Of Books and Auction Sales by Paul Depasquale

Paul’s many sorties into publishing and writing included ʻIn-Houseʼ (1981-1993), which was modest enough in its beginnings, but developed into a quality production; we felt as if no expense was spared. I thought I’d lost the soft copy of these long ago, but I’ve just discovered them and so I thought I’d reprint some of the articles.

Another love of Paul’s was auctions. He loved buying at them. He loved holding them – we were pioneers of book auctions in Adelaide – and so we have here a record of things as they were mid-1990s. This article was the lead in The Pioneer Books Magazine Volume one, Spring 1994. I reprint the Contents Page to give a flavour of a typical issue:


Of Books and Auction Sales 5
by Paul Depasquale

Sunburying: A Tale of Ephemera 13
by Judith Crabb

The Playing of Cards: 21
A Consideration of the Literature.
Part 1—The Elizabethan Period
by Cathy Chua

The Fourteenth Trump. A Trick 41

Violet Needham: An Afterword 45

Mortal Games. A Review 47
by Chris Depasquale

An Incomplete Essay on Guy 53
Boothby and the London Theatre
by Paul Depasquale


Of Auctions and Book Sales part 1

If you were to look into a volume of Australian Book Auction Records (compiled and published these days by Jill Burdon of Canberra) you would find only Pioneer Books representing book auctions in Adelaide. We have in fact conducted twenty two book auctions, the list reading like this:

1 – September 1986 Pioneer Books/Academy Enterprises
2 – December 1986
3 – March 1987
4 – September 1987
5 – March 1988
6 – November 1988
7 – March 1990 Under the style of Academy Enterprises Pty Ltd.
8 – June 1990
9 – September 1990
10 – November 1990
11 – February 1991
12 – March 1991
13 – June 1991
14 – August 1991
15 – September 1991
16 – June 1992 Under the style of Pioneer Books
17 – September 1992
18 – February 1993
19 – September 1993
20 – February 1994
21 – May 1994
22 – September 1994

The first fifteen book auctions were held at the Dom Polski Centre, 230 Angas Street, Adelaide; latterly, they have been held at Enterprise House, Greenhill Road, Unley.

Our results for Australian books above a certain value are recorded because we prepare comprehensive and detailed Catalogues, with full bibliographical details, careful descriptions and estimated prices (prices realised are also published after each auction sale). It is fair even for me to say that we prepare our catalogues well and conduct our auctions well, but a further glance into a volume of the Australian Book Auction Records will show that we are very much lightweights in the overall scene—the records are dominated by the results of heavyweights with international clout in Sothebyʼs and Christieʼs, as well as by such Australian specialists as Lawsonʼs in Sydney and Joelʼs in Melbourne. Our aim is to cater for the more modest areas of book collecting ($5 upwards, with not much above $100) which hardly come within the purview of those great rivals.

Our book auctions are but a small segment of our overall business. Pioneer Books conducts book auctions because I am myself fascinated by auctions, by their excitement, by their unpredictability, by the unending variety of styles displayed by the auctioneers and by the rich diversity of ʻfeelʼ in auction houses great and humble. I made sure to attend Sothebyʼs great book auctions in Melbourne at the height of the boom in the 1980s and I was not so much merely impressed as bowled over but that is another story. It is to help sate my own thirst for auction excitement that our firm plays out its modest role in the vast drama of sale by auction in Australia.

Unless you study the Advertiserʼs ʻAuctions Generalʼ columns from day to day but most importantly on Saturdays you could scarcely credit how many goods ranging from heavy earth moving equipment to thimbles are cleared through sale by auction in Adelaide each week—and this infinite range of goods naturally includes books and plenty of them. We are concerned presently with mart auctions i.e. auctions held in the markets or permanent premises of auctioneers who sell goods brought to these places in order to be offered for sale.

It would probably be impossible and certainly would be deleterious to health to attempt to attend most, let alone all, of the mart auctions held in Adelaide each week. I shall confine my remarks to the five auction houses whose sales it happens that I attend most frequently in the endless quest for books—there is no suggestion intended that there are no other houses worth following, for there are, but I can neither follow them all nor write about them all here.

Moss Marchant & Co., of 52 North Terrace, Kent Town, is a long established house which conducts a mart auction each Monday. From a bookmanʼs point of view, these auctions are entirely unpredictable and that is a large part of their charm. One visit to Mossʼs (we all call the house ʻMossʼsʼ, never ʻMarchantʼsʼ) may leave the bookman cold, but a series of visits will not. Mossʼs is distinguished by the eclecticism of its offerings: everything comes within the charmed circle of offerings here, meaning that much that is odd and curious in the line of printed matter (not necessarily books) surfaces here from time to time—general books old and new, old bibles large and small, childrenʼs books, old newspapers, old magazines, sheet music, comics, calendars, ephemera, just about anything printed on paper may be found at Mossʼs over a period of time. While the purist might lament the houseʼs lack of censorship of these offerings—the theme song might well be ʻAnything Goesʼ—the fact is that the all-embracing breadth of the offerings has meant that, over the years, Moss Marchant & Co. has been responsible for the preservation of thousands of old items which are a significant part of our sociological heritage.

The atmosphere at Mossʼs is unique: Moss himself has seen it all over the last quarter of a century and he banters with his ʻregularsʼ in the confident knowledge that they are free to give as good as they get. The importance of ʻregularsʼ to an auction house cannot be over-stated; in the field of books, for example, whether at a televised sale at Sothebyʼs or at a mart sale at Moss Marchant & Co.ʼs, it is extraordinary how few the buyers of any substance are. Only an observer ʻin the knowʼ would realise this; it has struck me at large auction sales in Sydney and Melbourne as well as at the humbler marts in Adelaide.

It is important to get to know the characteristics of the auctioneer if you wish to enjoy his auctions (the main auctioneers in all these houses are men). Moss is a patient auctioneer of the old school: once he knows that you are ʻin the marketʼ he will always come back to you before ʻknocking downʼ an item, giving you that one last chance to exceed the dictates of common sense. Perhaps at this point I should say that it is foolish at mart auctions not to let the auctioneer know that you are ʻin the marketʼ; mart auctions are always running against time (as it is, some do not finish until late afternoon), and the auctioneer has his deadlines to meet. If Moss has ever conducted an auction at which he has not grumbled about the reluctance of buyers to bid up or complained that the auction is moving too slowly, then I have not seen it.

Also on Mondays these days (formerly on Tuesdays) are the mart auctions of Adelaide Antique Auctions, 75 King William St., Kent Town. The principal auctioneer, and the one who sells whatever books are in, is Stephen Sinclair, who is younger in years and in auction experience than Moss Marchant. I will not say that he is aloof but he is polished and goes very fast, sometimes at what seems an almost hectic pace. The ʻregularsʼ, of course, find this no problem, for they are used to it and have normally ʻdone their homeworkʼ. Mr Sinclair does not have (yet) Mossʼs bedside manner or his casual banter, though occasionally there bursts out from him a wicked humour which I presume that he generally keeps in check.

Adelaide Antique Auctions, unlike Moss Marchant & Co., also conducts specialist auctions, often held in the evening, of art, fine furniture and other collectables. Thus it has a leg in the two worlds of mart auctions and fine art auctions—and what different worlds these are: you do not see many women in furs at a mart auction. As to its book offerings at its mart auctions, they are more or less comparable with those at Moss Marchant & Co.: anything and everything will be given a chance to find a buyer. Again it is a house whose mart sales, from the bookmanʼs point of view, must be gauged over an extensive period, for any one given sale may be disappointing in this area, and no wonder, given the diversity of the offerings. I still recall the shock with which I learnt that some people collect tins with the same passion that I have for books. Amazing…

Small & Whitfield, of 1 Unley Road, Parkside, hold their mart auctions weekly on Tuesdays, though the mart sale will be dropped when one of their important Monday evening auctions of select old furniture etc. is conducted. Graham Small and David Whitfield are the dynamic duo of Adelaide auctions: they work together in their highly raised seats overlooking the crowd—and their auctions usually are crowded—and responding with startling rapidity to every bid so that, when a bidding duel develops, the progress is excitingly swift. At none other of the houses under review do two auctioneers work together, one actually conducting the auction, the other spotting bids and generally being helpful (they swap roles about half way through the auction), but the results are so impressive that I am surprised that they have this technique to themselves. Partly because of the overall excellence of their offerings, and partly, I am convinced, because of their method of going to work, this house is the most electrifying of any in Adelaide. Bidding here is always brisk and for the better items usually vehement: it is no place for the faint-hearted. When things are ʻgoingʼ the place fairly buzzes.

Of particular interest to us is the fact that Small & Whitfield is a house that has always been prepared to feature books, and the stream of interesting books on offer here seems to be neverending, whether as single items or as shelf lots. The difference from both Moss Marchant & Co. and Adelaide Antique Auctions (I am speaking here of mart sales) is that estate (i.e. privately owned) books surface here from time to time in quality and quantity rarely if ever seen at the other houses. But I emphasize again that many items appear at the other two houses which would not normally fit into the ambience of a sale at Small & Whitfieldʼs whose interests and standards are very much their own. Nobody interested in books of quality can afford to miss Small & Whitfieldʼs.

At another extreme is Henley Auctions, of 103 Henley Beach Road, Mile End, where Ziggy Badrice and Bob Lambourne reign supreme, giving this mart also a style and a life of its own. Many deceased estates pass through this house whose ample proportions are always crowded with goods and people. Both Bob and Ziggy are no-nonsense auctioneers conscious, I should think, of the thousand and more lots before them, who when wound up progress at such astonishing speed that one wonders how the clerk and the office keep up with them. Both Adelaide Antique Auctions and Small & Whitfield use the number system for bidding: each buyer has to register and show the number when clinching a purchase. Some buyers will have permanent numbers and the auctioneer will knock items down to their number from memory. But at Moss Marchant and Co. and at Henley Auctions the auctioneers call the buyerʼs name, initials or pseudonym as the case may be—a remarkable feat of memory and of mental gymnastics separating ʻXʼ from ʻYʼ and ʻXYʼ from ʻYXʼ (so to speak) while selling at a frantic pace. One dips oneʼs lid. It will be a pity if increasing sophistication means that this time-honoured method is lost. (I should note that the buyers still have to register at the office before being able to use a name under which to buy).

I sometimes get the feeling that there is a crowd of people who live at Henley Auctions, for they are so much part of the place; at no other auction house within my experience do so many people settle in for the day, staying for so many hours apparently out of mere interest. People seem to attend this houseʼs auctions as they used to attend the weekly dance—and Ziggy and Bob and their aides put on quite a show for them. There is no place quite like Henley Auctions, but it is an acquired taste—its appeal grows on one with experience, until you would miss the crowded rows of goods and the restless crowd of people if they were not there. Books are usually sold in box or shelf lots here, a method which naturally favours the dealers—but it is amazing how often the presence of a collectable book or comic or two in a lot will bring about a duel between the trade and a private buyer. This shows that Henley Auctions, for all its down-market appearance and sheer comprehensivity of offerings, also comes within the rounds of that peripatetic person, the keen collector.

Every second Thursday sees us at Megaw & Hogg Auctions, of 107 Sturt St., Adelaide. This house also uses the number method and is otherwise nearer to Small & Whitfield than to the others in their method of featuring books as either single items or as shelf lots, with the emphasis on quality—though, as in any auction house, nothing is left out from the cheaper offerings in the later part of their sales. Certainly, as in the case of Small & Whitfield, the appeal of collectable books is acknowledged here. Every house has its own style, its own themes, its own ʻstuffʼ, too, if you like. Megaw & Hoggʼs chief auctioneer is Joseph (Joe) Tabaszewski whose manner is mild and whose banter is friendly, though his eye is (necessarily) sharp: the contrast with the heightened atmosphere of Small & Whitfield could not be more emphatic. If there is drama here, it is usually the drama of competition on the floor with the auctioneer acting as a friendly referee.

Like Small & Whitfield, however, Megaw & Hogg features from time to time books of real quality and importance from private estates, and their auctions play an important part in our own activities. As to the difference in styles between these two houses and between them and the others who have been mentioned: it is one of the chief fascinations of the study of auctioneering that there is no one ʻbestʼ method—there are as many styles and methods as there are auction houses, and vive la différence.

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