Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Civil War Period Kentucky Estate Auction
By Robert A. Doyle, CAI, ISA, CES, CAGA

50th President of the National Auctioneers Association
Principal Auctioneer/Appraiser Absolute Auction & Realty, Inc.

Robert A. Doyle


A six-page handwritten estate settlement document dated December 11, 1863, provides a glimpse of life in the South during the Civil War and the workings of the auction method of marketing at that time. What is particularly interesting about this snapshot in time is that the auction recorded the sale of four slaves approximately 11 months after Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

This document was written and signed by the Auctioneer’s clerk, T. Stanhope Ellis. The Auctioneer was Coleman Covington. The clerked sheets provide the name of each purchaser of every described lot and the individual prices realized. There were 128 lots purchased by 34 successful bidders. The auction grossed $1,872.26 ($26,700 in today’s dollars, based on CPI) There is no indication that real estate was sold.

The deceased was known as William Duncan, as witnessed by the “Sale Bill.” Interestingly, there are four successful bidders with the last name Duncan who purchased a total of 42 lots, approximately 34% of the auction. Does this reflect the strength of the immediate family at a local on-site estate auction in 1863? Another fact is that Mrs. E. Duncan purchased 19 lots herself, almost half of what the Duncan family bought. Was she William’s mother, wife or sister-in-law? I would think that the entry would have been “Mrs. W. Duncan” if it had been his wife. The other Duncans were Archey, William and George. By the way, there were at least six women that bought items at the auction.

So let’s step back in time, get on the ground and in the crowd for the start of the auction sale on December 11, 1863. The first lot of the auction was a cradle and three blades that sold for ten cents ($1.46 today) to Emanuel Fritz, who was successful in purchasing a buggy and harness 21 lots later for 25.50 ($371), finishing out his purchases for the day.

The second lot, off to a slow start, was a mowing blade selling for a quarter ($3.64 today) to the Auctioneer - Coleman Covington. Someone might cry foul at that in today’s world. However, Covington went on to knock down a total of 14 lots to himself over the course of the auction, placing him just behind Mrs. Duncan for the most lots bought. Perhaps this was a more acceptable practice in the mid 19th century. Did he just try to start items but ended up getting stuck with them? Did he have deeper pockets then the local buyers? How was the Auctioneer perceived?

Low prices
Let’s pause in the auction action to summarize Coleman Covington’s purchases. He purchased a half-dozen miscellaneous lots for less than one dollar. However, he spent $8.00 for a barrel of salt ($116), $5.10 for an “Acorn Top Bedstead” ($74.30), $4.80 for six black chairs (.80 each, equal to $11.60 each today), $9 for a cow and calf ($131) and $6.00 for a stack of straw (four lots of hay straw sold for an average of $13 a stack before the fifth stack sold at $5.50, with the auctioneer purchasing the last stack at $6.00). His successful bids started with Lot 2 and ended with Lot 126. We know for a fact he was a buyer from start to finish. By the way, before the auction was over, the clerk would have also purchased three lots.

Let’s go back to the action where Archey Duncan has purchased the third lot in the auction, the other mowing blade, for 90 cents ($13.10). Wow, I always thought Auctioneers were supposed to sell the best example of a commodity first. Yet the first mowing blade fetched a quarter ($3.64) from the Auctioneer, leaving the second one to bring three times the Auctioneer’s bid. Was this a wake-up call? Archey buys seven more lots before the auction is over.

By the end of page one, 24 lots have been hammered down for a total of $78.01 ($1,130). The Auctioneer chants another 26 lots bringing the total by the end of page 2 up to $149.46 ($2,170), advancing to $215.26 ($3,130) by the end of page 3.

Although Mrs. E. Duncan purchased seven lots in the first three pages, she started slow. She purchased nothing on page 1, three lots on page 2 and four lots on page 3. Do you think she was bidding based on how the dollars were adding up? I believe she was. Her activity accelerated on page 4 with the purchase of eleven out of 25 lots. Early in the auction she was buying household items and some furniture, with the most expensive lot being a Bed Stead and bedding at $15.25 ($222.00). Note: Textiles were one of the most expensive items found in a home prior to the late 1800’s. Examples include: feather bed – $8.50 ($123), two pillows $7.50 ($109), one blanket - $3.25 (47.30) and one linen sheet – $1.05 ($15.30). In comparison, a sewing table fetched $2.00 ($29.10), a bookcase $1.50 ($21.80) and one large spinning wheel - $1.30 ($18.90).

The excitement must have been building by the time Dr. Barkley (Shouldn’t he be with the wounded?) bought Lot 100 at the bottom of page 4, “2 old heifers – 11.50” ($167), bringing the total of the sale up to $400.71 ($5,830).

All of page 5 entries are strong lots starting with “1 Yoke Oxen – $59” ($859) purchased by John Eskill. Right after the sale of the mules and horses are the three lots of slaves. They were offered according to value. “1 Boy Albert - $470,” ($6,840) (Brought more then the total of the first 100 lots!), next “1 Woman Puf & Child – $230 ($3,350) and lastly, “1 Boy Sam – $160” ($2,330.00). Wm. Duncan purchased Albert, while Archey Duncan purchased the woman, child and “Sam.” It appears that the slaves all stayed in the family.

Although the three lots of slaves brought approximately 40% of the auction’s gross, they sold for less then 50% of their pre-Civil War value. (Note: According to the Anti-Slavery Society website, The Emancipation Proclamation “Did not apply to those slave states, such as Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri, which had not seceded from the Union.”)

The last lots in the auction were the crops, “Shocks of Corn,” which were sold in several lots. The results show no lots “passed.” Perhaps only lots that received bids were written up.

So there we have it – one day at the auction, where everything changes hands and starts anew. The auction method of marketing was then, and still is, the leading choice for the fastest, fairest and most efficient means to liquidate assets for cash.



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