Collectors and buyers alike caught a glimpse at a rare, museum-quality antique farm equipment collection in November 2003 at an auction near St. Louis, Mo. Tractors, 11 combines, and horse-drawn equipment in a variety of colors were offered by Verlan Heberer, Belleville, Ill. He's perhaps best known as a collector of all things John Deere, and held the sale to pare down his vast inventory of other lines. For Verlan, the auction meant more room in the barn, while to auction-goers, the event showcased one collector's passion for equipment in fine, original condition.
The auction-day crowd represented 15 states and at least two foreign countries. Auctioneer Mark Krausz, New Baden, Ill., said the offering's quality attracted individual and museum interest from across America and beyond.
'What we heard from so many people was, 'Where are you going to find originals like these?' Mark said. 'Almost all of these originals have always been shedded, and a lot of them Verlan got from the original owner ... things like that mean so much.
' Verlan's primary motive for the auction, Mark added, was to preserve the equipment. 'From the very beginning, when we started working on this,' Mark said, 'Verlan told me that it wasn't about the money ... he just hoped the pieces would go to somebody who appreciated them, who'd use them to educate the next generation.'
Like many farm equipment collectors, Verlan's done his part to preserve America's farming legacy. 'Verlan's done a lot to introduce antique farm machinery to a lot of people,' Mark added. 'And there are so many good people who collect these antiques. They're all collecting for good reasons, whether it's to show younger generations what farming was like years ago, or whether it's simply pride in American agriculture.'
Pieces in very good, original condition are increasingly popular. Historic accuracy is the key, but economics also play a role. Danny Norman, a collector attending the sale from Hinesville, Ga., said the cost of quality restoration work makes a low-priced piece look less attractive.
'The cost of restoration can make it more feasible to buy a good original and keep it that way, if you can find a good one,' he said. 'When the paint is in reasonably good shape, leave it that way. It shows more character.'
Collectors with an eagle eye for value should be careful about what they choose to restore, Danny added. 'I've seen people restore some of these things that should have been left original, and the value just drops,' he said. 'If you buy a real good original, you're better off to leave it that way.'
At least some in the auction-day crowd came just to see the collection, including the original owner of Verlan's Oliver #35 combine. During a preview the day before the auction, the 97-year-old retired farmer closely inspected the unit he'd bought new. 'You got the belts on right,' he said with satisfaction. 'I took those off every winter, and it was always a challenge to get them back on.'
The top-selling item was a 1939 Minneapolis-Moline UDLX 'Comfortractor,' which sold for $111,000. In the past 18 months, three other Comfortractors sold, but none topped the $100,000 mark. Verlan's tractor was loaded with original equipment and options: a rearview mirror with clock, tube radio, heater, intake and exhaust manifold.
Designed to do the work of a tractor while providing the service of a car, Comfortractors were capable of moving at up to 40 mph and hauled up to three people in a fully enclosed cab. Minneapolis-Moline sold about 125 units, at a price of $1,900 each.
In the days after the sale, Mark and Verlan answered literally hundreds of phone queries about the sale price on the UDLX. But the piece that attracted the most interest in the weeks before the sale was a 1959 Ford 541 offset gas tractor in excellent, original condition. 'We got calls from everywhere on that tractor,' Mark said. 'The second-most number of calls came about the Oliver Super 44.' The latter piece sold for $9,500; implements sold separately.
Best of all, Verlan's wish apparently came true, and the vintage equipment he reluctantly parted with found good homes with other collectors who'll likely care for the pieces as much as their former Illinois owner.