A Devious Start To a Life of Collecting

by Bruce Johnson

Editor’s note: this article has been republished. Original date of publication: September 12th, 2011.


When I lived in Iowa City and was first introduced to the Arts & Crafts movement, I discovered that the University of Iowa Art Museum had a massive Frank Lloyd Wright oak library table in their ground floor foyer. One day when I was just sitting there looking at it, I noticed a flyer for an upcoming silent auction and fund raising event for the art museum.

I decided I should both donate my antique restoration services to the auction and attend the event as a means of introducing myself and my new business to the Iowa City arts community.

Little did I realize I was also going to get tangled up in a messy situation.

It seems that the one of the staff had coerced a friend to donate a Gustav Stickley rocking chair from his personal collection to the auction. The plan, as I later learned, was to have the friend buy back the Stickley rocker, which would culminate in him making a donation he was already planning to make to the art museum. The staffer would have the distinction of having obtained a Gustav Stickley rocking chair for their silent auction and the friend would go home with his rocker, a win-win for everyone.

As planned, the crowd was in awe of the rocker, which had its original finish, original hard leather seat, original pyramid tacks and delicate red joiner’s compass decal. I nearly wet my pants. Fortunately, however, before I began drooling over it in front of everyone, I caught sight of the staffer and the consignor huddled deep in conversation a few feet away. Sensing that something was going on involving the Stickley rocker, I decided to avoid it completely. Instead, I feigned interest in a piece of contemporary art pottery sitting next to it. I stretched my peripheral vision to its limits as I tried to look like I was falling in love with the vase.

There was only one bid on the rocker: $350 — placed by the owner. Not quite sure what it was worth, no one in the crowd was willing to bump his bid. I made it a point to place a bid on the vase, then turned and walked away without even so much as a glance back at the rocker. As luck would have it, several people that night admired the same green vase, so I had plenty of opportunity to return, up my bid and innocently check on the status of the rocker.

As the clock ticked down to the final minute, the staffer and the chair’s owner began to relax, as no one had stepped forth to place a bid over his initial $350. The pair had no reason to suspect I had any interest in the rocker, so didn’t pay any attention to me when, as the person in charge began counting down the final 30 seconds of the auction, I inched my way back toward the vase.

With pencil in hand, I stood with my back to both the rocker and the owner, alongside three or four others anxious to place the final bid on the green crystalline vase. I could see that I had been outbid on it, but that no one had ever upped the initial bid of $350.00 on the Gustav Stickley rocker.

As the countdown reached the final few seconds, I let the person to my right push me out of her way, jostling me over in front of the rocker and its bidding sheet. With only one second to go, I leaned down, grabbed the clipboard and wrote my first and only bid: $375.00. Just to make sure everyone was playing by the rules, I then handed the clipboard to the volunteer who was rapidly gathering up the bidding sheets and circling the name of each winning bidder.

It wasn’t until then that the consignor and the staffer realized what had happened. To say that they were upset would be putting it mildly, for they did everything but accuse me of stealing the rocker from them. While they grabbed the clipboard to find out just who had foiled their plan, I quietly stepped over to the cashier’s table, wrote out my check and picked up the receipt for my first Gustav Stickley rocking chair.

They were waiting for me back at the rocker with an offer to buy the chair back from me for a tidy profit, but I politely declined. I turned, grasped the chair firmly by its arms and hoisted it up off the table and out the door to my delivery van, leaving the pair fuming in my wake.

That was more than thirty years ago and since then I have bought and sold quite a few Arts & Crafts rocking chairs, but none has taken the place of my art museum trophy that still sits next to my fireplace today.


“If you wait until you have enough time, it will never get done.” – Bruce Johnson




Until next time… Have a great week!