First published in Chesapeake Life Magazine
Nine o’clock on a sweltering August morning. Men wearing faded jeans and t-shirts, ball caps shading their eyes from the sun, and women in shorts and heat-wrinkled blouses mill around piles of American artifacts spread out in a large field. They peek inside the drawers of old furniture, poke through boxes of tarnished silverware, and test the hinges of cabinet doors. But they never stray too far from the sing-song litany coming from an oversized golf cart that slowly nudges them along the rows of benches,
hutches, headboards, and cabinets like a motorized sheepdog.
It’s Wednesday morning at Dixon’s Auction in Crumpton. As much a part of the Eastern Shore as a speedtrap on Rt. 50, the dealers, sellers, bargain seekers, and sightseers gather here each week for the day-long auction.
Most of the buyers are regulars, dealers who pick up their inventory at this and similar auctions along the East Coast. Dixon’s is one of the largest. The weekly sale starts at 9 am and continues until everything has been offered. It’s not unusual for the dedicated to stay until sunset, rain or shine, snow or sweat. The only time the auction isn’t held is if Christmas falls on a Wednesday.
Most of the merchandise comes from estates or from families cleaning out houses. Some of it is excellent, the sort of things antique dealers covet — ornately carved headboards, decorative brackets, stone birdbaths from a Victorian garden. Then there are the curiosities, like the large suitcase overflowing with ball point pens. And the obscenities, like the solid oak hutch painted a bilious yellow with a blue interior.
Many of the dealers come every week. They arrive with panel trucks and helpers who stand ready with hand-trucks and brute strength to load the purchases and transport them to Virginia, the Carolinas, and beyond.
“A lot of dealers come up from the south,” says Jim Tarleton. He’s working on his 15th year as an auctioneer at Dixon’s. “There’s one dealer who comes up from Florida once a month, and a man from Texas comes in twice a year.”
The Diaspora of furnishings follows a definite direction. Colonial pieces from the North and East head South. The Victorian and period pieces, meanwhile, and things from the West and Southwest move through the Mid-Atlantic to New York and New England.
This isn’t Sotheby’s, where the lineage of each piece is known and the auctioneers coax bids from a well-heeled audience with polished grace. With hundreds of things to move and only a few hours to move them, each sale is made quickly and efficiently. Knowing what to toss out as a starting bid is a matter of training and experience, explains Tarleton. “You pick it up with experience. You get an idea of what something is worth. If I see a $500 corner cupboard, I’m not going to start it at $20.”
The bidding is done subtly by the pros – eye contact between the auctioneer and the bidder, a slight nod or shake of the head. Tarleton, like all of the auctioneers, senses when he’s gotten the highest price he can expect, and closes the deal quickly, never letting his cart stop, never letting the action lag. It’s early yet, and he has several acres of goods to sell.
Mary Selles is one of the regulars. She haunts Dixon’s for home furnishings from 1840-1940 for her nearby store, Amaryllis. At the moment, she is hovering over a half dozen ornate metal rods she just purchased. She’s not sure, but thinks she is going to use them to do something with curtains.
She knows most of the other dealers and what they look for. It’s often the same thing she is. This might not be the place to find the meaning of life, but she regards the auction with a philosophical eye.
“It’s really a study of personalities. You see selfish and generous people. It’s very democratic. We try to accommodate each other when we are all looking at the same pieces. Nobody gets everything he wants.”
As she talks, she keeps one eye on the moving cart. Democracy and accommodation go only so far when there are pieces out there that she knows can be resold quickly at her store.
“If you are a buyer, the computer is always working. You want to remember where you saw something and when it is going to come up for sale.”
That’s almost impossible to do solo, since the landscape is always shifting. As one row of goods is sold, the crews move in to carry them away. Once the space is cleared, the vans and panel trucks move closer to the next row.
“It is very disorienting. I try to number the rows, but it’s hard. You plan to bid on something, but when you turn away or load something, you miscalculate and find you missed it.”
There are actually three auctions going on simultaneously. The main field, with the fine furniture and other quality goods, has a $20 minimum bid. The $5 field houses the sort of leftovers and discards that might be used to furnish a hunting camp or kids’ treehouses. It’s littered with a box of hubcaps, a ½-assembled filing cabinet made of “traditional oak,” a pile of old hats – pillboxes from the Kennedy era, cloches, and once-stylish somethings decorated with faded, broken feathers. There are rolls of chicken wire, an ancient gas stove, and an older Mixmaster.
The action in the $5 field is a chaotic ballet choreographed by green-shirted auction staff. They call out instructions and descriptions to the auctioneer as they shove lots together, insuring that the bidder who’s indicated interest in something will get it – and a lot of other stuff besides. Someone holding an ironing board might find the lot now includes three rusting shovels and eight folding metal chairs. Scavengers will pick up what the winning bidder doesn’t want and leaves behind. Whatever is still in the field in the morning is hauled off to the local dump.
Jesse Dixon, the 43-year-old son of owner Norman Dixon, hustles down the line of lots, his face and shirt covered with a thin sheen of August sweat and dust.
“You having fun yet?” someone calls to him.
“I’m always having fun!” he calls back with a grin. “I get 10% of everything they sell. I can do this all day!”
His father brought the auction in 1963. Jesse was raised in the business, he explains as he heads back to the main building, passing a woman who is celebrating her purchase of two Mr. Peanut banks. He’s never considered doing anything else. Neither have a lot of his relatives. By his reckoning, there are seven or eight grandsons, nephews, cousins, and aunts all working there.
His usual duty is running the third auction that goes on in the relative comfort of a large, concrete-floored building the Dixons built when they took over. This is where the smaller items are sold. Stacked on long, low tables are cast iron metal banks, a Baltimore Colts umbrella stand, fake Hummel figurines, real Hummel figurines, fine china patterns (some complete sets and some in pieces), an entire crate of empty 1 pt. Coke bottles, and a Samsun laser printer (a Finale 8000 model). One table is covered with empty beer cans – Busch, Goebel, St. Pauli Girl, Coors, Old Milwaukee. Another features a display of Zippo lighters commemorating the US Navy Mission to Peru, RCA, the Furman Drilling Company, and The Beatles Abby Road album.
There isn’t really a lunch break. The lunch room and counter service stay busy all day, as buyers time their meal to coincide when the things of interest are gone or haven’t come up forsale yet. The concessions are run by Amish who arrive from Lancaster in the pre-dawn hours. It’s an incongruous sight – modestly-clad women scurrying through the kitchen and dining room wearing their traditional aprons and caps – and Reeboks.
The food stall gets almost as much business as the auction. Cured hams, cheeses, jams, homemade breads, Shoo-Fly pies, and jars of chow-chow occupy one section of the indoor auction building. In the morning, hot soft pretzels and fresh donuts are in demand. As the day warms up, the ice cream concession has a line as long as Parrottheads waiting for tickets to a Jimmy Buffett concert. If a much-coveted hutch leaves the grounds in someone else’s van, at least the losing bidder has the consolation of a double-dip butter-pecan ice cream cone.
By late afternoon, it’s down to a handful of bidders, mostly people waiting for a piece they’ve eyed all day. Outside, vans filled with furniture and collectibles are ready to jostle their way across the field to the highway on route to antique stores, interior decorators’ showrooms, or private homes. Scavengers make a final pass through the $5 field. Inside the main building, auction employees begin straightening the tables and sweeping up the floors. It’s suddenly almost quiet. In the morning, the first trucks will show up with goods for the following week, when the whole performance beings again.