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Tales From the Auction Block

Auctioneer Shares Stories of Trading in History’s Artifacts

  • Archie Steenburgh of Pike, N.H., has been an auctioneer for four decades. During the time, he’s helped sell Egyptian mummies and a Revolutionary War-era desk that fetched more than $600,000. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Archie Steenburgh of Pike, N.H., has been an auctioneer for four decades. During the time, he’s helped sell Egyptian mummies and a Revolutionary War-era desk that fetched more than $600,000. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Archie Steenburgh, of Pike, N.H., discusses the historical significance of auctioneering at Alumni Hall in Haverhill yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Archie Steenburgh, of Pike, N.H., discusses the historical significance of auctioneering at Alumni Hall in Haverhill yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Archie Steenburgh of Pike, N.H. discusses the historical significance of auctioneering in Haverhill and Newbury, Vt. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Archie Steenburgh of Pike, N.H. discusses the historical significance of auctioneering in Haverhill and Newbury, Vt. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Archie Steenburgh of Pike, N.H., has been an auctioneer for four decades. During the time, he’s helped sell Egyptian mummies and a Revolutionary War-era desk that fetched more than $600,000. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Archie Steenburgh, of Pike, N.H., discusses the historical significance of auctioneering at Alumni Hall in Haverhill yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Archie Steenburgh of Pike, N.H. discusses the historical significance of auctioneering in Haverhill and Newbury, Vt. (Valley News - Libby March)

Haverhill — In 40 years in the auctioneering business, Archie Steenburgh has encountered plenty of interesting items — but only two Egyptian mummies, so far.

“I challenge any other auctioneer in New Hampshire or Vermont to have ever sold any mummies,” Steenburgh quipped yesterday to a crowd of about 20 people at Alumni Hall in historic Haverhill Corner.

Although Steenburgh is more accustomed to taking bids at the podium, the Haverhill auctioneer seemed at ease as he spun tales from the more than 800 auctions he has presided over in the Upper Valley — including the one at the Morse Museum in Warren, where he discovered the two mummies, which sold for a combined price of $5,000.

The museum once housed a collection of big game trophies from Africa, but it closed down in 1992 after more than 60 years as a roadside attraction. One of the purchasers, Steenburgh said, made his money back “a few times over by simply charging a dollar to get in to see the mummy,” but the Egyptian government eventually found out and forced him to shutter the operation.

Steenburgh — who moved to Haverhill in 1957 from Queens, N.Y. — said that of all the people he has encountered, 98 percent of the interactions he’s had as an auctioneer have been positive

“I think that’s a heck of a record,” he said.

After teaching at Woodsville High School, Steenburgh went on to lecture at Plymouth State University for 25 years before “retiring” in 1996 to devote himself full time to the auctioneering business.

Steenburgh also has had his share of missed opportunities, notably a weathervane from an old barn formerly owned by Arthur Clough in North Haverhill.

The weathervane, although not without a couple of bullet holes, had its original guilding. Clough told Steenburgh he had been offered $2,000 for the weathervane, which he offered to sell for $3,000 — but Steenburgh declined, opting instead to auction the item for Clough and find him the best price.

That price ended up being $37,000.

“(Clough) said, ‘I bet you’re sorry you didn’t give me $3,000,” Steenburgh said.

Steenburgh also has his success stories — including one major score from the era of the American Revolution that gained national attention in 2004. The treasure was uncovered at a house in Plymouth: a Boston-made, mahogany “bombe-style” slant-lid desk owned by Anne Webster. It had been passed down through the family of John Rowe, a prominent Boston merchant who helped finance the Revolutionary War.

Steenburgh, who had the desk on his radar for decades, heard from Webster when she was living in a nursing home. She told him, “It’s time to sell my desk, Archie, what can I get for it?”

When he floated the number of $100,000, Webster was skeptical.

“She said you’re full of you-know-what,” Steenburgh said. “I said, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ ”

Shortly after, Steenburgh had potential buyers “coming out of the woodwork,” and the piece, which had never been refinished, ended up selling for $605,000.

“That’s how much the finish means,” said Steenburgh. “George Washington, in all probability, did sit at that desk and was writing there. When you refinish, you take away that whole aura of historical importance.”

As for Wesbter, she “had her money on Monday, checked herself out of that nursing home on Thursday,” according to Steenburgh. He added that she returned to live at her old home in Plymouth before dying at the age of 106 years old.

While big-ticket antiques continue to appreciate, the lower ends of the auctioneering market have depreciated greatly in recent years with the downturn in economy, according to Steenburgh. He described it was “embarrassing” to go into the homes of people he has appraised for and tell them that a chair he once valued at $350 was now worth $75. After the presentation, Steenburgh said that the drop in market value has come despite the fact that there are fewer antiques out there to be discovered.

Despite the malaise , Steenburgh said that business in the Upper Valley for auctioneers remains “very active,” which he said was a result of the business model.

While most antiques tell their own story, Steenburgh said, the common thread for New England antiques could be seen in a wooden chair from 1780 that he pointed out as it sat next to the podium.

The chair, he said, was “remarkable in the fact that it has the original paint and it has the original seat.”

“A lot of this stuff was utilitarian,” said Steenburgh. “People needed this country stuff, not as collectibles, but they needed it simply to exist.”

After the presentation, Douglas McDonald, who now hold’s Steenburgh’s former position of Haverhill’s town moderator, said the stories were both informative and interesting.

“He’s been in this business a long time, so obviously he knows the area,” McDonald said.

As for antiquing, McDonald said he appreciates the history, “But at my age, we’re downsizing.

“So I love to go to auctions, I don’t normally buy a lot, but I appreciate some of the older things that are preserved and the people who are into that,” he said.

Piermont resident Gary Danielson said the presentation was “excellent.”

Danielson, who said he has been to too many of Steenburgh’s auctions to count, described Steenburgh as “very popular in the community” and adept at “tailoring his pitches to people that he knows.”

“So you’ll get a little line that just makes you laugh because you know that he’s saying something to you,” he said.

As for yesterday, Danielson said he learned a “tremendous amount.”

“And his stories, of course, made the whole world of auctioneering come alive,” he said.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.