Unique live auction at The House of Blues

mastro6.jpg   You knew when you saw the Mastro Auctions catalog that the company’s first-ever live auction at The House of Blues in Cleveland was going to be something special. Staged right smack in the middle of the National Convention weekend (Aug. 1-5), which was held at the International Exposition Center by the airport, the auction had a lot going for it. The catalog ran to almost 270 pages, which is not bad for a sale with a mere 83 items. Many of the top cards and other artifacts were featured with foldout flaps, which in the case of the cards meant the front and back would be perfectly matched. It sounds trite to say it, but it truly is a collector’s item.

   The auction itself was about as unique as its locale. Sports live auctions have a giddy and occasionally gaudy history: raucous, exuberant melees in tiny hotel ballrooms in the earliest days of the hobby, graduating to the spectacular and solemn cathedrals of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and then ultimately to be largely elbowed aside as the Internet came to rule one more arena of modern life.
With all that as prologue, it was tres chic to see a live auction held at a bawdy concert hall that would seem more akin to Muddy Waters than Muddy Ruel. I’ve been to austere, lavish auctions in New York City, Atlantic City and Las Vegas, so it was a fascinating change of pace to be at a live sale where beer and hard liquor played such a prominent role, creating a background chatter and buzz that would have been considered bad form in a more traditional setting.

   The stage was massive but barely utilized: five Mastro officials, including auctioneer Nick Dawes, were at the extreme front, and a half-dozen other staffers were stage left, dutifully manning the phones. Dawes, newly installed as Mastro Auctions’ vice president of live auctions, did a remarkable job, peering into the various pockets of darkness to spot bids in the audience directly below him and in the balcony above.

   The darkness created a nagging problem for me. With permanent signs adorned throughout the concert hall sternly prohibiting taking pictures (aimed at music audiences, not collectors waving paddles), the reality was that getting decent pictures was all but impossible given the lighting and my relatively unsophisticated equipment.

   But as I alluded to above, I had never been to an auction where wait staff adorned in elaborate tattoos and, uh, body jewelry scurried around the room. Demon rum works wonders at casinos, weakening judgment and just generally making attendees a bit more aggresive than they might be if completely sober, so it probably holds similar promise in an auction setting. Ultimately, the auction topped the $4.3 million mark for an average in excess of $50,000 per lot, which is a record in any neighborhood.

   Still, I’d be kidding you if I suggested that the booze had much to do with the killer prices. Having a couple of extra martinis wouldn’t be enough to propel you to bid $800,000 on a card set, and besides, the 300 or so invited guests represented a veritable hobby Who’s Who, along with Mastro Auctions’ A-list clientele, and hardly the type of crowd that would go nuts over an open bar.

   My colleague, the young and eminently able Chris Nerat, offers some of his own musings about both the auction and the National itself on his blog, and the complete auction results and a total of nearly 10 pages of National Convention coverage appear in this week’s issue of Sports Collectors Digest (Aug. 31).

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