Going, going, gone

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At the final auction at his store on Antique Row tomorrow, auctioneer Barney "Barr" Harris is letting someone else call out the bids.

After five decades of selling antiques with the bang of a gavel, Harris said, he's looking forward to retiring from the city's best known strip of antique dealers on North Howard Street.

"My wife is entitled to be taken on a trip hither and yonder," Harris, 83, said last week while preparing his shop for the auction. "I've enjoyed the business and meeting people. Often the same people come for years. ... I don't know where they're going to spend their Sundays anymore."

After the Baltimore Auction Co. is finished conducting tomorrow's affair, the doors will close on the Harris Auction Gallery - Antique Row's last auction house. (A preview of the items begins at 10:30 a.m. and the auction starts at 1 p.m.) Harris made the decision to close after a deal for his gallery fell through.

With more than 20 shops in and around North Howard Street, local dealers and auctioneers said Antique Row faces increased competition from suburban counterparts and the Internet. But the overall antique business is still growing.

"There's still a strong demand for antique auctions at [Harris'] location" on Antique Row, said Jonathan Melnick, a Baltimore auctioneer.

For decades, dealers and antique shoppers rummaged for valuables in Harris' store rooms, fingering bronze sculptures, chandeliers, rugs, rare books, African carvings, silverware, furniture, paintings and prints, often of unknown provenance.

In its heyday, Harris said, he would hold anywhere from two to four auctions a month, drawing customers from all over the region, as well as antique dealers from the South.

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."

Today, Antique Row is still a destination for collectors and dealers, even though many shop owners say the neighborhood hasn't been the same since the construction of the light rail disrupted businesses for a three-year period in the early 1990s. Suburban antique dealers and online auctions also have taken foot traffic from the neighborhood.

Fewer parking spots, due to the light rail, are a source of aggravation for antique shoppers, shop owners said. In the 1990s, Harris switched his auctions from weekdays to Sundays, so that shoppers wouldn't have to feed parking meters.

His roots at the antiques shop literally go back to his birth above the store in 1917. His father used the shop to build cabinets and repair furniture.

When his father died, he bought out the stake of his six older siblings and, by 1952, turned the store into an antique auction gallery, at 873-875 N. Howard St.

Antique shop owners said that Harris' auctions on Antique Row - at one point there were five auction houses on the street - helped bring customers to other shops in the neighborhood.

He held estate auctions and collectors' auctions, where he'd sell items such as Civil War memorabilia and rare books, and regularly printed catalogs to tell customers what was on the auction block.

"Thirty years ago, he had some of the biggest auctions in Baltimore," said James Judd, owner of Amos Judd & Son, a few stores down from Harris Auction Gallery.

"He had them at night and you couldn't get in, [there was] standing room only ... and you'd have a flock of money-people coming up from Washington. It was almost like a cocktail party because we knew everybody.

"We were friendly at the beginning, and at the end of the night everybody had daggers in their eyes" when they realized who had outbid them on various items, Judd said.

Perhaps his most exciting sale, Harris said, occurred after a woman came to him 25 years ago with a deceased man's possessions 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.

And, for his mother, James Judd once bought a seven-carat diamond ring at a Harris auction for $10,000 in the 1970s. Two hours later, a Pennsylvania dealer offered her $3,000 more for it, but she wouldn't accept it. "It was a magnificent ring," said Judd. An appraiser three years ago valued it at $125,000, he said.

Frank J. Rutkowski Jr., who operates Connoisseur's Connection, an antique shop specializing in European and American furnishings and antiques two doors down from Harris, said he grew up going to Harris' auctions.

"Whenever I could cut class, I'd go down to one of his auctions," said Rutkowski, who is also vice president of the Antique Row Association.

Said Jim McCartan, 43, who runs the Baltimore Antique Brokerage at 855 N. Howard St.: "I've bought many a good find over there."

Harris, who performed his last auction Dec. 30, wouldn't disclose annual sales figures. But he did say that the city's annual fee for an auction license - $1,600, plus the cost of a $25,000 surety bond - took a big chunk out of his business. (He didn't renew his license this year.) Auctioneers licenses in counties outside the city cost a few hundred dollars.

The word that Harris is retiring has been on the street for several months now. Customers and dealers have picked through Harris' basement and street-level showrooms of antiques, but there are still tons of items in his shop.

Most of the items will be sold in lots, meaning that bidders can bid on a batch of similar items, such as paintings, frames or maps.

Harris isn't sure what he'll do with his building, but the Bolton Hill resident said he could lease or sell it in a year or two.

With Barr Harris retiring, Thayne Williams said that he reigns now as the oldest antique dealer on the street. "I'm the oldest left," said Williams, 81, who's operated Thayne's Antiques on North Howard Street since 1964.

One thing that isn't up for sale: Harris' auction booth - a large wooden pedestal, with attached microphones, on which he sat to call out bids. "I don't know who'd want to buy that," Harris said.

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