It’s Friday night at Bostwick Auctions in Catatonk, and Laurie Bostwick has the rapt attention of the crowd.
“Start it quick,” she says. Someone at the back complies, raising a yellow card to Laurie’s nodding approval. “Ten, give me 15, 15,” she continues, scanning the heads below the dais for a competing yellow card. There is one to the right. “Fifteen, do I have 20?” she coaxes, beckoning with her hand, her voice falling into a hypnotic sing-song, smoothly, rhythmically moving up the numbers, urging her bidders along, cajoling, chanting up to a final cadence – and suddenly, her voice drops down to declare, “Sold at 45, 198, 198.”
Bidder number 198 is the new owner of a box of colorful glassware, and the crowd’s attention shifts to the next item.
For 20 years, auctioneer Laurie Bostwick has been selling antiques and household goods to the highest bidder, both onsite at residences and businesses and, most frequently, at the auction house she built with her husband Pat in 2000.
Every Friday afternoon some 200 people from the Southern Tier, New York, Canada and occasionally as far away as Texas flock to the long hall to browse that week’s offerings. They sign in for a yellow bidder card and take a seat on the rows of folding chairs to watch Laurie work her magic.
As helpers carry items up from behind, the veteran auctioneer describes special features, suggests interesting uses and, where necessary, points out small defects. She efficiently works her way through mounds of furniture, jewelry, artwork, vintage clothing, and box lots of glassware, toys and other collectibles. But there is always time for some entertainment.
“You look like the girl from ‘Dirty Dancing’ who can’t dance – you know, the sister,” she tells a helper who is demoing some fish-shaped serving platters by waving them through the air as if they were swimming. The crowd guffaws.
Taking on a “good old boy’s profession”
Auctions have been Laurie’s life since her parents, John and Marietta “Fuz” Miller, started the Southern Tier Auction Service in Waverly in the early 1970s.
“We weren’t steady or weekly,” Fuz recounts, “but I believe we were probably the first ones in the area to have an all-antique auction (rather than farm implements or small estates). We would start at 7 o’clock at night and go until 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Laurie and her four siblings played an important role in the business. “Our dad was legally blind, so all of us kids and mom were trained to be his eyes for bids,” she remembers. “We’d all yup (call out that there is a bid), and he’d know to take the money.”
After Laurie’s father died when she was 19, the business closed, but the family members took advantage of every opportunity to work for auction houses and stay in the field. For a decade, Laurie and her husband Pat, whom she met at age 13 in her parents’ auction house and married at 21, worked 50 antique shows a year together, traveling from Florida to Maine – and learning everything they needed to know to start their own business.
“In 1994, we’d been working with an auctioneer who wasn’t doing a lot of things in the modern, professional way,” says Laurie. “And I thought, ‘We can do this.’”
Undaunted by what her mom calls a “good old boy’s profession,” she decided to train at the Walton School of Auctioneering in Ohio, where she learned the auctioneer’s chant, auction law, business ethics, and how to work with banks and handle estates. “I’m glad I went, because I don’t think that until then anyone around here had even thought to go to auctioneer’s school,” Laurie says, adding that New York does not require auctioneers to be licensed.
“I didn’t have to compete with a lot of people wanting to do their best, I hate to say. There would be people who’d think, ‘I can do this,’ but not give it all their heart. Some of them allowed a lot of shenanigans to happen.”
That’s not to say that Laurie didn’t have auctioneer role models to look up to. She cites David Mapes in Vestal and Howard Visscher as early heroes whose practices she strove to emulate – with success, it seems.
“I trust Laurie,” says Heather Burke, who has brought a variety of antique furniture, lamps and glassware home to Ithaca from her regular visits to the Friday auctions. “She’s tough and fair, a straight shooter. And the stuff that’s coming in is of good quality and clean.”
Laurie’s peers in the New York State Auctioneers Association (NYSAA) agree, naming her the Auctioneer of the Year in 2013 and electing her president of the organization for 2014. “She’s hard-working, very honest and operates her business strictly according to the NYSAA code of ethics,” says John Gokey, who served as NYSAA president two years ago. “I’ve known Laurie for about 15 years, and she’s one of the most professional auctioneers I’ve ever run into.”
A bullet, a knife and a leg bone
One of the most important rules at Bostwick Auctions is that the business operates without reserves and minimums, and does not allow consignors to bid on their own items. As a result, everything will always fetch “fair market value,” that is, whatever the bidders are willing to pay that day.
“Getting consignors to trust that we’ll get them every dollar we can on that $500 item is our biggest challenge,” Laurie acknowledges. “But as a buyer you know that you could get a really good bargain. One week an item will bring $20, the next it’ll be $100. You never know.”
The same hunt for treasure keeps Laurie excited about cleaning out old homes in preparation for sales. “Sometimes you get lucky,” she says. “It could be a shoebox full of antique coins, a rare painting, something you can sell for that person and make them a lot of money.”
And sometimes the finds are simply bizarre.
“We were doing this estate in Newark Valley,” Laurie recounts. “I was crawling around in the pitch-dark attic. I dragged this wooden box out to the light and opened it up. I couldn’t believe it – there were a bullet, a knife and a leg bone. We couldn’t figure it out. All I know is that it was an 1864 newspaper trunk. It did a lot of money – $200 or $300 to a Civil War collector.”
With both dealers and regular customers attending the auctions, almost every item gets sold, whether it’s a $500 Cambridge Glass Rose Point etched decanter – the buyer was hoping to resell it for three times as much; “project furniture” that needs some work and is auctioned off in the barn behind the main building; or what Laurie affectionately calls “guy junk” – tools, chainsaws and lawn mowers.
Others don’t come to buy anything at all. Instead, they are here for the entertainment – and the diner food, which Laurie’s sister Kim serves up all week. Bestsellers include homemade soups, chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting and the aptly named “mile-high” apple pie. “I treat people like I would my family; I want to know they have enough to eat,” Kim says about the generous portions she doles out.
And to many, Bostwick’s does feel like family. Everyone on the staff of 15 – more than half are in fact family members – has been working at the auction house for at least eight years, and Laurie, for her part, enjoys getting to know her customers. “There’s a lot of first-name basis here,” she says.
“We’ve got the most generous crowds you could ever imagine in your life,” she enthuses, remembering the time when an elderly woman living up on the hill came in wanting to buy a used refrigerator.
“She only had $20 or $30 to spend, but we didn’t have any refrigerators that week. That evening I said to the crowd, ‘Folks, we’d like to do a 50-50 to help this lady.’ But instead the cards came up. One guy said, ‘put $20 on my card,’ and the next thing you know, we’d raised $1400. The next morning, we bought a fridge and took it up to her house. She genuinely, really needed it. That crowd was incredible!”
No wonder, then, that Laurie adores her job. “I love selling, on the auction block or face-to-face, I love it,” she says. “I’m never nervous unless there are only a few people here. If there’s a ton of people, I’m on cloud nine and excited and can’t wait.”
Laughing, she sums it up: “Wheeling and dealing, that’s my love.”
Auction Tips From the Pro
1. If you’re new to auctions, don’t hesitate to arrive early and ask lots of questions about the ins and outs of the process – from bidding to payments and pick-up times.
2. On or before auction day, allow yourself enough time to preview what you want to buy.
3. Bidding misunderstandings and mistakes happen sometimes. Just make sure to speak up quickly so that they can be fixed right away.
4. You can think of auction buyers as the ultimate recyclers in the world of “one man’s trash is another one’s treasure.” Which means that you may want to consult an auctioneer before throwing anything away: “We have some great stories of rescuing items worth thousands of dollars out of dumpsters,” Bostwick’s website proclaims.
5. Have fun! Auctions are a great way to meet good people, and a fun place for a date night out. Laurie Bostwick is living proof: “My sister and I met our husbands at our mom and dad’s auction barn on Shepard Road in Waverly over 30 years ago.”
Bostwick Auctions & Gallery
1121 Rte 96
Candor, NY 13743
Kim’s Diner in the auction house:
Monday, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Tuesday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
To find an auction near you, try:
New York State Auctioneers Association: nyauctioneers.org
by Olivia M. Hall