November 16, 2011

What am I Bid? Auctions and Old Houses

 I saw a post concerning auctions on another old house (and more) blog that I really like (, and got to thinking about how integral a role auctions have played in our old house.

First, let me say that I love auctions.  Ebay, country auctions, major auction houses, I love them all.  Why?  Not to sound like Charlie Sheen, but it's all about winning.  Jenny has often tried to convince me that competing for the privilege of paying money for something is not winning.  To quote Ned Flanders, that's stinkin' thinkin'. 

Auctions are an American institution.  They are a test of fortitude, strategy, patience, knowledge and luck.  Sadly, they are also often a showdown between my meager funds and the bottomless pockets of a dealer whose hedge fund manager client has authorized him to spend indiscriminately to make his country estate have that charmingly rustic feel of a Ralph Lauren store.  Like that redneck facing off on tractors against Wren McCormick, that is a battle that I am not going to win (Let me be clear that this is an allusion to the one-and-only "real" Footloose, starring Kevin Bacon and featuring the inimitable musical stylings of Mr. Kenny Loggins and Shalomar, and not to that 2011 upstart starring I don't care who and featuring the music of some country singers that I vaguely know.  But, I digress.  Now, back to our program.)  Still, if you are patient enough to follow the right auctions and wait for something to slip through the cracks, you can find some great stuff at very reasonable prices.  We have furnished and decorated our house that way - tables, chairs, corner cupboards, pewter cupboards, beds, pottery, artwork, fireplace accessories, bric-a-brac (mostly bric-a-brac), all from auctions.  I'd say about 75% of the decor of our house is auction-sourced, and I'm always on the lookout for a chance to upgrade when an opportunity presents itself.  If you are restoring an old house, auctions can also be a great place to get hardware and other architectural items that you might need in the restoration.  I've gotten lots of period iron hinges and latches at auction for way less than I would pay retail.

Based on my experience, there are a few keys to success at auctions.  First, you need to know what you want.  Educate yourself in your areas of interest so that you can make smart decisions.  The internet is an unbeatable tool for this, although it is helpful to go to antique shows in person to look at retail prices and talk to dealers.  Most dealers are more than happy to share their knowledge with you.

Second, you need to know what you are bidding on.  Preview the auction in person if you can, or check out the often detailed internet listings and catalogs.  Check old auction results to see what similar items have sold for recently.  Ask questions - once you have bought it (won it), there are no backsies.

Third, you need to know where you are bidding.  Some auction houses always have price estimates that are way, way too low.  It's miserable to get excited about an item only to see it sell for many multiples of the expected price, but it is pretty common.  Some auctions are frequented by big-spending dealers.  Some auctions are off the beaten path and can be a great place to score good deals.  Remember to check out auctions that are not local.  I have gotten the best deals on New England pieces at auctions in the South.  Even after factoring in shipping, you can still come out far ahead when the auction location and the item that you want are uncorrelated.

Finally, know how much you are willing to pay.  It's very easy to get caught up in the competition and bid more than you would, in your right mind, ever spend on something.  Leaving a maximum bid either directly with the auction house or on the internet is a great way to not get carried away.  It also helps to have a spouse who will kill you if you spend a ridiculous amount on something.

Auctions can be nerve wracking and frustrating when you miss out on something that you have your heart set on, but they're also a lot of fun.  You never know when that deep-pocketed dealer will be off at the restroom and you are able to buy something that you love for a song.  And, as my wife likes to point out, and for all of you hippies out there, auctions are green - the ultimate in recycling. 

So, bid well, but for the love of God, please don't bid against me.

Now, since we've established that you won't drive up the prices on me, here are some of my favorite auctions:

Northeast Auctions - Amazing Americana and early American furniture, heavy on New England.

Skinner - Holds both really high end auctions and more accessible discovery auctions.

Garths - Focused on Ohio items, but great Americana, too.

Eldred's Auction -  New England furniture and 18th/19th century accessories, with a Massachusetts focus.

Crocker Farm - Premier dealer in redware and stoneware - leave the Norwalk pieces for me, please!

Pook and Pook - The creme de la creme of early Americana, with prices to match.  Still, the catalog itself is an educational tool.

Nadeau's Auctions - Eclectic auctions with often affordable antique furniture.

Ebay - Everything and anything goes.  If you need the link for this one or the one below, I'm afraid I cannot help you. - Online aggregator of auctions.  Save search criteria and the site will email you when something of interest is up for auction. 

November 11, 2011

Mr. Kellogg Goes to Washington

Huzzah!  I was going to say Yea!, but thought that I would kick it 18th century style in honor of our house. 

We got our approval from Connecticut's National Register of Historic Places Review Board last Thursday.  Our house's nomination will next be sent on by the state Historic Preservation Office to the Department of the Interior for final review and inclusion on the National Register.  This is supposedly pretty much a formality - nominations are not supposed to be sent out by the state until they are a slam dunk, but I'm always skeptical until things are officially official.

The Review Board meeting in Hartford was actually pretty interesting.  There were three Historic District nominations presented before our house, and it was a unique opportunity to hear a group of very distinguished architects, historians and archaeologists provide their thoughts an opinions on some fascinating buildings and historic sites.  The Review board does a lot of preparation work.  They had five nominations to read and they clearly had read and thought about each with care and interest.

Our review was, thankfully, pretty tame.  I briefly introduced the property and the reasons for nomination, and, upon request, shared the story of our acquisition of the Victorian-era photo album of our house that my parents found last year.  You, of course, already know this story, having feverishly read and re-read each and every post in this blog, right?   If not, go back to my March 2010 postings.  Do not pass Go, and do not collect $200 dollars.  Say 3 Hail Marys, and sin not again. 

The Review Board had lots of compliments (apparently, it is very uncommon for homeowners to prepare their own nominations, and even rarer for them to do this and not embarrass themselves), and only a few suggestions.  Specifically, they wanted me to include more of the old pictures of the house in the nomination, and to draw more attention to the Hudson Valley influences that are present in our house.  As it turns out, the architectural and design influence of the Hudson Valley on Connecticut is a hot topic in architectural historian circles in Connecticut.  No doubt, you have been following the debate on Twitter.  Happily, even the self-described nit-picker on the board had found no typos, which would have really bothered me.

Anyway, that was it.  Nomination approved unanimously.  After I make the few changes to the document, it all gets printed up on archival paper, and two copies and a CD go to the state for onward distribution to the Department of the Interior.  They have a 45 day turn-around time for nominations, so I'm tentatively planning a plaque-unveiling for late winter.

Wouldn't this be a sassy addition to the front of our house?

The only downside to the day was when I learned from a Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation representative that they would no longer be offering barn preservation grants for private structures.  Since that was the whole reason I started down the National Register road, that was a bummer.  Oh well.  Times are tight and funding for old barns isn't at the top of most people's agendas (including mine), so I can understand it.  I'll just need to buy some extra duct tape to try to hold the barn together until my inevitable lottery win allows for a proper restoration.

November 02, 2011

Reaching for the Bronze Plaque

Jenny and I are heading up to Hartford tomorrow morning to listen to the state Review Board weigh in on our home's nomination for the National Register of Historic Places.
I spent a long time working on the nomination form (with some key help from my friend Tod Bryant), which we had to submit to the State Historic Preservation Office in August.  We also had a pre-submission site review by the state during the summer.  From what I have been told, our nomination should be well received, but it's still a little nerve wracking.

If the state approves our nomination, it goes on to the U.S. Department of the Interior for final review in the next few months (why does this sentence make me think of the classic "I'm Just a Bill" song from Schoolhouse Rock?).  After that comes a month of hazing, the probationary period, and finally the revelation of the secret National Register handshake.

Off to the Dept. of the Interior?
The process is long, and requires more paperwork than I have had to deal with since applying to college.  And for all of that work, if you make the cut, you have to purchase that nice plaque yourself.  That hardly seems fair.  That said, it would be an honor for the house to be recognized, and it provides a small extra layer of protection for our property should the state ever want to do something like run a highway through our property, which actually happened in the 1930s, when Connecticut appropriated part of "our" farm for the Merritt Parkway, a road which itself is now on the National Register of Historic Places.   My hope is that it also might make it a little easier for us to access some grant money to stabilize our badly deteriorated 18th century barn in the next few years.   We shall see.   In the meantime, please cross your virtual fingers for us.

Nota bene: Most people seem to think that being on the National Register ties your hand with regard to working on your house, but that certainly is not the case.  The current This Old House series in Bedford, Massachusetts disproves that theory - that house is on the National Register, and they are doing a lot of work that is really more renovation than period restoration.  Sadly, it is not even unprecedented for buildings on the National Register to be demolished. The publicity from something like that can't be good, however, so would-be condominium developers and those interested in bulldozing an old house  and building a McMansion (if either of these species still exist today) need not apply at our door.