Auction Fever

There's nothing like an auction to get the pulse racing, and once they get bidding, some folks just don't know when to stop!

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by Ross Bartlett
Many collectors love this look, often described as "original" and "unmolested," and they will happily pay as much for a tractor with this aged patina as one that has recently been painted.

In a small country like the U.K., we don’t generally need to travel very far to amuse ourselves. Plenty of events take place through the summer and are easily reached by driving just a few hours. Summertime is when all the shows are held, of course, but tractor events take place throughout the year in one form or another. After the end of the summer show season, we have threshing days, and during the spring and autumn, we have ploughing matches, but throughout the year, there are the auctions.

Auctions are a source of great excitement for tractor folk, and it’s not all about buying things. It is often more about “the craic,” as they say in Ireland, which means enjoying a good time, catching up with like-minded people, and having a laugh. Attending an auction just for “the craic” is normal; most people don’t actually plan to buy anything, or at least not anything big, as many will have come without a trailer, having travelled just for a look. At any auction within a 50-mile radius from home, bumping into people one knows is absolutely guaranteed, as all of the familiar faces turn out for these events.

Purely, apologetically nosy

There are basically two kinds of tractor-related auctions here in the U.K.: collective auctions held at professional auction centres, usually featuring many lots belonging to many different sellers, and farm dispersal sales. A dispersal sale takes place on the seller’s property, usually when a farmer, or sometimes a collector, is selling the property, or downsizing.

various vintage farm equipment

Most farm dispersal sales feature every facet of a farmer’s working life laid out and on sale to the highest bidder. All of the farmer’s machinery will be parked in rows, and there will be boxes of screws and nails, a welder perhaps, numerous hand tools, troughs, gates and all of the animal-handling equipment. The more old-fashioned the farmer was, the more chance there is of finding some lovely old items in amongst the piles of corrugated iron roofing sheets and broken wheelbarrows.

Many people, myself included, attend local farm dispersal sales out of pure and unapologetic nosiness. We want to see the farm (after all, you can’t usually simply wander down a farm drive and look around the premises) and sometimes we are curious as to why the farmer is packing up. Sometimes it is rather sad, perhaps the old gentleman has died; other times it is because of a divorce, or sometimes someone is just having a good clear out and a change of direction. It certainly gives the public something to speculate over as they walk around the lots, which are usually laid out in a field alongside the farmyard.

Farm dispersal sales are run by professional auctioneers, but for the occasion, their “office” is in a farm shed or the back of a cattle trailer, and the catering might be a very basic set-up with a tarpaulin fixed between a couple of trailers, a tea urn and some rather uninspiring sandwiches. Tractor-related events are never known for their fine cuisine or for having a range of various kinds of coffee.

Dodging a bullet on a rotten old spreader

Farm dispersal sales following an old farmer’s death or move to a care home are extremely poignant. Seeing a person’s belongings being publicly rifled through and sold to the highest bidder seems rather brutal. But it is essential all the same, because this “stuff,” this lifetime’s work, has to go somewhere, and hopefully some of the belongings will be bought, treasured and used by a new owner. That said, there is always a sense that I am poking through someone’s deeply personal memories, and that I must tread carefully.

assorted farm tools on a bench labeled for auction

Picking through a box listed as “miscellaneous farm tools,” I find things like a hollowed-out horn used to hold grease, an old sheep-marking tool with the farmer’s initials, a few old hammers, numerous rusty nails, leather hedging gloves gone hard and rigid, a sharpening stone, a couple of mole traps and a hand sickle with a wood-wormed handle. It’s all very personal stuff, things that have been handled and used time and time again, over a lifetime or even generations. Often it is an honour to give some of these things a new home, and sometimes these old tools will clean up and do the job far better than the new stuff we are sold today.

Wandering around, looking at the lots before the auction begins, is the usual time to bump into people, and it’s a good time for people to speculate about what price they think the tractors (which are almost always at the end of the auction) will sell for. By the time the auction begins, I have usually had a conversation with a farmer, and I will be up to speed with the gossip. Farmers, I find, have their finger on the pulse as far as “local knowledge” goes, and they can be relied on to know who is selling what and why, and what is wrong with it, and who is likely to buy this, that and the other.

farm bike and saw bench

When the auction begins, being short, I have to make sure I manage to stand by whatever it is I want to buy, or the auctioneer won’t see me if I make a bid. These days, I have a 13-year-old son in tow, and he routinely falls in love with large, quirky and unnecessary items, and I often have to put my foot down and say “no.” Last time it was a wooden land-drive muck spreader with a rotten floor, rotten sides and broken chains. Even if we restored it, a spreader like this would be something we would only use once a year. This is called “buying in work” and I said “no,” but when the spreader sold for £5, my son was annoyed, as he could have afforded to buy it with his own money. Thankfully he is still too young to have a bidding card!

No bargains, but quite a display

The other kind of auctions are held in auction centres, often run by large, well-known auctioneering companies. One of the most famous auctioneers of vintage machinery is Cheffins, established in 1825. Cheffins are estate agents and property advisors, but it is for their auctions that tractor folk know them best. As auctioneers with nearly 200 years of service under their belts, Cheffins have been selling farm machinery since the early days of mechanisation, but it was only in 1975 that the company began selling vintage farm machinery.

men talking in front of vintage tractors

Since then, their farming memorabilia and machinery sales have gradually increased in popularity. Today, some of the most prestigious and high-end vintage vehicle collections in the U.K. are sold through Cheffins auctions. These sales are at a very different end of the scale to the little rural farm dispersal sales we see taking place locally, and people will travel from far and wide to attend Cheffins auctions.

vintage tractor red with yellow attachment

Because these auctions are high-profile and well-attended, you might struggle to find any real bargains at a Cheffins sale. What you will find, however, is some of the rarest tractors and vehicles in the country, and some of the U.K.’s most serious collectors (and a lot of other people like myself who have just gone along for a day out). Of course, these days it is entirely possible to bid online without leaving your home, certainly at the larger auctions, but nothing beats the craic of being at a live auction.

The importance of keeping one’s head

When attending a show, you will know what to expect; you will have either looked at the program, or perhaps you’ve been to this show before, but when attending an auction, one never quite knows what will happen, and that’s what makes them so exciting. There’s always the chance that something might sell for less than expected, and you might come home with an unplanned purchase, something that you just couldn’t leave there, not at that price anyway.

pile of various old farm tools

I made my first unplanned auction purchase – a large belt-driven chaff cutter for £12 – in my early twenties. I had been looking for a hand-powered chaff cutter for about a year, and I had attended this local auction solely because the catalogue listed two chaff cutters. I had never bid on anything in my life before, so I felt very self-conscious about the whole thing, but I was determined to come home that day with a chaff cutter, which I hoped to be able to use to make my own chaff for my horse.

It turned out that only one of the two chaff cutters was hand-powered; the other one was a much larger machine, designed to be powered by a tractor or engine, by means of a belt, which wasn’t included. I sensibly decided to bid only on the first, smaller hand-powered chaff cutter, but when bidding started on this neat little implement, the price quickly rose to £85 and I just kept hesitating and it sold without me even making a bid. Thirty years ago, that was a lot of money, so it was probably wise not to bid, but all the same I could have kicked myself for missing out.

Father unimpressed by auction find

Quickly the auctioneer moved on to the rusty leviathan that was the tractor-powered chaff cutter, and he was stuck at £12, and for several stupid reasons I found myself bidding. Funnily enough, no one else wanted this huge, great, outdated chaff cutter, and the hammer went down on my bid. The huge chaff cutter was mine, and for a moment I was absolutely elated! I felt as high as a kite and could quite happily have followed the auctioneer around, buying more and more unnecessary nonsense, but the next task in hand for me was to find a way to bring this lump of a machine home.

I went home in the car (luckily it was only a short drive away) and asked my father if he would come with a tractor and a link box to bring the chaff cutter home. He rolled his eyes a lot, and started asking awkward questions like “how big is it?” and “where do you think you are going to keep it?” With the typical attitude of a semi-grown-up child, I had made the bold assumption that I would simply shove the machine in one of my father’s sheds. It’s only now that I’m a parent that I can appreciate how annoying it is to have one’s treasured spaces used thanklessly as a dumping ground.

Understandably grumpy, my father set off on his Nuffield Universal Three to collect the chaff cutter, with me driving behind in my car. I won’t write the words that my father uttered when he saw the rusting hulk that was the chaff cutter. He then smiled, got hold of my ear, twisted it, and shook me gently by the ear, saying “you just didn’t want to come home empty-handed, did you?!?” Deep down, my father was a soft-hearted man, and he duly helped load the giant chaff cutter, and took it home.

Prices can–and do–raise crazy heights

I never did use that chaff cutter. It took up space in my father’s shed for five years before I finally sold it, and the day it left was a happy one for my father. I won’t say the giant chaff cutter was my last-ever silly purchase, but from then on, I did try to remember that just because something is going cheap, it doesn’t mean that I have to buy it.

rows of vintage tractors for auction

That chaff cutter was a very minor example of “auction fever,” but when the fever sets in, some people can find themselves unable to stop bidding, and before they know it, they have spent more than the item’s actual worth. “Actual worth” is a funny old term though, and auctions show that things are worth whatever a person, or rather two people, are prepared to spend.

Rare tractors, combined with some rather well-heeled collectors, can cause auction prices to reach crazy heights. Recently, classic tractors have been selling for previously unheard-of sums. For instance, a 1983 County 1474 “short nose” tractor sold for just over £210,000 ($285,645) at a 2021 Cheffins auction.

men standing around blue vintage tractor

However, it seems that it’s the real antiques of the tractor world that command the highest prices of all. In 2019, an Ivel Agricultural Motor dating to 1903 sold for £328,000 ($446,150). These little 3-wheeled tractors, invented in 1901 by Dan Albone, were the first commercially viable tractors to enter production here in the U.K., and it is thought that only around eight examples exist worldwide. When trying to put a price on a tractor as rare as that, one really has to auction it, and then sit back and see what happens.


Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at josiewales2021@aol.com.

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