Prices reached a high plane when a select group of 300 tools from the collection of the late A. M. Beitler was sold at auction at the Inn at Reading in Berks County, Pa., on June 16.
More than 350 serious tool collectors proved they weren't chiselers when it came to paying high prices. The 300 lots brought over $141,000, or about $500 a lot: the highest total for any American tool auction. (The previous American tool auction record, for those who keep them, was $128,000 for 600 lots, so there was a "per lot" record as well.)
An ivory-tipped three-arm plow plane with an ivory rule inset into one of its ebony arms sold for $8,500, a record for an American carpenter's plane, topping by $500 the previous record made five years ago. This plane was made circa 1835 in Philadelphia by Israel White and is considered the finest of eight known, partly because it retains its original paper label with adjustment instructions.
A pair of large crown molding planes made by T. Napier sold for $11,250, probably the highest price ever for a pair of planes. These were big ones, 10 inches wide, used to cut architectural cornice moldings. Thomas Napier made planes in Philadelphia between 1770 and 1812.
Another crown molder, this one with a double blade, made by B. Sheneman in Philadelphia, sold for $4,000. "Four years ago Beitler bought that plane at one of my auctions for $2,050; that shows where tool prices have headed," said the auctioneer, Barry Hurchalla of Pottstown, Pa.
An iron plane, marked "Millers Pat. 1872," manufactured by the Stanley Plane Co. in New Britain, Conn., only during the year it was patented, sold for $5,500. A plow plane with a handle, made by Kieffer and Auxer in Lancaster, Pa., fetched $5,000 from a woman, one of only half a dozen women at the sale.
At this auction, what was bid was what was paid. Mr. Hurchalla never charges a 10 percent buyer's premium and because it was estate sale no sales tax was charged.
The modest little catalog ($12), with a rosewood and brass rule on its cover, had only 12 color pictures preceding a list. It was no measure of the importance of the sale, which was, in fact, a
memorial to Beitler, a pioneer tool collector who died last July. Beitler's friends and fellow collectors came to buy a remembrance or a rarity from his vast and broad-ranging collection of more than 12,000 tools. Since October, Mr. Hurchalla has been selling them in a series of monthly sales of 500 or 600 lots.
For these monthly sales Mr. Hurchalla prints only a mimeographed list, but for the June event he pulled out choice items for a special sale scheduled the day after the annual meeting of the Early American Industries Association. Founded in 1932, it is the oldest and most scholarly of the tool collectors' groups.
They appreciated the two rare L. C. Stevens inclinometers (1-foot, one-fold rules with level bubbles set into them, used to measure a slope). Patented June 12, 1858, one was brass and ebony and the other ivory and German silver. The ebony one sold for $4,000; the ivory one, for $3,750. A 19th century plumb and level indicator decorated with an engraving signed R. Porter, showing two bricklayers using it, went for $2,800.
"History is important to today's tool collector," explained Dan Ludwig, who was executing the absentee bids. "In the old days when Beitler began collecting, aesthetics or eye appeal was the only criterion. In the last 10 years so many toolmakers have been identified, and so many books on toolmakers written, that who made it, where it was made and how many survive are factors as important, often more important, than what the tool looks like."
That's not always the case. There are still those who collect for line and form. For instance, Beitler's favorite goose-wing ax with a 19-inch blade sold for $1,200. The blade is the streamlined shape of a goose's wing. Two other Pennsylvania German goose-wing axes, both signed by their makers but not truly wing-shaped, fetched less. One by J. M. Strause sold for $275 and another by G. Sener of Lancaster sold for $450.
A number of tools were the best of their kind. A pair of horse collar stuffing mallets with eye appeal sold for $300. Used for stuffing horse hair into leather horse collars, they had lignum vitae heads and 18-inch-long handles. A clapboard gauge made by E. W. Carpenter of Lancaster sold for $475, and another clapboard gauge by J. F. Bauder of Manheim, Pa., went for
$1,200. The rare name was the measure of this price.
Anyone interested in tool collecting should belong to the EAIA. It costs $25 a year, which covers the cost of mailings, a journal and discounts on reference books. For information write to the executive director, Alan Bates, 495 Dogwood Drive, Hockessin, Del. 19707.