A Silent Auction Adventure

I attended my first silent auction thirty-six years ago, soon after I had left teaching to start Knock On Wood Antique Repair & Restoration in Iowa City. The auction was a benefit for the University of Iowa Art Museum, and I had donated my restoration services in hopes of generating more business for my struggling, one-man enterprise.

I had also just discovered Arts and Crafts, but held out little hope of finding many pieces of Stickley and Roycroft deep in the heart of the American Midwest. There was plenty of what the local dealers called “Mission Joke,” and I must confess to having dragged home more than a few early mistakes simply because they were brown and boring.

But when I arrived at the silent auction that warm Saturday evening, I found myself staring at a signed Gustav Stickley rocking chair, complete with its original hard leather seat and shellac finish. As I later learned, the donation had come from a friend of one of the organizers of the auction, who had every intention – and reassurance – of buying it back that evening in the form of an auction donation he was already planning to make to the art museum.

The chair had a solitary $300 starting bid left by the donor, which made me gulp. And while the rocking chair soon attracted a good deal of attention, those practical Midwesterners were not about to shell out their hard-earned money for something that wasn’t going to match their other furnishings.

It was, after all, 1980.

Someone in the large crowd did, however, dare to raise the bid to $325, prompting the donor to quickly step over and re-raise it to $350, as he was obviously intent on taking his prized Stickley rocking chair back home with him that evening.

I resisted my first impulse to spend every minute I could pouring over every detail in the chair, drooling over its pegged joints, its pyramid tacks, the matched curved corbels, and its worn quartersawn oak arms. Instead, I ignored it, pretending instead to have fallen in love with a piece of contemporary pottery on display next to it. In truth, I was straining my eyes to covertly study the rocker and the bidding sheet next to it.

When the inevitable final countdown came, the donor checked to make sure his $350 bid was still unmatched, then stepped back confidently to stand beside his museum friend. I continued to ignore it, standing in front of the piece of pottery, pen in hand, with my back to the rocker. As the countdown reached its finale, the crowd began to chant down the last ten seconds, their voices growing louder with each number. At two seconds, I took a single step to my left, blocking the bidding sheet from view of the two men, leaned down, and placed the final bid of $375 — just as time expired and the helpers quickly began circling the name of the winning bidder on each sheet.

I stood in front of the rocker until one of the volunteers assured me that mine had been the winning bid, at which time I was flanked by two angry gentlemen who had just realized that their plan had been foiled. The donor offered to buy the rocker back from me on the spot, but I politely declined and quickly made my way to the cashier’s table, where I wrote a check that would have bounced even higher than my soaring spirits.

I will be attending yet another silent auction next month at the 29th National Arts and Crafts Conference at the Grove Park Inn, as I hope you will, too. This silent auction will benefit the non-profit Arts and Crafts Research Fund, which provides grants to qualified individuals undertaking valuable research which ultimately benefits you, me, and the revival.

Right now I am asking you to donate something from your collection, something that perhaps has spent the past few years in storage, something that another collector would better enjoy, and that would benefit the Arts and Crafts Research Fund — and would give you a valuable tax deduction.

Just send an email directly to me at [email protected] and I’ll fill you in on the details. (Note: smaller items actually sell better than large pieces of furniture.)

As for my first Gustav Stickley chair, well, I’m sitting in it right now, tapping out this column.

Until next Monday,

Give yourself a chance to get excited again.


Pictures courtesy of Ray Stubblebine, 28-year conference attendee.