Emma Bailey: reflections on life as America's first woman auctioneer

She's nothing at all like the popular conception of a country auctioneer. Many of us have seen them at work - barrel-chested men with gaudy shirts, assertive manners, and loud voices.

Emma Bailey isn't like that.

She didn't resemble any of those stereotypes when she first banged a gavel and called out ''Sold!'' on May 12, 1950, and she's not like that today. She remembers that first sale well, though. It was a 50-year-old rocking chair, and it brought $2.50.

America's first woman auctioneer is seated in a comfortable black-walnut easy chair in the pleasant Victorian living room of her neat, white-painted house on Western Avenue in Brattleboro, Vt.

One can hear a bit of Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey accents, as she talks about her career. ''I took up auctioneering as a way to meet a specific need and not have to leave the house five days a week,'' she says. ''Oh, I could still auction if I wanted to, but I'd rather not. I keep turning them down. If I do it for one, I must do them for all.''

She took to the auction block in 1950 for reasons familiar to any one-paycheck family of today: a growing, hungry family; a house that ate money; and the effects of inflation.

She's barely over five feet tall, dressed in stylish wools. Her slightly gray-flecked hair is cut closely to her head. The eyes watching you are clear and bright. Vermonters have a phrase for grandmothers like Emma Bailey: sharp as a tack.

For nearly 20 years she conducted auctions at her barn off Black Mountain Road in Brattleboro. She achieved a national reputation from that operation, wrote a book about it (''Sold to the Lady in the Green Hat,'' Dodd, Mead, 1962), and retired at the peak of her career.

It was no easy task to break a sex barrier in the early '50s. Now that it's a common sight to see a woman in nearly every occupation, it's easy to forget how difficult it was for the pioneers.

Her first auction was blocked for nearly a month, because a male auctioneer decided she was breaking a zoning law. Once she started her business, there were other tricks to use.

''I lost a very good auction one time, because this male auctioneer and I both knew of this sale coming up. He went to the bank and said 'Well, I have a family to support, she only has a husband!' I didn't get the sale.

''This male auctioneer used sex in reverse to get that sale,'' she continues. He used it many times. I never used it. I didn't want the sex to be the tool.''

She pauses and puts her opinions into the present tense. ''Men sell cars; women sell cars. There's no reason I can't sell antiques and understand them as well as a man.''

There was national prejudice, too. When she became the first woman to be admitted to the National Auctioneers Association, in 1952, she found it less than supportive. When in 1960 a reporter queried the association about opportunities for women in the business, Mrs. Bailey heard the answer was that, although a woman had tried auctioneering in Vermont, she had found it too hard and quit.

That was news to Emma Bailey; she was very active that year.

By the 1960s she was well on her way to becoming a Vermont institution. She sold antiques, household goods, a surrey with a fringe on top, farm implements and tools, books and diaries, and valuable pieces along with the junk.

Her advice to prospective sellers is still valid: ''Whenever it was possible, I'd encourage the family to not attend the auction. I'd explain: 'You might think that table should bring $150, but you forget about all that junk from the back pantry and cellar - all that junk you were going to pay someone to take to the dump. That's going to maybe bring in an extra $300. So don't fret too much about something you think should bring an extra $25, when the things you would have thrown out net you $300.' I'd try to get them to see it in that light.''

She attends few auctions these days - the last one was two years ago - because she doesn't care for some of the current practices.

''We used to do the real country auctions. People were always happy about that,'' Mrs. Bailey recalls. ''They used to say, 'Well, if I come here two weeks from now, I won't see the same old stuff again.' ''

That's an oblique reference to an auctioneer's practice of buying merchandise outright, pretending to sell it to a fictitious bidder if the price isn't high enough for an auctioneer's liking, and then reauctioning the same piece at a later auction for a better price.

Emma Bailey is proud of her record: ''I'm aware of ethics. That's the only thing connected to auctions I'm aware of. I feel it's a business that's been very low in ethics and somebody has got to start somewhere. I don't want to be the guardian angel, but those are my ethics.''

Is she forgotten by her followers?

''We still get letters from people, beginning in March and April, from way off in Oshkosh and such, saying: 'When I was a little girl, I used to come to your auctions, bring a picnic lunch, and sit under the trees during the sale. I'd like to come and bring my children. When are you having your next one?' I have to write back and say, 'I'm sorry but I'm retired now.' ''

She has a comment about retiring when she did: ''It's like the old saying: Leave a party while you still want to dance.''

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