Seeing potential in the humble.
“Want to go to an antiques auction with us?” my dad asked on the phone one day. In love with all things vintage at the time, I jumped at the chance.
The next Saturday evening, we followed my uncle’s car out into the country and back up in the woods to a place called Trails’ End Antiques. I had no idea how we got there or how we’d ever get out again.
The building was a big plain shell filled with furniture, glass dishware, china, quilts and linens, and tools. And lots of potential for treasure hunters.
Maria, the woman in charge, had long, curly hair with equal parts pepper and salt. She wore a denim skirt, a white cotton shirt, and the confident air of someone who knew what she was doing.
She spoke to some people on the first few rows of fold-up chairs—serious collectors and dealers who were all business. They knew exactly what they wanted and how high they would bid to get it.
At 7:30, Maria called us to order and smiled at the whole room. She welcomed us, pointed out the snacks in the back, and explained the process. One of her assistants would hold up an item while she took bids on it. If you wanted it, you'd bid by holding up your auction paddle with your lucky number on it. Whenever someone won (bought) an item, it would be put in the back room where the buyer would pay for it after the auction.
At first, nobody seemed to be in the mood. We fanned ourselves with our paddles, shifting in our seats and studying upcoming items from across the room.
After a few dusty old tools were ignored, Maria said, “Next we have a bow saw that’s got some age on it. It’s still got some value. Would you give me $5 to start?”
Nobody said anything, so she continued in a sing-song voice, “This is a real fine piece. Still in working condition. Can you use it?”
All was quiet except for the box fans blowing and the door squeaking whenever someone new walked in. Then a man in a fraying baseball cap decided he could in fact use that old saw. His winning bid led to more, bigger tools were brought out, and pretty soon items were flying out the door—or at least into the back room.
After that, Maria moved steadily through her inventory, selling depression glass and fine china, some quilts, and then smaller pieces of furniture.
“Next we have a chair,” Maria said, gesturing toward her assistant who showed it off from every angle. “Handmade. Nice and sturdy. Would you give me $5 to start?”
I eyed the chair. The wood was painted lime green, my least favorite color, and the seat was covered in faded fabric. But I liked the extra detail of the wood—the curves of the back and the tapered legs. I could repaint it blue and replace the fabric with the pretty floral that was once my sister’s drapes. (Hey, if Scarlett O’Hara could use her drapes to make a gown, I could use my sister’s to make a cushion).
I've since learned that I’m not the DIY type, but back then, I believed I was.
The auction paddle in my hand shot up in the air, and Maria acknowledged me with a nod. “We’ve got $5. How about $6? Anyone? It’s a real nice little chair.”
A woman in front of me flapped her paddle, and I quickly countered, visions of bidding gone wrong swirling in my head. Don't get carried away.
To my relief, the bidding stopped as soon as it started. The other woman’s paddle sat motionless in her lap, Maria yelled “sold!”, and I now owned an old handmade chair in a sickly color with an ugly cushion.
But as the man took it to the back room, I again saw the potential in that humble little chair. And after the auction, when I explained to my folks why I liked it and pointed out the details, my mother caught the vision too.
The following week, I picked out a quart of cobalt blue, and while I was at college, my mom not only painted it but recovered the cushion, too, in the floral fabric. She graciously DIYed it for me and brought my little décor dream to life.
That cute and sturdy $12 chair has travelled with me from house to house and now sits in my office next to the desk. It’s one of my favorite furniture pieces--a great example of beauty in the rough, restored with heart: my mom's.
Do you have something that you’d consider simple beauty in the rough? Have you ever bought anything at an auction? I’d love to hear about it.
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Photo courtesy of Alex Blajan | Unsplash.