Tools under the Big Top

I’m still catching my breath from lugging a pair of Noden Bench legs up 5 flights of stairs. I’ve been looking for a replacement to the rubbermaid does-all table that handles everything from food to assemble. If you’ve not seen a Noden adjust-a-bench, it’s the cadillac of adjustable benches and a heavy handed solution to my needs, plus after looking into pricing last year the cheap-o rubbermaid table would do.

That is till now.

You see, I along with 75+ others attended the Martin J. Donnelly Antique Tools auction in Avoca NY last weekend. This is the second MJD auction I’ve attended but the first I’ve actively participated in. MJD holds a few a few auctions a year in set locations. The Avoca auction takes place at the Donnelly family property. They set up number of big tents that house the 3100 lots that were auctioned off.

Yes I said 3100 lots— auctioned in 3 days!

I’m told it grew from a single day event to the current 3 day auction with previewing starting on Wednesday followed by the auction Thursday – Saturday.

For a newbie like me it’s a steep curve but I was lucky enough to have a friend who deals in vintage tools, more on that later. One quick note, a “lot” or “box lot” can be a single, or more items in a cardboard box, bin or other containers.

As if viewing 3100 lots isn’t enough, there were local tool guys selling as well. Because saws can be a little tricky to buy, in the past I’ve done most of  my buying at the tailgate sales pre-auction. These tend to happen early morning, often before sunrise.

Now I’m early to rise but even I would concede buying tools pre-natural light is just a little nuts. We’re talking middle-aged men standing around with flashlights. That said “the early bird catches the worm” and it rings true in this case.  This trip proved that point and I beat out one of the real pros of the tail gate, Patrick Leach of the infamous Superior Works tool  list.  The normal pecking order is Patrick first all other follow. I say that not as negative rather Patrick’s been doing this for many years and developed a technique that’s a cross between friendship meets bulldozer, nuff said.  Regardless I’ve worked in NYC for over 20 years and I’m hardly a push over. My fast finger landing on a Langdon Mitre box with saw and not just any size but the highly popular and rare size 1. Needless to say I was happy and headed back to the van ( Red van center image above) to unload and collect the needed things for the preview.

Most of what I’ve learned about buying at auctions I did so by watching others and conversing with one of the true ambassador in the word of vintage tools. I would think the 3 of you neither family or friends (I’ve twisted arms off) reading already know of Josh Clarks and get his weekly tool list. If however you’re not it’s worth the time. Josh runs. Hyper kitten a URL I’m sure a catnip company will buy for a few million but until that time it’s the home base for his tool list.

Luckily, I was interested in a small percentage of the lots since I mostly deal with saws so my job was a bit easier. To save time, I previewed online before getting there and made a list of lots to check. Once in the tents, clipboard in hand I got down to the tedious job of previewing each lot on the list, made notes, and a final max value to bid. If you take one tip from me, it’s this:

“The difference between an Oh yea! and Oh shit!, after winning is in direct proportion to the time you put into the preview.”

I came home with a few oh shits and it’s simply because I didn’t check things over or dig through all the boxes in the lot. With all the rain at the event, tables were often covered and with the side tarps on the tents light was low. You just get rushed with everyone crowded around in the tents and tired by day 3. Note to self—slow down, bring good light and check, check, check, everything.

Once done with the days previewing, I registered, made something to eat then headed to auction tent as it started to rain harder. This would then turn into a theme for the weekend.  I found Josh and two friends, Tom Dugan from Owings, MD and Jim Cook from Newton, MA had smartly relocated to seats in the center of the tent to keep dry earth around us for future winnings. Yellow tags are given to mark your seat this helps when a quick dash to check a lot or bathroom break is needed. See center picture below—Tom with glasses (center frame), left of him Jim, right is Josh.

Ready, set go!

When you considering the volume of lots and the nature of auctions you can imagine, things move quickly. They set up a few monitors so you could see pictures of the lot being sold. This works well to jog your memory or for people like me that are more visual. The auction format starts at a set amounts and works to a final bid. They allow online, absentee bidding and to save time generally start around that bid. It’s also important to factor in the 15% premium that goes to paying the auctioneer and organization.

That dry space around us quickly becomes premium property as for most of the smaller lots, after winning, runners are used to bring them to you. For the larger lots, a card with the picture is given out.

The absentee bids do affect things. Often when they are the high bidder its likely because they’re a collector not worried with resell or missed something by not inspecting in person.  Saws are a perfect example. You can’t tell by looking at a bucket of handles if the plates are straight.

As the auction progresses you look around, everyone falls into a rhythm. We following along with the MJD program, personal notes in hand, and auction number strategically place at the ready to wave. I was also lucky enough to be sitting with friends, who created an alliances so as not to bid against one another.

Who would have thought something can be learned on survivor!

All the larger buyers have tricks to stay organized. Some bring banana boxes to start packing as they win, others pre-print out tags for each lot they plan to bid on. Like the dog track, all big players write winning bids down in the margins to gauge sale prices for the future.

Some dealers came for a single day, others all 3. Talking with friends, the pig roast dinner Friday night is not to be missed, along with the group campfire that night. It’s a great way to meet other dealers and hear tons of great stores of barn finds and other treasure stories.

Saturday morning we had another good soaking but I braved the rain to get “Vincent VanGo” loaded. Not really expecting to buy a table, I needed to move things around and the van, like always, swallowed it up like a black hole.

Van packed, there was time for a last minute check on a few lots I was interested in. Chiefly a nice collection of panel saws going off mid day. As it turned out the price started beyond my figure. Absentee bidder strikes again. With my hopes dashed,  I settled up with the front office.  I made one last check on Vincent, said my goodbyes, thanked Josh, Tom, and Jim for all the help and hit the road for the 5 hour trip back.

The Aftermath

Tired and hungry after a weekend marathon of auction intensity I unloaded the van onto a makeshift sawhorse bench, met up with a friend for dinner then off to bed.

The next morning bright eyed, came the daunting task of finding room and containers for storage, then sorting. I have limited space for storage and found simple plywood boxes around 35 x 9 x 12 work and stack well. A quick look at the pile proved a few more would be needed.

With fresh boxes made it’s time to sort the gold from the pyrite. This is both exciting and depressing at the same time. For the most part, I was happy but did end up with quite a few warranted superior saws and a few mix matched handles to plate that under closer inspection I should have easily found.

All and All the long weekend adventure was a lot of work, but fun. I got to see some really interesting vintage tools, meet some great collectors, dealers, and get a little time in around the fire with friends: AKA moonie counsel.

On the horizon inventorying the new saws.. .

Joe Federici
One tired Monger


3 thoughts on “Tools under the Big Top

  1. You must be a happy dude, with buckets o’ saws to clean, but I’m surprised to hear only 75 people go to Avoca. See you in Nashua.

    • David,

      Yea I could be off on the total number of people, but it was less then Nashua for sure. I think the location, and weather didn’t help. Also the Nashua stuff was a little higher end. This was more for mid level dealers who can handle a little rough around the edges. Also sorry for not getting back I’ll shoot you a message.



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