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Memories of An Old-Time Public Auctioneer

By Harvey G. Stack, Senior Numismatic Consultant

Author: Stack's Bowers Galleries / Monday, February 18, 2013 / Categories: Harvey G. Stack Remembers
I thought readers might enjoy this reminiscence of my experiences at many Stack’s sales over the decades in the “pre-computer” era. Nowadays, auction rooms are a wholly different experience, with sparse in-person audience attendance but overwhelming action via the phone and Internet. I do miss that thrilling auction room atmosphere, the spirit of attending and participating that can’t quite be replaced by sitting at a computer at home and monitoring it “live.” We remember the 21 sales of the John J. Ford, Jr. Collection (2003-2007), where every seat was taken and many bidders were standing at the walls. There was pure electricity in the audience, a buzz in the air, considerable applause, and much humor expressed at the podium. The Ford sales, along with Stack’s November 2006 Norweb Collection sale in Baltimore, represent what may be the last such old-time auction experiences.

There is nothing like “being there” at a substantial auction. As an old-time auctioneer, I was fortunate to conduct well over 700 sales comprising thousands of sessions, and I miss the interaction that occurred during these sales.

As an auctioneer, I loved standing for hours at the podium, selling to in-person bidders, encouraging them to keep up the bidding, and controlling disruptive behavior. I would start the bidding using mail bids, take bids from all parts of the room and the phone bank, keeping an eye out for those who tried to hide their bidding, figuring out who was bidding or just stretching, and trying not to be derailed by those who talked too loudly or tried to create a distraction so that they could capture the coin. I also loved being in the room to see the excitement of acquisition and to hear the audience applause -- even to be part of the disappointment and sometimes anger of the underbidder. I remember worrying that the microphone would die, that the food would not arrive on time, that it would not be hot or good, or that we were not satisfying all those who came to be part of the sale. But mostly, I remember just enjoying the camaraderie of being with all the collectors in the room -- something the Internet can never replace.

I fondly remember a Stack’s auction in the early 1960s at the old Park Sheraton Hotel up the street from Stack’s on West 57th Street. During this sale, when a particularly appealing rare Pioneer gold coin came up for bidding, John Ford was in a fierce bidding contest with Max Kaplan, to the point where both deep-voiced, cigar-waving gentlemen stood at opposite sides of the room and yelled at each other to back off. They had to be convinced to sit down and stop shouting and disrupting the auction. On another occasion, during Bowers and Merena’s Virgil Brand Estate auction, I recall John Ford avidly bidding on an 1850 San Francisco hand-engraved and constructed unique gold medal. He was annoyed by the floor competition and, at one point, yelled out in his booming and intimidating voice: “Whaddya want this handmade cockamamie thing for?” It may have worked, for Ford won the lot for $9,900. Almost three decades later, that medal sold in one of Stack’s Ford sales for $316,250, which set a record at that time for the highest price paid for an American medal. This record was then broken in Stack’s November 2006 Baltimore auction when a gold 1889 George Washington Saint-Gaudens medal sold for $391,000, and then that record was broken in the same sale when a Zachary Taylor gold medal sold for $460,000. Both these medals sold in fierce battles between floor and phone bidders, in an auction room nearly as crowded as those during the Ford sales. These are fond memories for me, as auctioneering at Stack’s sales was work and fun at the same time.