Ever been to an auction? I just went to my first, and it was an enlightening experience. Fortunately, it was not one of those high-pressure, high decibel volume, frenetic sell-fests. Billed as an “Estate Auction,” it was advertised to offer “antiques, collectibles & estate heirlooms.” It had a “Viewing” a discreet couple of hours before the sale where one could quietly browse among the various pieces of furniture, paintings, jewelry, Hummel figurines and other assorted knickknacks at an unhurried pace, with no one trying to convince you of the irresistible worth of whatever you were looking at.
Problem was (and I have since learned this is typical) that what the “Viewing” mostly did was convince you of the unalloyed bad taste of the dearly departed whose estates were up for auction. Or, to put it more politely, how very far their idea of what was to be treasured was from my own. In short, it brought out the very worst snobbery my soul possesses.
There were brass bookends shaped like ducks, a lamp with frogs surmounted by a garish Tiffany style lamp shade, a full sized statue of justice, blindfolded, with her scales and a large sword, an amazing melange of amateur (in every sense) art, and great heaps of junk jewelry. As a penalty for growing up in the fifties and sixties, I saw a great deal of the kitsch of my youth being offered as “collectibles,” from Beatles memorabilia through commemorative whiskey bottles to cutesy kitchen paraphernalia, all of which I reflexively resent seeing listed as antique. (And that makes me exactly…what?)
There were three of us there together, two newbies and one hardened veteran. The newbies, at least, were suffering culture shock, so we all went out to breakfast until the actual auction. Thus fortified, we returned.
As I waited for the bidding to start, I was bracing myself for watching the large number of items I knew would go for next to nothing and all those that would garner no bids at all. I mean, estate sale or not, a lot of this stuff was pretty bad. I was waiting to feel a little of the embarrassment we feel at garage sales at seeing someone’s treasure mournfully labeled with three crossed-out prices, ending at a sad 50¢. At least, I comforted myself, at an auction we wouldn’t have to avoid meeting the eyes of the hopeful owners.
I needn’t have worried.
Absolutely nothing lacked for a bid.
Amateurish charcoal sketches in ugly frames? Gone. Beatles car sun shades? Gone. Baseball cards of rookies you never heard of? Gone. Ugly nested set of kitchen bowls? Gone. Bilious water colors? Miscellaneous collection of 1950’s vinyl records? Chinese porcelain umbrella stand? Stainless steel ladies watch (17 jewels)? Chipped art pottery? Colored glass toothpick holders? The several pictures of mother & child/Madonna & Child? The Ballantines bottle shaped like a Scottish fisherman? The “Man From Uncle” plastic pinball game? The (direct quote from the catalog) “Lovely Porcelain Retro Table Lamp, off white with hand painted bird and floral decorations on gilt metal base and pyramid shaped shade?” (They forgot to mention the lovely gold tassels hanging from the corners of the shade.)
Every single one of them was sold. And not just sold. Many of them went after quite active bidding. People were actually competing with each other to own this stuff.
As I was manfully resisting my own raging impulse to raise my number card and vie for the “Original acrylic Oil Painting Rooster” and the “Colored lithograph entitled Red Haired Baby,” I became lost in the wonder of it all. Not only did people actually want these things that I had dismissed out of hand, they were actually willing to pay money for them. And quite a lot of money.
But perhaps the most telling thing about all of it was that several of the most persistent bidders were fairly clearly dealers. Which meant that not only were there people who sincerely wanted to own this stuff, there were even enough of them to support whole businesses that dealt in nothing else.
Granted, it all brings to mind H. L. Mencken’s oft-quoted aphorism, Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. But I think there is more to it than that. Yes, I think that ninety-some-odd per cent of that stuff was kitsch in pretty bad (occasionally appallingly bad) taste. And I must admit that I find it a bit depressing to know that with this large a market, there are today endless factories churning out still more of these future “Collectibles.”
But the language tells the story: It is “I think” and “I find.” This is, after all, simply my opinion about what is in good and bad taste. And I am hardly anybody’s arbiter of good taste nor infallible standard. In fact, I have vivid recollections of things I originally hated that I later grew to admire.
But more to the point, as a human I find it almost comforting to know that however much we dislike or disdain these chotchkes (a wonderful Yiddish word for cheap trinkets and souvenirs), there is somebody out there who will love them. It’s a bit like realizing that you are looking at the Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree of decorations: so bad that they really deserve someone who thinks they are good.
The truth of the matter is that all of us are somebody’s idea of a white elephant or an exercise in bad taste. How many times have you found yourself wondering, “What does she see in him?” or “What does he see in her?” Or have you ever thought something like, “Thank God they have found each other…No one else could tolerate them?”
And more than that. Most of us vary in our own self-images from Walter Mitty dreams of our own wonderfulness to dark exaggerations of all of the faults we see when we look in the mirror just before we get into the shower. Thank God others share neither one. Our dreams would be impossible to live up to and our hyperbolized faults impossible to live with.
Instead, we are fortunate enough to live in a world where there is at least a fighting chance that we will find someone who values our good qualities and tolerates our bad ones with a little more balance and judgement than we give ourselves. Someone with whom we can build and share a world of solipsistic standards of exactly what is good taste and attractiveness and wonderfulness.
I am sure that there are people out there who would be universally acknowledged as paragons of good taste, impeccably attractive and just plain wonderful. For the rest of us, thank God…
De gustibus non est disputandum
Chacun à son goût
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