Treasured possessions go to new owners in a flash

10/19/2013
BY MARY ALICE POWELL
BLADE COLUMNIST
John Whalen is a veteran auctioneer who has been in business 48 years, conducting sales throughout northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. He checks every item that will be sold at his auctions.
John Whalen is a veteran auctioneer who has been in business 48 years, conducting sales throughout northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. He checks every item that will be sold at his auctions.

Perched comfortably on his command post at 11:30 a.m., John Whalen was definitely in charge of the show-and-tell performance that was about to unfold.

The auction wouldn’t get under way until noon, but the extra half hour gave him time to remind the 200 people in attendance to register for their bidding number tickets to ensure they would be able to buy something they couldn’t live without.

John held up the first item at high noon, and two and a half hours later the late Florence Oberle’s treasured possessions were scattered to the four winds and beyond.

From an antique car vase that once was used to decorate a car that went for $17 to a $300 concrete horse trough, John and his nephew Jason Whalen kept sales moving at a brisk pace. John sold the items in the first line, which were the goods that he deemed would bring the highest bids, while Jason had an equally eager crowd gathered around a flatbed trailer piled high with items he considered garage sale merchandise.

Mary Alice Powell.
Mary Alice Powell.

Who is to disagree with John, a veteran auctioneer who has been in business 48 years, conducting sales throughout northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan and at his 15,000-square-foot auction house in Neapolis? His decisions whether something was first line or garage sale were based on his inspection of every item several days prior to the sale date.

When he spotted something like a Baker O’Brien piece or a perfect treen, he gripped it tightly like an eagle with prey. Baker O’Brien is Grand Rapids’ famous glass-blowing artist whose mentor was the late Dominique Labino.

The treen was not only the talk of the auction, but brought a stunning bid of $3,400 and even amazed John, who predicted it was a hot item, but not that sizzling. The treen purchase by a Kalamazoo, Mich., collector is an excellent example of how it takes the professionals to know the values. In this case, the owner could easily have put it in a garage sale for a couple dollars or less.

Treens are small wooden tableware accessories that were made and used in early England. The treen and lid in the Grand Rapids auction were said to be in perfect condition, including the tobacco leaf design.

The number of people John knew among the bidders speaks for his loyal following, but the respect and love the Grand Rapids community feels for Mrs. Oberle also accounted for a large share of attendees.

John is known for predicting the price something will bring right on the mark, but when bids for scrapbooks with photos of Mrs. Oberle’s gardens and tea guests went for $200 and $300, he had to admit he was overwhelmed. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.

He was just as surprised when bidders were willing to pay $50 to $100 for guest books with the signatures of tea guests.

After a serious accident in 1965 when he was told he might never walk again, John decided he had to do something using his mouth. He first used the former schoolhouse that is now part of the auction house as the Tri County Recreation Center for square dancing. Before going into the auction business he attended Reppert Auction School in Decatur, Ill.

He has three points of advice for people considering an auction. “If you have any questions or are uncertain, don’t sell it. Ask family members first if they want it and let them have it. If you decide to have an auction, accept what it brings. Some things bring more and some less.”

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com.