ONCE a year, usually in late July, an auction house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan named William Doyle Galleries sells off the contents of banks' abandoned safe-deposit boxes. Doyle is a second-tier auction house, a bit lower in prestige than places like Christie's and Phillips and Sotheby's, where I was dragged as a child by my parents, who collected nineteenth-century American paintings. These were the kinds of places where the patrons wore dark suits and bid on items by languidly raising numbered paddles into the air, and where the auctioneers did nothing more than announce the lots and acknowledge the offers with an air of aristocratic boredom that the patrons tried hard to mimic. I really did find these affairs boring, but also terrifying: often we had to wait hours before the lot my parents wanted to bid on came up, during which time I could do nothing but sit rigidly still, afraid even to scratch an itchy nose, lest the auctioneer mistake my gesture for a bid on a Gilbert Stuart portrait or a Tiffany lamp or a Calder mobile.
Years later, when I was finished with college and living down south and had taken to collecting certain antiques myself (radios, crank phonographs, 78s), I began frequenting country auctions in towns with names like Thorsby and Clanton and Hartselle. These events did not resemble the auctions I had attended as a child. They were more like monster-truck rallies: loud, spirited affairs, in atmosphere a combination of county fair and barroom brawl and the infield at a NASCAR race. The auctioneers at these events were more like sideshow barkers, goading bidders on with exhortations like "The finest one I've ever seen!" and "Come on, now, I know you didn't come all the way out here to go home with nothin'!" and "You'll never find another one like it!" and "Damn, son, cain't you do no better than that?" They called the sales from behind raised lecterns, on either side of which stood spotters, who searched for bids and acknowledged them with a loud "Ho!" I suspect that at least half the bids they acknowledged were offered by phantoms, a con to drive up the selling price. Still, the real bidders, myself included, always believed that this was the kind of place where a slightly sophisticated collector might come away with a real bargain. I, at least, never did.