“Will somebody make it twenty?”
Howard McNeely has been seeking bids for 40 years
By Mary Cook
Carleton Place Canadian, 1987
Forty years ago a large broad axe fetched a quarter. Today, if it’s really old it could command a lofty $60. The crowds were smaller back then, and Howard McNeely, the newest auctioneer in the valley knew just about everyone by his first name. But times have changed since that day almost 40 years ago when Howard thought he could do what he had been watching other auctioneers do for years. He thought…..”there’s nothing to this. All I have to do is stand up on the platform or the back of a truck and ask for bids.” Well, it turned out not to be quite that simple.
A young Howard McNeely had been following the local auctions for years. He never paid too much attention to the “stuff” being sold, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the auctioneer. He was fascinated with the fast talking, the rapport with the crowd, and the obvious delight when a bid was over.
Actually, Howard had had plenty of experience on the stage by the time he first tried his hand at auctioneering, so he wasn’t walking into the job cold. For years he had an orchestra that toured the Ottawa Valley, and he was well acquainted with standing up before people. He is probably one of the few people who had an orchestra but never mastered a musical instrument. But that didn’t stop him from enjoying the toe tapping valley music everyone loved. He really had two orchestras. One was a rag tag group who got together for the sheer love of valley music. It included Ab Duncan, Stewart Comba, Les Neild. When he wanted to fancy things up a bit he added Jack Peckett and Les’ daughter Elsie on the piano. Howie kept up a steady patter between songs and dances and found it pretty easy to entertain the crowd, so that the first time he took to the platform at an auction sale, he wasn’t even nervous. “I had been so used to being in front of people, that I never gave it a thought. And besides, in those days you knew everyone…everyone!” he said.
Not so today. Even if the faces of the collectors and dealers are familiar, Howard often doesn’t get to meet them personally. For that reason, and because the crowds are so much bigger now, Howard finally had to go to a number system like the big auctioneers in the city. The crowd didn’t like it when he first introduced numbers about 15 years ago, but as he said, times had changed.
Howard’s first sale was on Park Avenue, “just across the fence from where I was born and raised”, and Burnett Montgomery was the auctioneer who set out to show Howard the ropes. Burnett had been auctioneering for a long time, and the partnership was to last for 30 years. “All that time we never had a disagreement. It was a great relationship. We got along well, and I learned a lot from Burnett” he admits.
The biggest sale Howard ever held was when he sold the Mississippi Hotel by public auction. All the furnishings went too, and then the big stone heritage building was put on the block. Howard lives by the adage that discretion is the better part of valor, and insists he cannot honestly remember what the landmark building sold for.
One of the longest running auctions was on a farm on the old Ashton road that took three days to complete. “It was loaded with antiques, and the dealers were there from all over. The prices held up for the full three days too” he remembers.
There are items today that couldn’t be given away 40 years ago. Old milk cans command a good price now, and Gingerbread clocks which sold for $10 in the 50’s would be considered a good buy today if you paid a mere $100.
Although he won’t say from which sale it sold, Howard recently got the bidding up to $6,800 on an old corner cupboard. “Forty years ago, you’d consider it a pretty good sale if you got that for a whole house full of furniture.”
Over the years Howard has always tried to keep a good sense of humor. Early in the game he learned if one person in the crowd was entering into the spirit of the sale by bantering back and forth with the auctioneer, you capitalized on that. Just last week one woman seemed to be in perfect sync with Howard. They both ended up cracking jokes throughout the entire sale much to the delight of the crowd.
In the early years Howard has sometimes inadvertently sold the same item twice. It can happen. Two different helpers will hand Howard the same item after it has been sold….but as a rule the crowd is astute, and there is always someone there to holler, “Hey, McNeely, you’ve already sold that once today.”
Howard remembers an incident from years ago that still makes him chuckle today. “It was a large sale, with two or three people in on it. Someone handed me up a baby carriage. It was in pretty good condition too. It was one of those old fashioned jobs. You don’t see them around anymore. Anyway, I asked for a bid and got one right away. The bidding went pretty high too. And it sold to someone. Then this woman came to me in an awful sweat. It seems she brought her baby to the sale in the carriage, and was just off looking at something else when I sold it. Everyone thought it was very funny, because I had to get the carriage back. The people who bought it were just loading it into their car. I was a bit embarrassed, but those things happen.”
Right from the day Howard started auctioneering 40 years ago, he has always been on the lookout for stealers. He remembers one sale where two women were busy loading their shopping bags with small things at a sale. “But unknown to them Herb Cornell, the Chief of Police was watching them. It was his day off, and of course they didn’t know he was a policeman. When he showed his badge they put everything back in a hurry.”
At another sale many years ago, he was aware of a big jackknife that was in the auction. “It was a beauty..very old, and huge, with a handmade wooden handle. During the sale I remembered it and asked my helper to hand me the jackknife. Well, it was gone. It vanished in a couple of seconds. That’s all i