Where to buy ancestor cheap
You might call it an oil painting—but that’s Ben Ward-Price’s little joke. Running Canada’s busiest auction gallery isn’t. That’s stately showmanship. What else could sell a silver sobriety tester or a bankrupt rodeo plus its wild horses?
Some bid and some bide
MOST of Canada's five thousand auctioneers try to chatter like machine guns, mixing shrill witticisms with exaggerated praise of their merchandise. This is the traditional method of titillating the customers and encouraging them to bid. It seems to work well, for each year at auction sales across the country bargain hunters spend an estimated five million dollars for household furnish ings alone, plus other millions the total is un calculated for such things as real estate, livestock, jewelry and repossessed automobiles. Yet Ben Ward-Price, of Toronto, the auctioneer who sells the greatest volume of goods at the highest prices, is a quiet, soft-spoken, urbane man who doesn't
raise his voice above a polite conversational level and shudders at the leather-lunged bellowing and the shopworn jokes associated with his trade.
Ward-Price, who is president of Ward-Price Ltd., is the antithesis of the familiar, or noisemaking, auctioneer. He has a solemn and almost overpowering dignity a quality that helps him convince buyers that if a chair, for example, is twice as old as another chair, it is four times as valuable. Without ever losing his poise, Ward-Price in the last quarter of a century has sold such oddly assorted items as an embossed, sterling-silver sobriety tester, Abraham Lincoln’s parlor suite, a bankrupt rodeo complete with wild horses, and a piano used by
Paderewski. He remained unruffled even when a man who had just bid eighty-five thousand dollars cash for a piece of real estate borrowed a nickel from him to make a telephone call.
The Ward-Price Auction Galleries at 28 College St. sedately observe midtown Toronto through the mullioned windows of an Elizabethan-style building which, set well back from the street, deceptively suggests a small and quiet interior. But casual passers-by see only a small front display room, crowded with conservative oil paintings, period furniture, Georgian silver and Meissen china. Unseen is a labyrinth of rooms stretching back a block. With an auction room that seats more than four hundred people comfortably, Ward-Price Galleries are larger than the famous Christie’s of London.
And here half a million dollars’ worth of fine paintings, antique furniture, objets d’art, Oriental rugs, silverware, jewelry and just plain junk change hands annually in an atmosphere so charged with restraint and dignity that all stigma of buying second-hand goods is removed. Indeed, the thought of some particularly illustrious previous owner often triples the selling price of an object.
But under the calm facade is the same excitement that lures customers to auctions the world over. Each bid is a gamble and the higher the stakes the greater the excitement.
Ben Ward-Price’s ambition is to make his galleries a "'sort of Christie’s of Canada”—a place where all the best in art and furnishings is auctioned to discriminating buyers. He has been so successful
that to some Torontonians the observation, ‘"It looks like a Ward-Price piece,” is a mark of approbation. And a westerner who recently moved to Toronto was astonished to find ‘‘all my friends down buying background for themselvesat Ward-Price’s.” Ward-Price himself occasionally introduces a satirical note when he offers oil portraits with the suggestion: ‘‘Buy yourself an ancestor, cheap.”
The Ward-Price building was at one time the Jenkins Art Galleries, owned by Tom Jenkins, who while there sold a portrait of Miss Emma Laura Whitbred by the eighteenth-century English artist John A. Hoppner RA, for thirty-five thousand dollars. But this type of painting and buyeris unfortunately rare. However, Ward-Price recently sold two paintings for $3,000 each, a Royal Kirman rug for $3,500, a Queen Anne silver teapot for $1,750, and a wing chair of the Queen Anne period for $2,000.
Ward-Price has auctioned the furnishings from some of the country’s largest estates, hut often his customers are more affluent than the clients for whom he is selling. At one sale, for instance, he counted fifteen millionaires in the audience.
Still, with an advance mailing list of more than eight thousand, he has a clientele ranging from millionaire collectors of first-edition Dickens and hallmarked Georgian silver, to newlyweds furnishing a two-room flat on a white-collar salary and old-age pensioners who come to feast their eyes on the unattainable. Housewives, doctors, lawyers, laborers, shrewd-eyed antique dealers, members of
Toronto’s earliest families
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and newly arrived immigrants—these are the bargain hunters, the collectors, the entertainment seekers, and the gamblers who find bidding for antiques as fascinating as buying an Irish sweepstake ticket.
It takes roughly three weeks of preparation on the part of the twenty employees of Ward-Price Ltd. for each sale, which, including a two-day preview, lasts about two weeks. First Ward-Price inspects the furnishings in the home from which they are to be removed for auctioning, mentally evaluating them and noting any unusually good pieces. Then they are taken to the galleries. Here the staff sorts the items according to value and special significance to collectors, keeping close watch for any distinguishing marks that might indicate unusual age or value.
It was during one of these routine inspections that the Queen Anne teapot that sold for $1,750 was discovered. The client whose estate was being auctioned knew his dead wife had owned a valuable teapot but a search through the house failed to bring it to light. One of the Ward-Price staff, while sorting a miscellaneous collection of badly tarnished silver plate which had been stored on the top shelf of an old cupboard, noticed a hallmark on a small teapot of unusually graceful design. He brought the teapot to Ward-Price, saying, "I think this is good.” After excitedly checking through reference books. Ward-Price agreed with him wholeheartedly. It was a Queen Anne teapot made in 1712 by Augustine Courtauld, rated as one of the finest silversmiths in England. Teapots of that time were extremely rare, as tea was still an expensive luxury. Its beauty restored by careful polishing, the teapot was the pièce de résistance of the sale.
There are two auction sessions held each day while a sale is in progress —one in the afternoon and one in the evening. When sorting items the staff saves for evening sales those more likely to bring high prices. They try to build up one or two sale sessions of special interest—usually on Friday nights—and these are the most heavily attended. For bargain hunting, the afternoon and ordinary night sessions are best. Occasionally there are special sessions entirely devoted to silver, books, linens or Oriental rugs.
After Ward-Price sorts the items to be sold they are numbered and catalogued. The catalogues, sometimes illustrated, selling usually for twentyfive cents, are written in fascinating prose. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the foreword to the catalogue for the sale of the estate of Sir William Mortimer Clark in 1949:
• There may still be some who can recall their acquaintance with its distinguished owner, the late Sir William Mortimer Clark, who was Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1903 to 1908 ... It was only necessary for the door of 28 Avenue Road to be opened, at the tinkling of a bell, before one was ushered into the splendor of the Victorian age. for here, in this lofty house, with its labyrinth of carpeted rooms, giant lace-curtained windows and dignified décor, the years took flight and a panoramic picture of Toronto social life, nearly a half century ago, could easily be visualized.”
About three hundred items are sold each day of a sale, two hundred in the afternoon and one hundred at night-
Each item is knocked down in about a minute and a half.
Ben Ward-Price is usually present at some time during the preview of a sale, chatting with old friends and customers, and available for consultation. At this time, too, if anyone wishes, he may bring in a professional evaluator. Anyone wishing to bid on an item without attending the sale may examine it at the preview and telephone in an advance bid. These bids are entered at the sale by the bookkeeper, who acts as agent for the bidder. On the other hand, Ward-Price refuses to accept an item for sale with a reserve bid—a price set by the owner below which he does not wish the piece sold. Ward-Price feels reserve bids waste the company’s time but he uses his own discretion and, if the price seems far too low, will hold the item over for a later sale.
The preview of a recent sale of "bits and pieces” from many home owners filled every bit of exhibition space, excepting the tiny display room on College Street. Two hundred or more prospective buyers armed with catalogues fingered Oriental rugs, peered at the underside of china, tested the springs of stuffed chairs, inspected crystal for minute chips, and made mysterious distinguishing marks in their catalogues. The atmosphere was as full of cheer as an old-home-week celebration and as full of intrigue as a meeting of spies, not yet sure they were among friends.
Wavers Can Expect Trouble
Between the time of the preview and the opening of the first sale session the Ward-Price staff had cleared the palegreen auction room of the furniture on display and arranged hundreds of straight-backed chairs with a narrow aisle up the centre. They placed the auctioneer’s small velvet-covered table to the left of a raised platform at one end of the room and a desk for the bookkeeper at the right. The furniture to be sold at the first session was heaped together in order of sale in a small room beyond the platform, hidden from the audience by heavy drapes. That to be sold at later sessions was left in the outer display rooms or crowded around the walls of the auction room and of the balcony which extends across the back of the room and along either side. Richly colored rugs hung from the balcony, giving the place somewhat the appearance of an Oriental bazaar.
At seven-thirty on the last night of the sale (a Friday night) buyers began filtering into the auction room. A plump ruddy-faced man with a tuft of snow-white hair ringing his scarlet bald spot puffed in through the back entrance, stopping to inspect the furniture. Two matronly women fluttered indecisively about the balcony, then selected seats with the best view. A bored-looking man hid himself behind a newspaper and to all intents and purposes ignored the sale from then on. A young woman arrived with her knitting and, with a catalogue open on her knee, knitted busily throughout the sale. Around her there was much chatting and waving at friends elsewhere in the room. It’s safe to wave at this stage of an auction but WardPrice discourages it during a sale by calling, "Fifty dollars bid by the woman waving.” Ward-Price justifies the manoeuvre by saying, "Anyone who comes in to an auction and starts waving at friends should expect trouble.”
At precisely eight o’clock (by now the room was three quarters full) Ben Ward-Price entered the room with a catalogue, a long blue record book and
a glass of water. He seated himself at the table. A big, fair, handsome man in his early fifties, impeccably dressed in a dark suit and red tie, he is an imposing figure with a pleasant, if slightly formal, manner. Holding his horn-rimmed glasses in his hand and tapping his teeth with them occasionally, he began briskly:
"Well, here we are, ladies and gentlemen. You’ll notice that we try to leave things on view as long as possible before they are sold. It’s nicer that way, I think. Now what’s the first item for tonight?
'Pair of Ridgway china boatshaped bowls decorated in rust-andblue Oriental pattern, B.A.D.A. gold seal,’ ” he read from his catalogue, then glanced at the bowls an attendant had arranged on a velvet-covered easel.
The B.A.D.A. seal guarantees that the article has been passed by the British Antique Dealers’ Association as a genuine antique—that is, over one hundred years old.
The sale moved briskly on to more interesting things. (The first and last items at any sale session are usually of minor value—to allow for late-
comers and early leavers and WardPrice wastes little time haggling over them.) A pair of Chinese carved teakwood wall brackets, twenty-three pieces of cut crystal stemware, several sets of English brass fire tools and other brassware sold quickly. An open-arm easy chair on turned legs and upholstered in blue brocatelle started at ten dollars.
"A lovely little piece,” said WardPrice with warm enthusiasm. "How much am I offered? Eleven dollars, $12 in the balcony . . . $13 to the lady near the back” and as the bidders
I hesitated—". . . $13 wouldn’t even I buy the material to cover it . . . $14 ! in the balcony . . . $15 if you say ... $16, $16 in the balcony. Sixteen dollars then, is that the price—$16?”
Managing to convey pained incredulity, Ward-Price tapped quickly with ; his ivory hammer head and the sale I was completed. In Ward-Price’s greatj grandfather’s time the ivory hammer I was probably complete but some time ! before Ben joined the firm the handle was lost. It’s better that way. The i discreet, gentle tap of the hammer head, j held between thumb and first finger, j J scarcely disturbs the sedate calm of a I Ward-Price sale.
If the auctioneer knows the buyer j he simply marks the name and price in his blue record book. If he does i not, he notes his location on the floor —-"second row, third in”—and a floor clerk slips unobtrusively down to get I the name, address and number of the I item from the customer.
Ward-Price likes to give a bit of ¡ background for the items he sells. This adds interest to the sale, he explains —it also tends to bring prices up. He j told the audience that the function of j j the red ruffled curtain at the back of j an antique buffet was to keep gravy j from splashing on the wall, that a j high-backed chair not only protected its owner from draughts but also from an enemy’s knife in the back, and that, in those perilous times, a glass-bottomed beer mug made it possible to watch for enemies while drinking.
Now growing tension was apparent in the bidding. A beautiful golden j Royal Tabriz rug with an indistinct I pattern in subdued tones sold for one hundred and ninety dollars.
"It’s worth much more than that,” commented a man who’d been watching the rapid bidding with interest.
I "I’d have bid myself but it wouldn’t i go with my home.”
The Royal Tabriz had come to j Canada with one Viennese lady and now went into the home of another I New Canadian. Europeans, who find it hard to understand the North j American craze for broadloom, buy j many of the used Oriental rugs that j are auctioned at the Ward-Price GalI leries.
"A pretty little piece,” commentj ed the auctioneer as two attendants i wheeled a neat, mahogany military j chest with brass hardware through the drapes. "Turn it around and let them have a good look at it. It’s a lovely i bit.” At a Ward-Price auction "pretty | little pieces” and "lovely bits” follow j each other as smartly on the stage as in a well-trained revue.
"Let’s start it at $30 . . . $30, $40 !
: . . . $50 it is . . . $60 near the back. | j This is a particularly nice chest . . .
I $70—it’s your bid madam, at least I ; think it is. Are you two together?” i Sheepishly, husband and wife diseov¡ ered they’d been trying to raise each other’s bids. "At the rear, $80 . . . j $90 . . . $90. Is that the price then ! —$90? You have a bargain, sir.”
The catalogue description for the j I next item read: "A fine Louis-design,
walnut display cabinet with curved j I glass panels, carved decoration.” This ! item started at twenty-five dollars and I inched its way up.
"Looks like a coffin,” commented a j woman with merry dark eyes who was ; leaning over the balcony. "I wouldn t j take it as a gift.”
"Seventy dollars?” agonized Ward! Price. "Why the glass alone is worth j seventy dollars. This piece in New i York would bring one hundred and fifty.”
"Oh, come now, Ben, don’t let yourself get carried away,’ a mild voice from the rear admonished him softly.
A mahogany dining-room suite, custom made by Rawlinson, a well-known Toronto cabinetmaker, brought admiring murmurs from the crowd. The bidding soon narrowed down to a contest between a very British gentleman with a clipped mustache and an older, grey-haired lady. With his wife encouraging him, the man immediately raised each bid his opponent made until, when the price reached eight hundred dollars, she subsided dejectedly. "Eight hundred and twenty-five, if you say so, Madam,” coaxed the auctioneer, but she shook her head reluctantly.
At a city auction the bidding is done by signals. The customary signal is raising a catalogue. With lightning glances around the room, seemingly able to see out of the corner of his eye, the auctioneer translates the signals into bids. Professional dealers, and some amateurs who like to appear in the know, work out their own systems of indicating bids to the auctioneer.
"One man stares at me,” says Ward-Price, "and as long as he is looking I keep on bidding for him. When he looks away he’s through. Another sits tapping his pencil against his teeth. When he stops, I stop bidding. Another is bidding as long as he has a cigarette in his mouth. No matter how little attention he seems to be paying, he’s bidding until he removes the cigarette.”
An alert auctioneer can tell when a man’s getting ready to bid by the way his Adam’s apple bobbles. He can tell when he’s through by the way he slumps back in his seat. He can also usually estimate within a few dollars what an article will bring before it reaches the platform. Ward-Price maintains there are no crazy prices for anything. If someone wants a particular statuette or piece of furniture, it’s worth what he pays for it. The only time the prices get out of line is when at least two bidders want that particular item and no other. It may he drapes that match their furniture, or a chest that completes a collection. Ward-Price’s advice is to go to the preview, study any items that are of interest, look around in stores next day, decide on a price and stick to it. When that price is reached, stop bidding. The only time he feels this advice should be disregarded is when it is something that one really wants and won’t be happy without; then, he says, "Go after it and don’t quibble over a few dollars.”
Ward-Price sets the starting price well below what he estimates as the value of the article but high enough to eliminate a lot of unnecessary bidding. It tends to lower the eventual selling price if the starting price is too low and similarly if the raises are too small. Articles which begin at less than five dollars are normally raised by fifty-cent bids; above five dollars j they go up by one dollar at a time;
; and above twenty dollars they are ! usually raised by about ten percent ; each bid.
Antique dealers and second-hand dealers often attend Ward-Price auctions to pick up bargains for resale, and sometimes, to squeeze out the small fry, they make jump bids.
"The best jump bid I ever saw,” Ward-Price says, "was at the T. PLoblaw sale. (T. P. Loblaw was the i founder of a chain of groceterias, well*
I known in Ontario and New York State.)
! Bids were going up by $50 on a ! painting. The price had reached $250.
I The next hid was $750. The opposition j dropped out. The woman who had been bidding came to me later and j asked me to offer the buyer $1,000 for ! the picture. She just hadn’t had the j nerve to follow a $500 jump bid.”
Some customers complain that they don’t like attending a sale where there are dealers but others know that as long as a dealer is bidding the article is still a bargain.
An auctioneer’s nightmare is the disputed bid. Because no one is infallible, he does on occasion miss a bid —usually one that is made just as the hammer is going down. Often this is made by someone who hasn’t been bidding previously. The only thing the auctioneer can do then is to put the item up for sale again but this usually causes hard feelings all round.
One woman claimed she had just been fanning herself, not bidding. WardPrice, trained in understanding auctiongoers, felt certain she had bid but was scared when she was left with the purchase. "We have to make our living by good will, too,” he says, "and sometimes it’s better to take an article back than to cause a fuss.”
By law there is no redress if the article bought at an auction doesn’t measure up to what is expected of it. It is sold with all its faults and imperfections. Usually these are mentioned in the catalogue or by the
Ward-Price patterns his tactics after those of auctioneers in England where auctioneering is a skilled profession requiring a three-year course. (In Canada any citizen who can pay for a license can auction.) There are colleges in the United States where auctioneers are trained in the rapid patter necessary. One of these even puts out a booklet called Auctioneers’ Manual of Pep Talks and Witty Sayings. But Ben Ward-Price deplores the
way many American auctioneers insult their audiences. "I’ll bet there isn’t a man in this crowd who has five dollars in his pocket,” and, "If you don’t intend to buy, don’t hang around.” He feels it is poor psychology to make his customers angry and tries to establish an atmosphere of good feeling by relating little anecdotes, cracking gentle jokes, and keeping his voice almost at a monotone except when he lets it sharpen to emphasize how ridiculously low a bid is. He likes to hear a little hum of conversation. When things get too quiet people get tense and grim, he says, and can’t bid. "I’ve had people tell me they wanted to bid and just froze up and couldn’t raise a hand.”
In a sense Ward-Price has been in at the death of an era. Taxes and the high cost of living have made it necessary for one after another of the huge old mansions with thirty or forty rooms to be sold. One of the best known of these homes was that of Sir William Mortimer Clark, of Toronto, which was bought by the Park Plaza Hotel. According to newspaper reports of the time, the furnishings included twenty-five thousand dollars worth of fine Irish linen.
More than one thousand advance bids were placed by collectors from all over the world when Waverley, a five-acre estate with a forty-room mansion built at London, Ont., by Thomas H. Smallman, one of the founders of the Imperial Oil Co., was auctioned off. So many people attended the sale, held on the premises, that Ward-Price had a marquee erected on the lawn and auctioned under that.
A sleek, black-and-yellow twelvecylinder Rolls-ltoyce that in 1937 cost $28,000 aroused the greatest interest at the sale. In less than five minutes the bids from the ground reached $3,500 and stopped. The Ward-Price bookkeeper then placed a $3,600 bid for a Toronto financier. The buyer, who kept the automobile for four years, said recently: "Ben Ward-Price broke me
into the Rolls-Royce class. I bought a new one in England last year—not second-hand this time.”
At another time Ward-Price was commissioned to sell a rosewood Victorian parlor suite that had belonged to Abraham Lincoln. It had been brought to Canada by an American woman and was accompanied by a bill of sale signed by Mrs. Lincoln. This suite returned to the States when Henry Ford paid fifteen hundred dollars for it.
A piano used by Paderewski while touring Canada came to Ward-Price from the home of Miss Jan Gordon, a former Metropolitan Opera singer, who lived near Chatham, Ont. Along with valuable pieces like this, old homes occasionally yield up oddities —like a sterling-silver sobriety tester, for example. This is a Dutch souvenir item. The figure of a woman holds two cups, one on top of the other. If you can successfully drink, without spilling, the liquid out of the tiny, tippy cup on top you are eligible to drink from the larger bottom cup.
Ben Ward-Price is a fourth-generation auctioneer. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father had auction businesses in England. Ben’s father established the Toronto business on Lombard Street in 1912. From the time Ben was thirteen he has been in and out of the auctioning business. He joined his father in business permanently in 1930, and in 1937 he leased the present site, formerly the Jenkins Art Galleries. Ina few years he bought the premises.
Although he maintains a small stock of antiques for private sale, ninety percent of his business is auctioning for
others on a commission basis. The firm is often called in also for evaluating estates for probate and insurance purposes. For insurance the value is taken as being that which it would cost to replace the furnishings; for probate, that which the furniture would bring if auctioned at the going rate.
As a youngster, Ben found the thought of auctioning boring and he left for a more adventurous life in northern Canada, flying for lumbering and mining companies. But in 1930 he returned to Toronto, to discover auctioning actually far from dull. One of the first sales he recalls was that of a bankrupt rodeo. The auction, held at the rodeo grounds, was conducted by his father, Walter Ward-Price. Rain forced them to conduct their business from a caravan. One faction of the staff who wanted to take over the rodeo and run it themselves did their best to stop the sale by shouting and screaming. But the elder Ward-Price proceeded with the auction.
A rodeo horse would be brought up for inspection. "How much am I offered for this fine-looking horse?” the auctioneer would shout. At that point the horse, only half-broken and frightened by the clamor, would break free and race through the driving rain. ". . . For that fine-looking horse running away there,” Walter Ward-Price would correct himself.
A Colt for Red Ryan
Another time the galleries were broken into during the early morning hours while a particularly valuable collection of antique and modern firearms was on display. Ward-Price could find nothing missing at the time, but when the guns were auctioned off a few days later he discovered that two Colts were gone.
The incident was not closed. When Red Ryan, a notorious bank robber released from Kingston Penitentiary in 1935 with much publicity about his reformed nature, was shot to death during a liquor-store holdup in 1936, it was discovered that his gun was one of the Colts taken from the Ward-Price galleries. The other one turned up on one of Ryan’s cronies. Ward-Price claimed both guns and sold them with an added bit of history to their credit.
Today many of Ward-Price’s antiques and fine reproductions come to him from England. Several years ago he traveled through England organizing his source of supply there and scouts now attend sales to select furnishings suitable for the Canadian market. Dealers with the help of better roads and automobiles have scoured outlying districts in Canada and have left few good pieces behind. While vacationing in the Laurentians, however, Ward-Price did notice several fine pieces during a visit with a young Englishman who had bought an old estate there and turned it into a hotel. Due to what he calls "my stupid reluctance to offer to buy my host’s furniture,” he didn’t discuss a sale. Later, while at a cocktail party at a friend’s ski cabin, he saw some of the pieces he had admired, and listened, chagrined, to his friend’s boasts of the marvelous bargains he’d picked up at a nearby hotel. Leaving the party, Ward-Price quickly buckled on his skis and skimmed off to do business with the English hotelman. He was able to buy enough good pieces to pay for his holiday—among them a magnificent French Provincial commode that he considers one of the finest he’s ever seen.
Somewhat in the manner of the late art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, Ben Ward-Price has a faintly paternal feel-
ing for any fine furniture he has once sold, and always welcomes it back into his galleries. One of the advantages of this attitude to the customer is that there is no difficulty in returning a Ward-Price purchase 1er resale if it doesn’t suit—at the usual commission price of course. One customer who has done this often says she has even made money on a deal. (Ward-Price’s sale and resale commission on all articles is from twenty-five to thirty percent of the sale price, depending on the value of the goods.)
Estate sales are more interesting to
handle than bits and pieces from several homes but in these the auctioneer must try to sell everything that is offered. One of the first commissions Ward-Price remembers was to sell furnishings that had been in storage for over forty years. During much of this time the owner of the property traveled in Europe, shipping home collectors’ items from time to time to join the rest of the furnishings in storage. There were fifty trunks and boxes to be opened after her death and, because of a dispute among her heirs (her sanity was questioned) these were
opened in the presence of witnesses. To quote Ward-Price:
"One box just rocked me back on my heels. There were a pair of choppers inside the box and a little piece of paper with the words: 'My father’s false teeth, removed before burial,’ and a picture of father in his coffin.”
The teeth are among the few things in an estate that he hasn’t sold. But people who have watched Ben WardPrice conduct an auction have little doubt that he could have sold them if he’d tried—and made the buyer feel he was getting a bargain. if