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Snow Versus the Collector, Part One

So what does snow have to do with an auction sale? Looking out of my window for the past few weeks and seeing nothing but white covering my lawn and the streets, I could not help but remember a Stack’s sale that defied snow.

Stack’s ran about eight to ten sales per year, in all seasons as it had for decades before (and as Stack’s Bowers Galleries still does today). In 1957 we scheduled the sale of the J.W. Schmandt Collection for New York City on February 1 and 2. The J.W. Schmandt Collection was a comprehensive collection of United States gold, silver and copper coins that included rarities and extremely choice examples.

During the two weeks before the sale dates, collectors and dealers visited our showroom to examine the lots and make decisions as to what they would bid on. Those who were planning to attend and lived out of town made hotel reservations as this was a two evening sale. Although weather bureaus were predicting inclement weather most still planned to attend this important sale.

As sometimes happened, a storm hit New York, the entire Midwest and New England late in day, on January 30, 1957. It was still snowing on the 31st, and then became a real blizzard on the day of the sale. Cars could not travel; trains were delayed by hours; planes neither landed nor took off from New York. Walking down the street could be a hazardous affair as it was a blind white mess. The subway system ran only sporadically and the city was almost at a standstill.

Ben, Norman and I had previously made hotel reservations, as evening sessions often ended too late to go home. We had also made advance reservations for our auction staff.

But the storm became so hazardous that Stack’s considered postponing the sale for a better date. But, how could we? We had a number of collectors who had come for lot viewing and planned to stay in New York to attend the sale. Some people came through the snow on the first day of the sale with extreme difficulty. The telephone was the only way to communicate, and there were interruptions with service. The mailman could barely make it to our doors. The mail was late in arriving, and many bid sheets were no doubt still undelivered.

However, we felt that those who had made the trip should have a sale to attend. So we made the difficult decision that the sale must go on. We agreed to postpone the start of the sale one half hour to 7:00 pm, and hoped that would make it easier for some bidders to make it. We closed the shop at 6:00 pm, walked outside the best we could, as it was still snowing and the sidewalks were covered. On the curbs the snow was piled six feet or more, as shovelers tried to clear a passage so people could cross the street and get through to where the sale was being held. As traffic was hardly moving, we were able to make the crossing. The sale took place in the Great Northern Hotel, directly across the street from Stack’s at 123 West 57th Street — now rebuilt as the grand Parker Meridian Hotel — and we had engaged the main ballroom for the event. We were concerned who, if anyone, would show up!

As we entered the ballroom where about 150 seats had been set up, we were surprised to find a crowd, close to standing room only, waiting for the sale to begin. We made our apologies for the weather, and ordered another 100 chairs set up which were filled by 6:30! “Wow,” we said. "This is going to be a great auction." People arrived in boots and snow gear, carrying umbrellas to shed the snow and wet. We ordered extra coat racks and tried to make all those who attended comfortable. While at that time, the auction license commission did not allow the service of anything but water, considering the weather conditions outside we disregarded the regulations. (The Commission felt that the services of food or beverage were considered "an inducement to bid.”) Nevertheless, as we were in a hotel, we ordered lots of coffee and sweet rolls to make our bidders a bit warmer and more comfortable.

Next week I will tell more of this public auction sale that defied a blizzard.

 

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