Canton Barn: Auction house is a doorway to American history


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Auctions held at Canton Barn are a doorway to American history. Each Saturday at 7:30 p.m, buyers converge in a barn built in 1820. Owners Richard and Susan Wacht have a unique approach to the business. Photos courtesy Larissa Lytwyn.

CANTON, Conn. — Canton Barn, LLC, prides itself on sticking to the Webster definition of an auction house: a sale of property to the highest bidder. Since its inception more than 50 years ago, the Nutmeg State landmark is among the last of its kind, with no reserves or buyer’s premiums. Co-owners Richard and Susan Wacht buy each piece outright, acquiring merchandise largely through word-of-mouth, estate bankers and attorneys. Items generally range from Victorian and Colonial-era antiques to 1950s collectibles.

Second-generation auctioneer Richard Wacht literally grew up in the business, adopting his ailing father’s place at the podium in his mid-30s. “My father was a banker, and sometimes used antiques as collateral,” Wacht said. “It grew from there.”

He recalls his father buying a portion of Samuel Clemens’ New Preston, Conn., farmhouse estate for $2,000 in the 1950s. Clemens, of course, is better known to millions as author Mark Twain.

Canton Barn itself is a doorway to American history. The family’s property dates back to the 18th century. Each Saturday at 7:30 p.m, buyers converge in a barn built in 1820. There are no numbers on paddles. Registration is by name; seats reserved by pillow. An 1845 Glenwood stove burns cheerfully each winter.

“We never will have a buyer’s premium or set a reserve,” Wacht said. “Why should I charge money to the people who help me make my living?” Although he’s worked on a local version of “Antiques Roadshow” with Hartford’s Channel 3 WFSB reporter Scot Haney, Wacht has only stepped in another auction house once.

Yet, many consider him among the best auctioneers alive.

“I’ve been to hundreds of auctions,” said Newton Emerson of Westford, Conn., “Most auctioneers refer to a book. [Wacht] could teach a course.”

Wacht is as renowned for his showmanship. It’s not unusual for pieces to become props. While auctioning off a Victorian-era porcelain doll ($90), Wacht transformed into puppeteer, using the doll’s delicate arms to point to competing bidders. He often leaves the stand to display pieces across stage, swinging a vintage lamp to “hypnotize” the audience. “You will bid higher,” he playfully intones. Donning a top hat or twirling a 19th century umbrella, Wacht is both entertainer and expert.

Although divorced, Richard and Susan Wacht remain business partners, and, both confirm, “best friends.” While Richard breathes his father’s passion onstage, Susan shares her former mother-in-law’s behind-the-scenes talent. In addition to helping Richard conduct auctions, Susan bakes up to 20 fresh fruit pies each week — just like Richard’s mother did. For $3.75 a slice, visitors can enjoy a number of selections, including strawberry-rhubarb, pumpkin and pecan pie (with or without whipped cream). Hamburgers, Grote and Weigel hot dogs and similar picnic-style items are also available.

“When I first met Richard, I knew nothing about the business,” Susan said. “We used to go to the antiques store at the Hartford Civic Center and Richard would point out reproductions. I asked, ‘How can you tell?’ He told me he just did, and I would, too, one day.”

Years later, the two were antiquing when Susan spotted her first replica. “How can you tell?” Richard teased.

Both Wachts are collectors. Richard describes his taste as mint-quality “eclectic.” Susan is more specific. “I like Native American baskets,” she said.

Each Sunday, Richard Wacht offers free appraisals of virtually any item. “I’m waiting for people to pick up their stuff from the night before,” he said dryly. “What else can I do?”

On a recent Saturday evening, Canton’s offerings included a 1930s unframed French street scene oil painting on a 20” x 22” canvas signed Rocco ($30), a kerosene lamp with mushroom shade ($75) and an early 20th century hand-tooled brass chestnut roaster ($80). A box lot of 19th century compasses sold for $45. “When putting box lots together, we take one or two items that could command a price on their own and include it in a box lot to raise its value,” Susan Wacht explained. One of the evening’s highlights was a 1790 Red-Blanket Shaker Chest ($1,250).

David and Kristen Keller of Burlington, Conn., purchased a Karastan rug for $360 and a Victorian-era cast-iron bench for $250. “We’ve been coming here about eight years,” Kristen Keller said. “We love the great deals.” Recently, the couple refinished their home and wanted to decorate it with one-of-a-kind pieces.

Incidentally, it was also the night before their 18th wedding anniversary. After purchasing the rug, Kristen Keller joked to her husband, “Should we leave now before we buy more?”

“People are more interested in ‘going green’ these days,” Susan Wacht said. “We offer a way for people to recycle by purchasing something they won’t find anywhere else.”

Lorraine German of East Granby, Conn., said Canton is among her favorite Saturday night destinations. Co-owner of Mad River Antiques, LLC, with her husband, Steve, German specializes in antique stoneware.

“We love the rare finds,” she said.

Canton Barn’s generations of history includes a lineage of loyal staff. Susan Wacht’s nephew, Tim Melechinsky, of New Britain, Conn., has been a runner at the auction for 10 years. “It’s a great place to learn the business,” Melechinsky, an aspiring teacher, said.

Mother-and-daughter team Laura and Miranda Arvidson of Simsbury, Conn., work regularly behind the pie counter. Laura’s mother, Ethel Arvidson, an avid collector, began attending Canton Barn three decades ago.

“I really love the family atmosphere,” Laura Arvidson said. “You get to know everyone well.”

“I grew up with my grandmother’s antiques,” added Miranda Arvidson, a student at Humboldt State University in California. “I’ve worked [at Canton] since I was 16 and love coming back.”

Cashier Jackie Flagg of Suffield, Conn., has been working at Canton almost as long as Richard Wacht. “My family owned an antiques shop,” Flagg said. Although a banker by trade, Flagg began working for Wacht’s father in her late teens. “It’s a nice place to know everyone’s names,” she said.

While the Wachts have built a reputation for being among the best in the trade, Susan Wacht advised prospective estate sellers to review at least three bids before making a decision or holding a sale. “We often hear about estate sales coming up,” she said. “But we don’t go to them. By the time an estate sale is held, everything has likely been picked over.” 

Depending on the estate owners’ needs, the Wachts will offer a price for the estate “as is,” or do what’s known in the industry as “broom cleaning,” helping with every aspect of the move until there’s nothing left but empty floorboards. Richard Wacht moves all the pieces himself. “During the week I’m traveling to estates,” he said. “That’s why Canton is only held once a week.” Richard Wacht travels throughout the Northeast, from Boston to New York City.

While Canton Barn is a piece of living history in the antiques world, it could one day be a mere relic. The Wachts never had children. The future of the business remains uncertain.

“Right now [Wacht] could charge tuition,” Emerson said. “It would be wonderful if he could acquire an apprentice to carry on his legacy.”

Canton Barn, LLC, is located at 75 Old Canton Road, Canton, Conn. Doors open every Saturday at 5 p.m., year round, for previews. Auctions begin at 7:30 p.m. and end at approximately 10:30 p.m. Complimentary parking. Cash, cashier’s or traveler’s checks only with proper ID. No children under 16. No cell phone use permitted during the auction. For more information, visit www.cantonbarn.com or call 860-693-0601.  ?

Larissa Lytwyn
is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. She has written for publications including the New Canaan News Review, Fairfield County Weekly and is a former editor of the Easton Courier. She may be reached at Larissa@LarissaLytwyn.com.

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More Images:

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Auction items often include Victorian-era furniture, including a 1790 Shaker chest ($1,250) and unusual pieces, such as an early 20th century brass chestnut roaster ($80). Photo courtesy of Susan Wacht
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Richard Wacht calls a recent auction. Photo courtesy of Susan Wacht
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This Victorian-era porcelain doll sold at the June 12 auction for $90. Photo courtesy of Susan Wacht
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With more than 50 years of experience, Richard Wacht is one of the area's most sought-after auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Susan Wacht
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The staff at the Canton Barn show off some of the homemade pies baked fresh weekly for customers at the Saturday night auctions.
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One of the evening's highlights was a 1790 Red-Blanket Shaker Chest, which sold for $1,250.
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Canton offers often include war memorabilia, including these Civil War-era swords. They were sold at the June 19 auction. Photo courtesy of Susan Wacht
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These Chippendale chairs are among the finds buyers can discover at Canton Barn. These chairs were auctioned at the June 19 event. Photo courtesy of Susan Wacht

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