An absorbing collection of brass and copper
The collection was overwhelming, a representation of a seamless obsession with all things brass. As I walked into one of the main rooms of the auction house – where they keep the “good stuff” – the long row of brass trays on a high shelf against a wall caught my eye.
Then it was the shelves of brass below it. Then the tabletops to the left of them and then the stuff on the floors. Other bits and pieces were spread out among tray lots behind glass cases in the room.
The trail of brass didn’t end there. In the box-lot room, where items can go for as little as a buck or two, were even more brass items littering tabletops and the floor beneath the tables. This time though, they were accompanied by boxes of copper, primarily pots and pans.
I watched as auction-goers approached the brass items in the first room. Like me, they were completely mesmerized, amazed that someone had collected so much of an item that likely was worth little to nothing. None of the brass and copper looked to be antiques, just the modern stuff you can buy at a Wal-Mart or other home store.
It was one of those shake-your-head-in-pity moments for the person who wasted his/her money on something so seemingly valueless and a happy-it’s-not-me sigh of relief. I could only imagine that the home was a candidate for the A&E show “Hoarders” or Syfy’s “Collection Intervention.”
I once bought small brass pieces to decorate my home – a brass spittoon, four brass musicians with instruments – but I got so tired of cleaning them that I finally gave them to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. I’ve also bought and decorated with copper skillets, and they, too, finally disappeared into some donation box.
Like the copper at auction, mine was the cheap stuff, not like the French pots and pans of Julia Child, whose pegboard wall of them are now in the Smithsonian. French copper, according to the blog ecabonline.com, is considered to be the best. Maybe I should’ve checked the maker on the bottom of the pieces at auction, but they looked too much like the thinner and lighter stuff I had bought.
Since I’ve been going to auctions, I’ve come across vintage pieces, including brass inkwells, old cash registers, and Eastlake doorknobs and door plates, and copper teapots.
The pieces at auction had not been polished in ages and had what a dealer would call patina, but was actually just dust and dirt. Who has the time anymore to clean it, especially if you’re just buying and hoarding it?
Confronted by so much brass and copper at auction, I had to know where it came from. It was obviously someone’s collection. Although I know that folks collect just about anything, I was still surprised that someone would actually buy brass (especially the new stuff) as a collectible.
An auction-house staffer told me that they had removed tons of brass and copper from a three-story house in Philadelphia, where it had covered walls from floor to ceiling in every room. And what I saw on that day was not the last of it. They still had more left to sell.
“Nobody buys that stuff anymore,” he said, waving his hands toward the row of trays, “maybe they’ll buy one.”
It’s worth more if you sell it at a scrap yard, he noted. Then he told me a story about how he and his son had taken a bucket full of brass to a scrap-metal company and came out with about $200. Even as he was offering up the stuff for sale during the auction, he repeated that it was worth much more as scrap metal.
Another auction-regular told me about how his unemployed son was selling scrap-metal brass and doing odd jobs to pay his bills. So, he should be here today, I offered. No, he said, he’d spend all his money. I figured that he would spend it to make more back – and this was definitely the place to be to do that.
That got me to wondering about whether my auction-buddy Janet and I should buy some copper and brass, and sell it for scrap. We’d bought some women’s coats together at auction a couple months ago, but then I recalled that I had been stuck with them – moving them from my porch to my back yard to air them out because they had the owner’s “smell” still on them.
I’d never done scrap metal before, but Janet mentioned that she’d taken a few items to a place not far from where she lived. It couldn’t be that bad, I thought, if the prices were low enough at the auction. So, I pulled out my Droid to check out the prices we could get for scrap.
What I found on the web was pretty indecipherable. The prices were based on the grade and type, especially for copper. A site with guidelines on selling copper and brass suggested that you sell in bulk and sell it often at the same place to get a good price. It didn’t seem to be worth the trouble to try to sell just a few pieces.
The scrap prices didn’t seem to be worth the effort.
The auction prices – for the stuff in the box-lot room, which was the first to sell – were not as low as I expected. The auctioneer sold it in groupings of about four to five pieces each, and the boxes went for $10 to $12 (I was hoping for no more than $5 per box). The highest price was for three boxes of copper pots and pans for $35 each.
I ditched the scrap metal idea and concentrated on other items at the auction house, including an African nail fetish statue that the auctioneer said had been deaccessioned from an African American museum in Tacoma, WA.
I wasn’t around when the brass trays sold, because the auctioneer was saving all the pieces in the first room for last. I suspect that most of them didn’t fare too well, either. It seemed that some of the most valuable items from the home had already been taken.
A burglar had broken into the house, an auctioneer said, and stolen the sterling silver.