Memories of a Friday Night Auction

Writing about the history of the Grove Park Inn – Roycroft chair brought back memories of my early years in Asheville, chasing down the elusive chairs.

Back in 1989, after a few months on the Asheville scene, I had established my formula: buy the chairs in any condition for $300, refinish them back to a Roycroft color and finish, replace the tufted maroon upholstery with dyed sole leather and steel tacks, then sell them to a Roycroft collector for $900.

Asheville residents were more than willing to point me toward the chairs. I found them on open porches, inside barns and sheds, in the backs of shops and often buried under coats of paint. As best I could determine, back then the Grove Park Inn had about a dozen scattered about the hotel, and had no interest in either buying additional examples or letting go of any they had somehow retained.

The first break-through for the GPI chairs came in the early 1990s at a local Friday night auction held in an unheated warehouse down by the French Broad River. A consignor had left auctioneer Johnny Penland with one of the best examples I had yet seen: an original, dark shellac finish, intact leather seat and minimal wear. I showed up with my six-year old son, Eric, guiding him through the crowd of regulars standing in the back of the room, just in time to hear Johnny begin extolling the virtues of the chair. As he did Eric whispered up at me, “Dad, can I bid for you?”

I leaned down to him, my eyes glued to the chair at the front of the room. “Yes, but we’re only going as high as $850,” I whispered. “Do you understand?” He nodded in agreement, his eyes sparkling in anticipation.

We listened as Johnny explained to the crowd of about 150 curious onlookers the significance of the GPI chair, how it came to be, the history of the Grove Park Inn and the Roycrofters, and of the Arts & Crafts movement. I groaned silently as he pumped the crowd with information from my own book. With his voice rising to fever pitch, he finally shouted over the crowd,

“Who will give me $1000?”

Without hesitation, Eric’s small right hand shot into the air.

“My dad will!” he shouted back.

The crowd laughed, Johnny smiled, and I groaned, this time not so silently. I nodded in reluctant approval.

But Johnny was not about to stop with just an opening bid. To my amazement he quickly corralled another bid, then another. As the bidding approached and raced past $2000, I tightened my death-grip on Eric’s shoulder. He pleaded silently for another opportunity to bid. My fingers dug into his bony shoulders. His arms went numb.

We all watched spellbound as two bidders, each, it turned out, descendents of family members who had worked at the Grove Park Inn, pushed the chair to an unheard of level: $3000.

“Sold!” Johnny yelled in triumph.

Eric was crushed.

“We lost,” he moaned, as we slowly made our way across the rutted parking lot.

“No, Eric,” I replied, thinking about the six GPI chairs waiting back in my workshop,

“We won.”