Published: February 27, 2007
Before the telephone was invented, metal sentinels — positioned on street corners or affixed to the facades of buildings — stood ready through storm and sleet and snow and dark of night to make the call to the fire department if there was a fire. All someone had to do was come up to the box and pull a lever that would both trigger an alarm and send a signal to the fire department.
These bygone technological relics were the focus of a single-owner unreserved sale conducted by Clearing House Auction Galleries Inc on January 20 that proved “big time,” according to auctioneer Thomas LeClair.
“We advertised it as the largest auction of antique fire alarms ever held in the United States,” said LeClair after the sale. “It turned out to be just that. Collectors said that this was their day, and it was. Whereas in some auctions, you might see between five and ten such devices offered, this collection had more than 400.”
The successful sale dispersed the lifelong collection of the late Patrick Trine of Old Saybrook, Conn., in about eight hours, generating more than $420,000 — far above the auctioneer’s expectation, according to LeClair. “We had a full house, about 450 in the audience and good phone activity,” he said. Clearing House eschews Internet bidding because, according to LeClair, “it tends to slow things down.”
Trine had begun collecting the rare devices when he was in his 20s. He worked then for Standard Electric, which was also a fire alarm manufacturer, and thus had access to the outmoded equipment as it was being replaced by newer technology. The mainstay of Trine’s collection were devices manufactured by Gamewell, a Massachusetts company that built and installed the first municipal electric fire alarm system in Boston using telegraph wires in 1852. It is still manufacturing alarm systems today as a subsidiary of Honeywell, although these are self-programming, networked and sophisticated voice evacuation systems.
Good thing many bidders came to the sale with trucks and trailers. Merchandise offered ranged in size from the 13-foot, 7-inch-high catalog cover lot call box to diminutive alarm keys of only a couple inches. The sale’s cover lot, a Gamewell Type C pedestal from Boston, circa 1915, featuring an ornate red glass and copper top reading “Fire Alarm – Opening the door does not sound the alarm” — instead a hook inside had to be pulled — brought $9,680.
Conversely, some items were so small they could be slipped into one’s pocket, like the Gamewell fire alarm keys and tags, which surprised by easily surpassing presale estimates of $300/500 and garnering $825, in the case of a set that included both a key and tag, and achieving $798 for a tag only. Inscribed on the brass tag was the instruction “To give an alarm pull the hook down once only, close the door, Do not repeat the alarm.”
The top lot in the sale was a Gamewell indicator with an oak case and 18-inch gong, which brought $18,700. Complete with pull handle and Gamewell plate and mechanism, the device measured 56½ by 21½ inches.
LeClair chuckled when asked to size the collecting market for such a specialized auction. “How many firemen do you think there are in the United States” he asked.
Indeed, it was a retired business executive from Nashville, Tenn., whose second act as a fireman there clearly motivated him to pursue and win the sale’s second highest selling lot — a Gamewell four-station transmitter in a glass case mounted atop an oak cabinet. Estimated at a mere $3/5,000, the device fetched $12,210, no doubt delighting the consignors as well as its new enthusiast/owner.
“The family was delighted with the sale,” said LeClair. “People who knew of the collection had tried to buy bits and pieces of it, but the family had a bad experience seeing one of the items wind up on eBay.”
Another lot in the sale looked strikingly like the top lot — it was just a smaller version of the Gamewell indicator. This one had a 15-inch gong and it struck $11,440.
Other examples sold well. An American alarm box with the date 1870 cast in its peak and “#41” cast in its door, in black paint and measuring 20 inches high by 12½ inches wide, reached $6,380.
A walnut banjo-style visual indicator with an 8-inch gong and a G.F.A. Tel. Co. mechanism, measured 40½ inches high by 15 inches wide and sold for $7,700.
A Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Co., N.Y., five-station repeater had one cracked glass, but its weights and keys were intact. It sat on a two-door cabinet measuring 44½ inches wide by 42 inches high by 25 inches deep and realized $8,580.
A Gamewell house gong, 16 inches, mechanism by Moses Crane, made for G.F.A. Tel. Co., walnut banjo-style case, 34 by 19 inches, brought $7,700.
Moses Crane also made fire alarm equipment, and an 18-inch house gong, in a walnut banjo-style case, 36 by 20 inches, finished at $6,875.
Another visual indicator with pull handle and Moses Crane mechanism was housed in a Victorian style walnut case. Measuring 29 by 13½ inches, it went out at $8,140.
Also stately in its walnut case was a firehouse gong, 15 inches, with paper from New York Public Library listing a mechanism by Ahlstrom, 45 by 17½ inches, which sold for $8,250.
Prices reported include the ten percent buyer’s premium. For information, 860-529-3344 or www.clearinghouseauctions.com.
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