|By Eric C. Rodenberg
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — In the late 1930s, a 10-year-old boy playing outside his father’s small town Chevrolet/Buick car dealership heard his “Song of the Sirens.”
“Right next to the garage was this auction,” the 85-year-old Bob Merry recalled. “And, this man – he got to wear a great big hat, and he had a handkerchief tied around his neck – and he was just a rattlin’ … I couldn’t figure out how a man could sit there and rattle off words like that – I thought to myself, ’boy, I wish I could do that.’”
But, life got in the way. There was World War II, when Merry was called to serve in the U.S. Navy; then, he was called back to serve again in the Korean War. Then, he had a wife and four children to support. He started a 15-cent hamburger stand, but that didn’t quite work out. He then drove a delivery truck for 20 years. But, for more than 20 years that rattlin’ cadence rolled around inside his head.
Then, in 1970, Merry announced to his wife, Veda, that, “I was going to take my vacation and go to auctioneer’s school.”
To Veda and his four children, this was a surprise, but they knew Merry to be unpredictable. That was part of his charm. “So, I spent two weeks in Kansas City learning how to sound like an auctioneer,” he said. “I had more fun than ever.”
For Merry and his wife, the fun was just beginning. In 1970, they opened their new auction business. With Merry setting up sales, and Veda – formerly a legal secretary – running the business and advertising side, the Robert Merry Auction Co. was well on its way.
Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and beyond, the business conducted small-town auctions throughout Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.
They auctioned in the stifling heat of the summer, the numbing cold of winter and unpredictable Midwest weather.
He often auctioned with John Woody, who auctioned with his father through the 1960s and 1970s. “I remember one time we were auctioning in Dix, Ill. for a little old lady who turned 100 years old three days after the auction,” Woody recalled. “She was still sharp as a tack. She had a collection of things you just don’t see anymore – primitives, farm equipment – you name it, she had it. It was a three-day auction with about 30,000 items.
“Everything that lady had was traded for. She had an apple orchard, and she would take the apples to auction and trade it for merchandise. It was unbelievable … she had a lot of good things.”
About midway through the auction someone shouted, “There’s a tornado on the way.” Sure enough, everyone huddled together in a barn awaiting annihilation. The hail, hitting the barn’s tin roof, must have sounded like death eating a soda cracker.
“It was so loud you couldn’t talk to the person next to you,” Woody said. “We were lucky … it missed us by maybe a half mile. Me, my dad and Bob went right back to the auction and started back up.”
Merry and Veda also did big auctions. There was the Bushnell Museum in St. Charles, Mo. during the 1980s.
“That one had 44 horse-drawn vehicles, including two broughams from England, eight or nine antique automobiles and the best kind of antiques.”
He also conducted auctions for Six Flags in New Jersey, Chicago and St. Louis. “I had to get all my wagons on the road for those, we got out the big tent … they were all good auctions.”
Then, there was the auction for the Merrys’ friend Alva Nance in their hometown of Greenville, Ill. Nance had operated Kelly’s Antiques, selling from three large buildings stuffed with antiques on a farm on State Route 140 east of town. Nance was a longtime collector and dealer, and antiques were “hot” going into the 1980s.
“It was nothing for Alva to call you at 4 in the morning, he was just like that,” Merry said. “One morning he called about that early, and asked me to come out and see him. I got in my car, drove out to see Alva. He was getting on in years; he used to buy Chevys from my dad (1927-1950s). He told me he was ready to have an auction, and wanted me to do it.
“I almost had a stroke, I couldn’t believe it. Alva was known and respected all over the country. Anyone would have loved to do his auction, but Alva said, ’Bob, I’m a small town boy, and you’re a small town boy. And I just like to do business with small town people.”
That was another auction, comprised of three different dates, which brought some record-breaking prices for the 1980s. A weathervane sold for around $16,000, primitives went at sky-high prices, a set of furniture was sent to Hawaii. It was another national success for the Merrys.
Merry had a good eye for antiques, and knew his antique-buying crowd, according to many of his colleagues. “Bob has been around forever,” said fellow Missouri Auctioneer Rick Pence, who worked with him at an auction about 25 years ago. “He was a good antique auctioneer. He was a character too, but an auctioneer who really knew his antiques.”
Coincidently, the Merrys’ best years in the auctioneer business coincided with some of the best years for antique prices.
“Bob was in the heyday, when antiques were going for big money,” said Auctioneer Bob Andel, Jr., of Robertsville Estate Auction in St. Louis. “Robert is “The Man.” He’s a legend around here. He’s a demanding presence. When I first saw him, I couldn’t believe it … he would demand money, he’d say, ’now damnit, I know you got more money in your pocket than I do, now give me a bid.’ And the people would do it – he could pull that off.
“The whole family is real close, and when they do big elaborate auctions, they want do it right, and Bob puts on a great show No one questions him. Now, Veda may be the boss, but no one questions Bob when he’s putting an auction together.”
In mid-September, Andel helped the old veteran Merry conduct his last auction.
“Well, we think it’s his last auction,” Andel said. “He’s retired about five times now. When he was working with me on this last one, he was still going out on calls … I think as long as Bob Merry is alive; he’s still got one good auction left in him.”
Merry chuckles at the accolade. He still mentally plays with the idea of another auction, but Veda – his wife of 64 years – adamantly says “no.”
“She’s a sweetie,” Merry said from their Florida home near the beach. “And I want to stay with her – I don’t want a divorce. So, I may retire now.”
As he told his grandson, J.R. Biersmith, after 42 years setting up and calling auctions, “I’m tired and your grandmother’s tired. I’m ready to play in the sand.”
Biersmith, a New York media producer, video recorded his grandfather’s last auction. “Maybe it is the last auction,” Biersmith guessed, “but thankfully I can hit play anytime and hear the greatest auctioneer I’ve ever known say, ’All do. All done. Last call. Yes or No? Sold.’”
For a video from Merry’s grandson, J.R. Biersmith, see bit.ly/thegreatauctioneer.