Published: September 12, 2000
The Life of Auctioneer William A. Smith
PLAINFIELD, N.H. – On Thursday, August 24, noted auctioneer William A. “Bill” Smith died after a brief illness. He was 59.
Born in Hillsboro Center, N.H., March 10, 1941, Mr Smith was the son of Spurgeon A. and Dorothy (Reasoner) Smith.
He founded William S. Smith, Inc., Auctioneer & Appraiser in 1962, the same year of his marriage to Merilyn I. Sjogren. Survivors include his wife; his son, William G. Smith; daughters Deena Mac Donald, Stephanie Smith, and Erika Smith; a sister, Rosalie French; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned for a later date. Contributions in memory of Mr Smith may be made to Alice Peck Memorial Hospital Hospice, 125 Mascoma Street, Lebanon, N.H., or Plainfield Fire Department or Police Department, Plainfield, N.H. 03781.
In a career spanning nearly 40 years, Smith saw the number of auctioneers in his state grow from half a dozen to several hundred, and the price of a good slant top desk rise from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.
From his own auction podium, he sold the early New England furniture that he loved best and for which his sales have become known. He also auctioned truckloads of Victorian pieces that drew Southern haulers north in the 1970s, as well as his share of Twentieth Century recliners, dinette sets, and Fiesta ware.
Smith’s mailing list of 3,000 regular customers includes representatives of prestigious art and antiques houses, film and TV stars, a Supreme Court justice, and former governors, along with colorful old-time pickers and dealers and everyday shoppers.
Smith survived recession, interest rates that rose like flood waters, cutthroat pools, and the bad timing with which he invested in an antiques mall ahead of its time. He’s seen the coming of eBay.com, Priceline.com, and The Antiques Roadshow; he has been known to disagree with estimates given on the latter.
He never cancelled an advertised sale despite wind, rain, snow, or power failures like the one in July 1999 that blacked out Plainfield and nearby towns.
As he turned part of the business over to a second generation, Smith was sure that there would “always be auctions. The auction method is the oldest and still the fairest, most efficient way of disposing of merchandise.”
He ticked off names: Jack Martin, Harold Todd, Jim Wilcoxen, Marvin Hatch, Stub Whitney, Elizabeth Stokes, Robert Tompkins, Robert Lynch, Roger Bacon, Dick Mills, Cliff Blake, and more.
His own first auction was in 1962, when the son of longtime auctioneer Silas Rowe requested that Smith conduct the sale of his father’s estate. It was at this sale that Smith called Robert Skinner to the podium to sell for the first time. For a couple of years thereafter, Skinner and Smith ran evening sales together at the Harvard, Mass., Town Hall.
Smith’s auction experience predated 1962, however. “I started working for Richard Withington, who’s number one in my book, in Hillsboro Center when I was 13 years old, loading, unloading, caretaking,” he told members of his family. “The business intrigued me and I liked the auctioneers and dealers, the old timers. Generally they were very friendly to me. I’d do little extra jobs for them and ask a lot of questions.”
“Auctioneers like Jim Hall, Paul Lawton, Eddie Morrill, George Clement, Bill Godfrey, and Ted Langdell would tell me how they started, what you have to put into the business, how you structure an auction. When I’d talk to an antiques dealer, that’s when I’d ask, why is this balloon seat chair better than that straight-edged chair? Why did that desk bring three times what the other one did? I respected their knowledge and tried to file it away.”
That kind of knowledge – “which is not something you can learn in school” – was filed away while Smith finished high school, went to New England College to earn a civil engineering degree, then on to Keene State for a master’s in education. Summers were spent in the ASP program at St Paul’s School and the NSF program at Dartmouth’s Keiwit Computer Center.
He and Merilyn Sjogren, the daughter of antiques dealers George and Maude Sjogren, were married during Smith’s last year of college. Merilyn had been an active partner in the business throughout their marriage; Bill said that without her, none of his success would have been possible.
While building the business, Smith taught math and coached at Lebanon High School and taught at Lebanon College. At the end of five years, he left teaching to devote full time to the business whose logo – a silhouette of George Washington in a Chippendale mirror – would become familiar to New England auction goers.
The 1960s were good years for country auctions, when old farms and contents stored for generations were coming on the market. “Probably the most exciting country auction I ever did was on an old family farm outside the Exeter, N.H.,” Smith recalled. “The buildings were all weather-beaten, the barn was full of spiders, the attics were so dry with dust that if you dropped a box, the dust would rise up and choke you. And some of the stuff inside that place had been there since the Eighteenth Century.
“There was a good crowd and we got good prices all day. About four in the afternoon only the last of the old barn was left to clear, and we were down to about ten people. But they stayed because they knew that something good could still come out of that place – and they were right.
“Baldy [longtime crew member David Baldwin] is up in the loft. He bangs his head on a beam and a box comes tumbling down on him. And in it are three Prior portraits (William Matthew Prior, 1806-73), the finest primitives you could ask for. All in grain-painted frames, perfect condition.
“Here comes Baldy, end of the auction, blowing dust off these painting. Although we had only ten people left, they were the right people, who knew what these were. The Priors went for about $3,500 apiece. There were some wonderful finds in attics in the 1960s.”
Thirty years later, the untouched homestead is almost non-existent, Smith said. “If there’s an auction at an old farmhouse, it’s probably a restored old farmhouse.”
By the mid-to-late 1960s, he had his eye on a prize. “As far back as when I worked for Withington, I’d delivered pieces to this lady, Mrs James Campbell Lewis, who had a mansion in Cornish. I’d seen what a wonderful collection she had, formed with the advice of Israel Sack, who was a longtime personal friend, and we had discussed specific pieces. I kept in touch with her over the years and said to myself, if the collection ever comes up for sale, somehow I’ve got to get that auction.”
After the death of the Lewises, a million-dollar collection did become available. “I wasn’t the only one who wanted the sale, of course. Everybody wanted it – Sotheby’s, Christie’s, all the big ones.”
But the estate was in Smith’s backyard, he knew the collection and had the necessary contacts with the heir and attorneys for the estate. “I just kept one step ahead of the other guys. And when I was just 29 years old, I put that auction together.”
The Lewis estate auction, held over six days in 1971, remained a highlight of Bill Smith’s career. “Everybody who was anybody was there. A lot of pieces went to James Britton, a Houston collector, others to Sack. And there was so much of everything: hundreds of pieces of Canton, 20 red tablecloths, no end of wonderful rdf_Descriptions.” That sale firmly established Smith’s reputation.
Smith was licensed in four states, and was a member of the New Hampshire Auctioneers Association, the National Association of Auctioneers, and appraisal groups such as the American Society of Appraisers. He worked with a network of some 100 lawyers, bankers, and others who were likely sources of referrals, and with top dealers to whom pieces were likely to be brought for appraisal.
“It’s important to have the respect of those people so that when someone comes to them and asks, ‘Can you recommend an auctioneer?’ your name is the one that comes to mind,” Smith was quoted as saying.
Once asked whether a beginning auctioneer could build a business today the way Smith built his, he said no. “It’s a completely different business now. First, there’s more competition. Anyone starting out now would need far more knowledge than I had starting out. More important, they have to have funding, a lot of dollars. And of course they need to work with computers.”
Today’s computer-tracked auctions are a far cry from the days when Smith began selling, when sales were recorded by hand and runners wore cash aprons to make change as they took payments on the spot. All buyers were known to them by name.
Auctioneers use computers for research as well as records-keeping. In addition to the Smiths’ library of art and antiques reference books, they make use of Internet aids such as Artnet, which can quickly yield information on artists including prices recently paid for their work.
The Smiths, William A. and his son William G., 32, also developed a Web site. “For our bigger sales, we have to be on the Internet,” the senior Smith said. “When we’re negotiating for an estate, the agents ask if we are. If our competitors are there, we have to be there.
“We plan to display pictures of good pieces coming up at our sales. Someone who sees something they like can e-mail a bid prior to the auction or telephone during the sale. I think we’ll pick up a lot of foreign buyers whom we don’t reach through the auction papers or our mailing lists.”
He reserved judgement about Internet auction sites. “I think there may be a lot of problems that have to be worked out. But overall, I think there are more positives than negatives to selling on the Internet.”
Even before the Internet, Smith began extending his business beyond New England, particularly into Florida and Arizona. In those retirement states, he sought not buyers but sellers.
“Over the years, so many of our customers have retired and moved from New England to Florida and Arizona. When they’re getting ready to relocate, they may ask us to have an auction for them. But there’s always that room in the house where they keep back the good slant lid, the best rugs, their favorite paintings. Those go with them to the new place, the greatest percentage to Florida.
“They settle in, then realize that the antique pieces don’t look just right in the condominiums and they decide to sell them. Where’s the best market for them? It’s back here in New England. So they remember us, get in touch, and we bring those pieces back.”
While his parents were in Florida, William G. Smith, known to the regulars as “young Bill” or “Billy,” was in charge of the northern operation. Auctioneer Ken Labnon, longtime friend and associate, frequently takes the podium during Smith sales.
Others who started with William A., including Lippy DeRocher, Bert McClary, and Robert Stewart, have gone on to become auctioneers or antiques dealers on their own or entered related fields.
“An auctioneer today has to be better informed about his merchandise because his customers are likely to be specialists,” Smith said. “There used to be dealers who would buy anything because they knew a little about a lot of things. Now, a dealer may bid only on Victorian or only on Early American. And there are subsets, the guy who only wants Eighteenth Century American. Doesn’t want Sheraton. Wants only Hepplewhite, Chippendale, Queen Anne.”
Gradually, the generalists are disappearing from those front row seats reserved for steady customers. Smith spoke fondly of the late Joe Reagan, who died while attending a sale at the Plainfield gallery earlier this year (1999). “He was 83 years old, one of the great old timers, an example of the dealer who would bid on a variety of things and would start the bidding for you. Fellows like Joe would say, ‘Okay, the thing’s worth $100, let’s kick it for $50 and go.’ That doesn’t work with the new breed.”
As that older generation goes, much of the old-time auction color goes with them. Bidding styles may be more businesslike now, but it was more fun in the old days.
There were planned moments of fun, like the trick of having a crew member hidden in a blanket box, ready to jump out and startle an inattentive crowd when the box comes up for sale. And unplanned moments, like the time crew members moved a portable toilet with a greatly embarrassed and highly agitated woman still inside. Some aspects of the modern day auction are definitely an improvement, as anyone who remembers the old smoke-filled halls can attest.
Over the years, the elder Smith donated his services to New Hampshire and Florida charities including the Montshire Museum and the Lucy McKenzie Humane Society in Woodstock, Vt., both of those for several years. Recognition for this and other charity work includes Smith’s being named a New England Hero along with the likes of Christopher Reeve, by New England Monthly.
The most important recognition he has received has come from peers and mentors. “It’s important to me that several of the big dealers have requested us to do their estate sales,” he said.
But even as the older generation vanishes from the front rows, others come to fill the gaps. Auctions may change in style, Bill Smith believed, but they will continue.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm