IN VIENNA, Austria, where I first bought at auction, the Dorotheum, the great state auction house, has wonderful people called sensals who will bid for you. Since my German consisted of a few phrases of putzfrau Deutsch, or cleaning-woman German, the sensaal was a great help.
The ladies and gentlemen were all arristocrats of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, remembered now principally in history books and operettas. Though titles have been outlawed in that socialist state for many years, no Grifin (rank similar to a countess) would ever be without hers, especially in a snobbish business like antiques. The one I dealt with always was the Baronin von Wimmersberg.
She was an imposing woman, with the sort of bosom you associate with Mary Petty drawings in The New Yorker long ago.
If my memory serves me correctly she was a sister to the Baronin von Reidel of Reidelnau. The Baronin von Reidel said when here mother closed her palace, she cut in two the tablecloth, made for a table seating 24. She gave each daughter half of the tablecloth and a silver service for 12.
The Baronin von Wimmersberg knew her business. She could tell immediately whether an object was authentic Biedermeyer or only a poor reproduction. She recognized baroque at 200 paces. She was polite when I started to buy Secession or Art Nouveau, but it was possible to see behind her facade that she had a distinct scornful view of anything later than Biedermeyer , which was the Austro-German simplification of the French Empire.
Her expertise at buying at auction was immense. Once I saw two magnificent solid silver leaf trays in the Art Nouveau taste. The thought of getting only one was heart-rending. Think of it going around the world without its mate. I explained the predicament to her. It was essential to always be honest with your sensal . She served as psychiatrist, priest and earth mother all in one.
"That is zimple," she said. "Ve will bid low for the first tray and high for the second.You will have them both." And I did.
I had stayed out of the Dorotheum for the first two years of our three-year tour in Vienna. Only when driven to madness by the bargains Virginia Devine bought at the Dorotheum did I finally add it to my rounds. I usually began my rounds inthe abfall station near our house.
(An abfall station is literally a garbage dump, but actually a recycling station, devoted to melting down brass and bundling old paper -- E found a great brass chandelier at one for the price of its raw brass.
Auctions were held every day except Saturday at the Dorotheum. I would cover the building from the basement to the top floor. It held some surprising things. I remember best the man's used shaving brush (but pure boar bristles) and the full-sized Lockheed Constellation airplane (represented, alas, only by a photograph).
The Dorotheum was not just an auction house, it was also, if not primarily, a pawn shop. I was told that many Austrians hocked their winter skiing equipment and their fur coats there in the spring and bailed them out in the fall, carefully paying the interest on their loan. In the winter, they'd reverse the procedure. After all, in their small apartments, storage was at a premium.
The best time to buy silver, according to he Baronin Wimmersberg, was in January, when all the aristocratic but poor Austrians would come in and hock or put up for auction the family silver, so they could afford to go to the Opera Ball and all the other Fasching events, the equivalent of Mardi Gras.
The sensals took a small fee, a percentage of the price, for their services. In the United States, it's cheaper; all you do is call or leave a written bid (if you have established your bank credit first). Somehow, it isn't half the fun.
Bidding in advance, in absentia, according to true auction buggs, is a very cold-blooded way to go about it. They say, "What if you missed the bid by $5, won't you wish you'd been there to keep going." This, of course, is true, but that presumes I would have $5 more to bid.
One of the occasions when I did bid myself is still vivid. I went to the great Garbisch auction ont he Eastern shore. It was an important event, and I was fortunate enough to go to several pre-auction events. Each time, in that treasure house of early American objects, all I saw that I really coveted was a pair of Dutch silver creamers made to look like cows. A small lid on the back had a fly as a handle. The milk came out the mouth. They looked more like bulls to me, but I'm a bit shaky on bovine sex.
I had pointed out the cows to my husband who grunted and led me away. The auction went on for several days. I was there not to bid but to report, so obviously I had no bidding card, the numbers on paddles you hold up to indicate your bid. (Unless you were one of theSack brothers, who only raised their pencil by half an inch).
One day, when my husband was luckily in town, I noticed casually that the cows would come home to the podium in another five lots. And that silver was going lower than expected. I was overcome with a great desire for them, despite the daughters' school fees, the imminent peril of taxes and the disastrous air-conditioning bill. I made a hasty calculation of how much money I could scrape together and by some strange quirk, it came to about $5 under the price listed as the high estimate.
I was obsessed with having the cows. I hunted up a Sotheby official I knew, explained my predicament -- no bidding card, no experience in bidding myself, my anxiety. She took me to the kindly Sandy Carroll who had been bidding at the behest of people calling in on the phone, the big bidders who when told something had reached $25,000 would then authorize her to bid $40,000. Sandy Carroll understood at once.
I explained my top price. She said, "You stand where I can see you, and if it goes beyond your limit and you want me to continue to bid, nod your head." The more I thought about it, the more scared I was. I didn't dare to bid $2 more, we would have to take bankruptcy if I did, the daughters would have to find jobs as dishwashers to go to school. I stood where she could see me, but paralyzed with fear that the bid would go up, up, and up, and I would involuntarily nod my head and find that I'd paid $20,000 for it. I stood rigidly still, not even daring to knock the fly that had landed on my nose or mop my dripping brow. I couldn't even think about my rapidly beating heart. I kept may pencil in an iron lock, remembering the Sack brothers.
I needn't have worried. She calmly surveyed me and the auctioneer, slowed him (who had been raising bids by a thousand at a time) to a stately $10 a raise, and got me the cows at $10 below the top estimate.