Barney "Barr" Harris, who was born above his father's Howard Street cabinetmaking business and turned it into a successful antiques auction house, died of dementia complications Thursday at Arden Court in Pikesville. The longtime Bolton Hill resident was 94.
"His auctions were like the original 'Antiques Road Show,'" said John Huppert, a collector who lives in Charles Village. "You sat there and were entertained and informed. You learned as he spoke. It was a delightful spectacle. You enjoyed every minute."
Mr. Harris was delivered by a midwife above the family's Howard Street business. His father, a Russian immigrant named Jacob Harris, was a cabinetmaker who sold antiques. His son remained in the 800 block of N. Howard St. until he retired 10 years ago.
A 1935 City College graduate, he attempted to enlist in the Air Force during World War II but was turned down because of double vision. He became a District of Columbia police officer and, as part of his duties, guarded the White House. Family members said he treasured a 1943 Christmas card from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. He told his daughter he ate the leftovers from the president's lunch tray.
Mr. Harris studied education at George Washington University and earned a degree at what is now Towson University. He briefly taught as a young man.
When his father died, Mr. Harris bought out the stake that his six older siblings had in the family business. By 1952, he had turned the store into an antiques auction gallery.
"It's a place where on a crowded night, if you raised your hand, you bought a floor lamp and magazine rack for $22 — and plenty of budget-minded Baltimoreans thought you'd way overpaid," said a 2000 Baltimore Sun sketch. "In its heyday, the Harris Galleries functioned as a source for many of the antiques and used stuff that got sold at other shops within the hamlet of 1830s buildings that Baltimoreans recognize as its own little neighborhood along Howard and Read streets."
The article said that for decades, dealers and antique shoppers rummaged for valuables in Mr. Harris' storerooms, fingering bronze sculptures, chandeliers, rugs, rare books, African carvings, silverware, furniture, paintings and prints, often of unknown provenance.
"Barr had an incredible knowledge of what he was selling, and he was open and willing to share that knowledge with you," said Mr. Huppert, the former gallery patron. "Some very obscure items passed through his place, and Barr generally knew about them."
The Sun characterized Mr. Harris as "a worker at the microphone." It said he plugged along without complaint and did not hurry the bidding process.
"He had an incredible work ethic," said Richard L. Hall, who managed his office and was a cataloger. "In his time, he was a good auctioneer. He had self-assurance."
Mr. Harris once told a Sun reporter that people often bought an item because of a brand name attached to it, not necessarily because of its aesthetics.
"What makes things valuable is that people all want the same things. If it's truly one of a kind, people won't want it," he said in 2000.
Former customers recalled his sales, which were frequented by local antiquarians and collectors. "Their eyes [darted] between the catalog booklets and the actual old books and maps up for sale," the 2000 Sun story said.
When he retired in 2001, he told a Sun reporter that he typically held two to four auctions a month, drawing customers from all over the region, as well as antiques dealers from the South.
"His book auctions were legendary," said a former customer, friend and neighbor, Julian L. Lapides, who served in the Maryland Senate. "Anyone who collected anything would have fond memories of his gallery."
Mr. Harris said he never guaranteed the origins of his auction items, mainly because he didn't have the resources to do the detective work. People simply bid on things, he said, for "what they thought it was worth."
He held estate auctions and collectors' auctions, where he sold items such as Civil War memorabilia and rare books, and regularly printed catalogs to tell customers what was on the auction block.
In 2001, he described his most exciting sale. He told the story of a woman who came to him 25 years before with a deceased man's possessions that she'd purchased for a few hundred dollars. Within that group of items was a stamp collection that he ended up selling at one of his collectors' auctions for $100,000.
Mr. Harris performed his final auction in 2001.
"My father was not a person of hobbies," said his daughter, M. Elizabeth Harris of Longmont, Colo. "Each night he would bring home bulging briefcases. He'd maybe turn some sports on the television. Then he read his inventories."
No funeral is planned.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Harris is survived by cousins, nieces and nephews. His wife of 62 years, Licien "Lun" King Harris, a Bolton Hill civic activist, died in 2008.