asked, “Why can’t I read any of this?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s all in Russian.”

“Oh,” she mused, “and they have different letters than us?”

“Yes. They use the Cyrillic alphabet.”

“Oh… But what is it?” she asked.

“It’s a depiction of all the former monarchs of Russia,” I explained.

“Oh,” she became excited, “you read Russian?”

“No,” I said.

“Then how the hell do you know what this is?” she asked, bewildered.

“You see this last portrait here?” I pointed. “This is Czar Nicholas II. You can see the Roman numeral II after his name. And underneath that it says 1894-1917. That’s when he ruled Russia. He was dethroned in 1917 when the Bolsheviks took over.”

“When the who took over?” she squealed.

“The Bolsheviks,” I said. “The communists.”

“I don’t understand how you know all this,” she shook her head.

“I know history, ma’am,” I answered.

“Yeah, well, I think you’re making it all up,” she growled. “You shouldn’t lie and make fun of people.”

She stormed away and left my gallery, never to return.

There’s far more to being a professional auctioneer than merely marketing merchandise. Each Wednesday, Behind the Block explores the precise methods, the elemental madness, and the intrinsic humanity of the auction industry.