Published: April 13, 2007
He holds New Hampshire Auctioneer’s License #1 and has been hailed as the greatest showman to ever wield a gavel, but Richard W. Withington Sr is not resting on his laurels.
He celebrated his 89th birthday on March 31 by making more plans. Last week, on April 12‱3, Withington Auction, Inc, began its 48th season of specialty doll auctions and has six more cataloged dolls sales this year.
On Sunday, April 29, Withington and colleagues Larry and Marcia Leizure will host the annual meeting of the New Hampshire Auctioneers Association, which Withington helped found in 1954. The auctioneer turned dealer was also instrumental in forming the New Hampshire Antique Dealers Association, whose main event, the New Hampshire Dealers’ Show, turns 50 in August. Withington plans to exhibit for the second year at NHADA’s 3rd Annual Blue Ribbon Antiques Show on June 2.
“Dick was a very young man then,” another NHADA founder, Hebron, N.H., dealer Howard Oedel recalls of their first meeting. “I was teaching and had a little seasonal shop. Dick came up at the end of every summer and auctioned everything off, about $2,000 worth. He was spry and full of jokes, just the way he is now.”
This summer, Withington plans to redesign his Hillsborough antiques shop, already one of the biggest in the state, by creating a series of gallery displays that will be visible to motorists from the crossroads of Routes 9 and 31. Adjacent to the childhood home of President Franklin Pierce (1804‱869), Withington’s rambling showplace consists of a chock-full Federal house and a filled-to-the-rafters barn across the street.
Withington Antiques †not to be confused with the Maine enterprise run by his son Bob Withington and daughter-in-law Debbie †opened in 2002. Charmingly old-school, the shop features the sorts of things that for many years made attendance at Withington’s Americana auctions mandatory.
The old floorboards sag under the weight of wing chairs, highboys, corner cupboards, clocks of all sizes and shapes, drop leaf tables, candlestands, glazed double-door secretary desks, painted blanket boxes, chairs in sets and singles, gilded looking glasses, and brass and iron fireplace equipment.
Visitors will also find plenty of stoneware, Bennington pottery, Staffordshire, Chinese Export porcelain, pewter, early American glass and bottles, tinware, hearth iron and the occasional weathervane. Shoppers can spend $10 or $10,000.
Withington, who has been in the antiques business for 77 years, calls the shop his “retirement home.” Buying has been half the fun. He likes to attend auctions and regularly turns up at country sales throughout New England, where he occasionally takes a star turn at the podium.
“I buy whatever I like. If it doesn’t sell, it’s money in the bank,” he says cheerfully.
The shop is also a place where he can visit with friends. On a chilly March day, fires burned bright in every cozy room. Keeping the hearth lit is a custom he learned from his mother, Edith Withington Kyle, who bought a house on Center Road in Hillsborough Center for $1,500 in 1926. She operated Well Sweep Antiques, now a seasonal art gallery, until her death at 98 in 1976.
“My brother and I got started in the antiques business by buying the contents of the house from her estate,” recalls Kyle’s grandson, Bob Withington. “Her inventory was typical for the time †lots of pressed glass, cup plates and sprig china.”
Friends who normally visit Dick at Withington Antiques recently called on him at Concord Hospital, where he was laid up with an intestinal bug. Withington has also been undergoing treatment for cancer, which he first battled more than a decade ago. He has every intention of getting well.
Whistling through the dark, perhaps, he hosted his first “Funeral” on Saturday, July 2, 2005. The free concert on Hillsborough Center’s green featured the East Coast All Stars, favorite Swing and Dixieland jazz artists discovered by Dick in Florida. A second so-called “Funeral” is scheduled for June 2008, he says.
“His greatest strength has always been his can-do attitude and love of life. He wakes up every day raring to go and goes to bed thinking about what he wants to do tomorrow. He also has a huge feeling for the common man. Though he has been very successful, he always cared about people who have less,” says Bob Withington.
“Among town fathers, Dick was head of the pack,” confirms Hillsborough dealer Paul Scott, whose first introduction to the antiques business was as a runner for Richard Withington Auctions. A medical center, a bank and the redevelopment of two commercial blocks in downtown Hillsborough were Withington projects. The self-made millionaire was also a leading force behind the preservation of Hillsborough Center and he still owns or maintains many of the historic structures on its pristine green, as well as hundreds of acres of pasture and forest land in the area.
“I’d buy more real estate tomorrow if I could,” he says.
Withington’s devotion to his community and his rapport with the public led him to serve in the New Hampshire State Senate in the 1970s, but his career as a professional politician was short-lived.
“I found it very dull. I hated committees,” he recalls.
A legend in the antiques world, Dick Withington has been profiled in Time Magazine and Yankee Magazine, in The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. A gifted comedian, he has been likened to Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Johnny Carson. His antics and successes have been so thoroughly reported that the clippings and photographs fill volumes.
Highlights of his achievements line the walls of his home, a well-lived in farmhouse filled with evidence of his many interests, one of which is cast-iron mechanical banks.
“I own 165 different ones and about 40 duplicates,” says Withington, who started collecting banks a half century ago after acquiring a dozen banks from a federal district court judge. Withington quit buying 30 years ago. The collection, which includes such coveted examples as Girl Skipping Rope and Roller Skating Rink, is on view in Sovereign Bank’s Hillsborough branch, whose predecessor Withington built and once owned.
“There isn’t a day when people don’t stop by just to look at the banks,” a teller says.
These days, top auctioneers work assiduously behind the scenes to cultivate long-term relationships with owners of important objects and collections. Withington instead built his business on the proposition that auctions are entertainment, developing a wide and loyal retail clientele along the way. His personal magnetism was key. In 1953, only four years after he went out on his own, the Washington Post described Withington as a “witty, fascinating type.” For the rest of America, the blunt-spoken Yankee who could coax a bid on a box of buttons was New England writ large.
“There was a time when the three H’s †Hillsborough, Henniker and Hopkinton †was an antiques hub. People came from around the country to shop the area. There must have been 30 or 40 dealers in the tri-town area, including Charles Van Rensselaer, Mabel Lomas, Elizabeth Stokes, John Felsen and Evelyn Wilcoxin,” Scott recalls. One of the best known, Roger Bacon, lived in Exeter, N.H.
Summer residents looked forward to leisurely days under the tent with Dick Withington. Whether he was cracking a joke, taking a bid with his back turned to his audience or tossing a cut-glass bowl at a runner, Withington’s zany humor was a crowd-pleaser.
“My business has been successful because of three things,” Withington says, as he often has. “One is honesty, always being on time and doing what I promised. The second is having a good temperament. I never get mad. I have a sense of humor and can work around anything. The third is knowing what I’m doing. I understand values and put things at auction prices.”
Withington rose to prominence as an auctioneer in the 1950s and remained dominant into the 1980s, when the auction business began to change. House and farm sales †conducted on-site, under a tent †made Withington a wealthy man. As merchandise became scarcer, auctioneers began competing more aggressively for consignments, wooing sellers with financial incentives financed by buyer’s premiums.
Withington resisted such innovations as absentee and telephone bidding. “We want them to be there to buy. That’s why we do well,” he says.
Instead of using paddles, he made a point of knowing customers’ names. He prided himself on paying consignors immediately and says that he has never been sued. In 1989, Withington was one of the last New England auctioneers to introduce the buyer’s premium.
“I hated to go to the buyer’s premium. It isn’t playing fair. Dick Bourne [the Cape Cod auctioneer] and I held out to the very end. When we switched, we had to go to court. They called it collusion! And we were the last to collude!” he scoffs.
Richard W. Withington was born in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood in 1918. Bored in the classroom, he instead displayed a talent for business and a love of numbers. Before age 10, he turned a weekly profit selling eggs. He celebrated his 2,000th auction on August 4, 1989. As of April 1, 2007, that figure stood at 2,447.
Withington has been in the auction business since 1930 and remembers the first generation of dealers and collectors, including his near contemporary, Albert Sack’s father, Israel Sack. As a teen, Withington worked auctions for Silas Rowe for four years.
“He was like a mortician. Absolutely no humor,” Withington says disapprovingly of the Henniker, N.H., auctioneer.
At 15, Withington worked a sale on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass., for the Barnum-like James A. Hall. “Come back and see me when you’ve got a car and a license,” Hall told Withington, who joined the Keene, N.H., auctioneer in 1934. After serving in the Army from 1942 to 1946, he rejoined Hall and called his first sale for the auctioneer in 1947. When the older man retired, his 30-year-old protégé went out on his own.
“With a knowledge of values, an extrovert nature and the necessary push, he is destined to become one of the better New England auctioneers,” the Hillsboro Messenger wrote after Withington’s first sale on September 2, 1949. A flyer for auction, featuring the Main Street, Hillsborough, estate of Charlotte M. Harvey together with property from the estate of Mary C. Atwood, notes everything from Boston rockers to Franklin stoves and a lawnmower.
Dick Withington is fond of boasting that anyone can sell a treasure, but it takes a grandmaster such as himself to dispense with the humdrum and the bizarre.
“I’ve sold everything, including chinchillas and sled dogs,” he says. He is not kidding. For many years, his right-hand man was Dan Hingston, who started with Richard W. Withington in 1961, leaving at the end of 1998 to become an independent appraiser. Other Withington alumni include the late auctioneers William A. Smith and Ronald Rosenbleeth.
“Dick Withington made country auctioneering a full-time business. Anybody earning a living at it today has to look back and say, ‘This guy is the founder,'” says Hingston, who divides his time between Hillsborough and Naples, Fla.
“I always loved going to Dick’s auctions. He did tons of estates, all summer long. People went every weekend,” says Northeast Auctions’ president Ron Bourgeault, who vividly recalls Withington’s sale of the Pigeon Cove estate of Oliver B. Williams, a Beacon Hill investment banker who died in 1947. “It was one of Withington’s first illustrated sales. Roger Bacon and Lillian Cogan sat in the front row. Bacon bought a painted blanket chest for Nina Fletcher Little for the ungodly price of $5,000.”
An informal record of Withington’s sales †including Dunlap highboys, the uber-icon of New Hampshire furniture †is provided by Antiques at Auction. Norman Hudson’s 1972 book illustrates 1,600 pieces of New England furniture, most of it sold by Withington. The book is a collector’s item today.
Withington’s biggest single sale was in 2005, when he auctioned a dated 1886 W.L. Metcalf painting depicted Claude Monet’s home in Giverny for $313,500.
“We get dolls from all over the country. They come in from everywhere,” says Withington, who is also a leading dolls specialist. His introduction to the field came in 1959, when he sold Mrs Alexander Smith’s Doll Museum. In 1990, Withington auctioned a doll for $75,900.
Today, 75 percent of Withington Auction Inc’s business is antique dolls. The company’s specialist, Dolores Smith, joined the firm in 1999, having been a dealer and collector for two decades. Working closely with Dick Withington, Larry and Marcia Leizure have been running Withington Auction, Inc since 2004.
Bob Withington remembers his mother, Mary, as “a wonderful woman, a country person who didn’t like the spotlight that was always a big part of my dad’s life.” Besides Bob, the Withingtons had three other children: Richard Withington Jr, who worked with his father in the auction business for many years and now manages a furniture store in Manchester, N.H.; Janet, who still lives close by in Hillsborough Center; and Nancy, who resides in Tennessee. After Mary died in 1980, Dick married his current wife, Joan, who is 88. The Withingtons have a handful of grandchildren.
While it might be a stretch to say that Dick Withington relaxes, he does repair to a warm climate for part of each year. He has a place in Dunedin, Fla., and another one in Spanish Wells, The Bahamas. He golfs with the same intensity that he sells antiques, counting the number of rounds he plays each winter. For many years, he organized an annual golf outing, attended by friends and colleagues such as Robert Skinner, Robert Eldred and Richard Bourne, who with Withington once made up a quadrumvirate of powerful New England auctioneers.
Dick Withington is “merely mellow for the antiques dodge, a country dance in which the old outfoot the young, because they have had time to learn a trade whose secret is endless learning,” Time Magazine wrote about the auctioneer in 1986.
It is still so. Twenty-one years later, Dick Withington is as busy as ever and full of plans for the future. Eighty-nine and counting, he plans to commemorate his 90th birthday by auctioning his bank collection in August 2008 after Antiques Week in Manchester, N.H. This spring through fall, he looks forward to seeing friends and customers at his shop, open from 10 am to 5 pm daily.
“He still has so much he wants to do,” says Bob Withington.
The indomitable Richard W. Withington, agrees Howard Oedel, “is still full of fight.”
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