Looking for buried treasure at auction

Ralph Giguere

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.

When I moved back to New York, I stopped going to auctions -- there was comparatively little entertainment value in stuffy New York sales, and I had no room for new acquisitions anyway. Still, out of habit and curiosity I scanned the auction notices at the back of The New York Times's Help Wanted section every Sunday. One week, amid the ads for auctions of estates and antiques and office furniture and store fixtures and old computer equipment and electronics and automobiles and the inescapable "ephemera" and "miscellaneous," I saw this:

Notice is hereby given that on July 21, 1999 at the premises of William Doyle Galleries, 175 East 87th Street, New York NY 10128, there will be sold to the highest bidder the contents of safe deposit boxes previously rented to the below listed persons from Emigrant Savings Bank....

And it occurred to me that a safe-deposit-box auction was about as close as an average, non-metal-detector-owning city dweller might come to finding buried treasure.

AS soon as I pushed through Doyle's front door, a few days later, I had to fight to keep from being pushed back out into the street by the hordes that had arrived ahead of me for the pre-sale viewing. Dozens of men and women, old and young, in suits and shorts, clutching price guides and notebooks, clambered to find an open spot in front of one of the glass cases and then clamored to get the attention of one of the well-dressed young women who stood behind the counters looking variously bemused, fearful, and disgusted. The patrons shouted; the girls fled or acted busy or merely ignored them. Once in a while, though, one of them would acknowledge a customer by silently fulfilling his or her request and allowing a closer examination of one of the sale's 985 lots. This meant either removing it from the case and placing it atop the glass or retrieving it from a shelf behind the case and handing it to the patron. Most of the things in the cases were rings or necklaces or jeweled wristwatches in their original boxes or precious gems or South African Krugerrands or Canadian Maple Leaf gold pieces or collectible coins, either loose or sealed in small pouches of clear plastic. These were certainly the kinds of things one might expect to find in a buried pirate chest, but in this instance their provenance was no more exotic than a jewelry store or a bank counter. They were not booty, or serendipitous finds, or even sentimental heirlooms. They were investments. They were sterile. The lots behind the cases were larger, mostly pulled together according to category from many different safe-deposit boxes and packed into deep rectangular Tupperware containers. There were more coins and some paper money, some wristwatches and bracelets, costume jewelry and pocket knives, cigarette cases and belt buckles, baseball cards and sheets of stamps, flatware and brooches, souvenir figurines and souvenir rattles and souvenir bone carvings and souvenir tusk carvings and souvenir masks and a set of Franklin Mint antique-car medals and a set of Franklin Mint Treasures of the Louvre medals and a box of cheap old pens and a box of cheap old digital watches ("Welcome to Miller Time!") and a cheap old camera and an alarm clock and a pocket calculator and two copies of "Monster Mash" on LP. (Two in the same auction! What are the odds?) I found these things marginally more interesting than the lots in the glass cases, if only by virtue of the fact that they were less valuable on almost any scale imaginable. But they, too, were mass-produced and indiscriminately sold and anonymous, and they, too, left me cold. They had been buried, to be sure. But I could not conceive of a standard other than intrinsic market value by which a stranger might consider any of them treasures.

I WAS about to leave when something mildly remarkable happened: one of the women behind the counter actually asked me if she could show me anything else. Feeling that I must not squander such a rare gift, I scanned the stacks of plastic containers behind her and spotted one whose contents appeared both unusual and unfamiliar. As she fetched it for me, I looked it up in the catalogue. No. 945: Lot of assorted medals and buttons.

She set the container down on the counter in front of me, and I stared at it for a few seconds, trying to discern what lay inside and if it was worth my time even to peel off the lid. Eventually I set my disillusionment aside. No. 945 consisted of two long rectangular boxes sitting atop what appeared to be a pile of loose debris. One of the boxes was labeled "Distinguished Flying Cross," the other simply "Air Medal." Each was beautiful, consisting of a bronze-colored medallion and a multicolored ribbon. When I turned them over, I was disappointed to see that they were not inscribed; there was no indication on the boxes of who had received them, or for what particular deeds. Still, I knew that unlike everything else I had seen that day, they represented something more than just metallurgy and textile and design. They represented bravery, perhaps, or dedication, or loyalty, or commitment, or patriotism -- and certainly, if nothing else, a strong sense of duty. More important to me, they represented a singular human being, a distinct quality of character, a specific achievement. Tragically, they also represented, I imagined, the estrangement from memory of that human being and his character and his achievement. These medals had landed in such an auction only because no one knew of their location or even their existence at the time of the boxholder's death.

I took the two medals out of the container, hoping I might find some solace in the garbage, the justifiably forgotten flotsam, that lay underneath. But I was wrong. It wasn't garbage at all. It was:

An Honor Kappa Society medallion, dated 1940. A bronze boxing medal. A name tag from the London Chemical Engineering Congress of 1936. A LINDSAY, PERROTA, GARELICK button. A Saint Luke's Hospital pin. A red "MOCKBA" pin. A BOYCOTT GRAPES button. A New York State National Guard medal dated 1898, emblazoned with a pair of sabers crossed over the motto "100%," and inscribed "J. G. Clark, Jr." A McCARTHY button. A runner-up medal from the Poly Prep Upper School Squash Tournament of 1938. A pair of captain's bars. A LOCAL 15 A F of L button. A money clip bearing the slogan "Nature's Resources Engineered for Man's Benefit." A pin: "Haganah" in Hebrew letters. A pendant bearing a Celtic cross and an emerald inside a gold-plated heart. A McGOVERN button. A charm of two angels, fastened to a card imprinted with Psalm 91: 10-11, from the Sacred Heart League of Walls, Mississippi. A 1938 membership badge in the Oasis Society, inscribed "E. H. Garbe." A mezuzah. A jeweled pendant containing a mustard seed, glued to a card reading "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, nothing shall be impossible unto you. (Matt. 17:20)." A medal: "50th Anniversary, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 1958." A Saint Anthony medal, inscribed "I am a Catholic, in case of accident call a priest." A medal: "1975 Teaneck Dot & Dash, P.J. Class B, R. Coleman, APSA." A crucifix. A Star of David. A carnival medallion bearing a four-leaf clover, inscribed "Rosalie Frieda Blau." A pin: wings and a propeller. A medical ID bracelet: "Neck Breather." A pin: "U.S.S.R. Expo 70." A pin: U.S. Marshal. A pin: the Western Wall. A medallion bearing the likeness of a religious landmark, inscribed "Souvenir of Pilgrimage, The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, NY." A medallion of the Aztec calendar. A key ring, inscribed "Finder Please Return to Gimbel Brothers." A pin: "Viribus Unitis 1914." A pin: Lenin's profile. A pin: "AIChE section Chairman." A pin: "CPP." A pin: "Volunteer Service, United Hospital Fund." A pin: "American Cancer Society Volunteer." A pin ...

When I was finished, I estimated that the plastic container held perhaps fifty lives, and maybe a hundred achievements. I replaced the lid and handed it back to the woman behind the counter. She looked tired.

Later, at the auction, someone did buy Lot 945. I don't know who he was -- a collector, perhaps, or an artist, or a person who archives props for movies and theater productions and television shows. All I do know is that the catalogue estimate for Lot 945 was $50-$75 and it went for $250. As I rose and headed for the door, I worked it out: Five dollars per life. Two dollars and fifty cents per achievement. Quite a bargain.

Richard Rubin has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and New York.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; Flotsam - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 22-24.