I had the opportunity to visit the Fur Harvesters Auction House in North Bay, Ont. recently. This being my first visit, I was quite impressed by the things that go on in an auction house. Once you step through the door, the first thing you notice is the smell. It’s something I had to get used to, especially if I was going to spend the next two days there.
On the day I arrived on my research mission to find out what goes on at a first auction, I found the place was in the process of preparing for the January sale.
On the two floors of the building, there were racks upon racks of fur of all different species: raccoon, mink, marten, lynx, red fox and numerous other pelts.
In the first room was just beaver, thousands of pelts. On the second floor was all the wolf and marten, collected into bundles and hung in racks, all tagged. Actually, North Bay has always been well-known as a favourite place for wild fur, attracting buyers from around the world.
Just touring the place on my own, I saw a lot of the activity of buyers inspecting the thousands of pelts up for sale at this auction. They weren’t hard to miss. They carried with them a thick book that listed all the lots of furs on display. They also had rulers to measure the pelts and make notes on the various lots they were interested in.
The buyers themselves can be picked out among the workers. They are the ones wearing the white coats. Also, they usually have a sidekick, usually a student helper who has taken off from school just to work there. They were running back and forth as the buyers asked to see different lots in the showcase rooms.
Banner year for fur at auction A quick tour As I toured alone, I realized I needed a guide. So I requested one from the receptionist who was busy phoning numbers for buyers. She says it’s quite busy this time of the year, as buyers constantly keep in contact with clients over the phone. For privacy, buyers use three separate enclosed phone booths.
As I busily took photos I was greeted by Paul Toswell, a fur grader, who took me on a quick tour of the house’s activity.
As it turns out, in most auction houses all the fur on display is graded weeks before the auction. But unlike other auction houses, this one acquires furs a day before the buyers arrive. Every pelt that comes into this auction is separated into lots graded according to colour, size and quality.
The auction house does what is called “blind grading” which means that all the fur that is inspected carries a number tag that on a computer tells who and where the fur came from. But the graders themselves do not know who’s it is. In this way, Toswell said, there is no bias on the grading.
After the auction, the tags are pulled and a computer sorts out who should receive payment.
History in the Making The Fur Harvesters Inc. is unique in that it’s privately owned by Native and non-Native trappers. It’s the only one of its kind in the world. In 1992, when the previous owners, the Ontario Trappers’ Association, went bankrupt, the Union of Ontario Indians and local trappers in North Bay went into joint ownership to re-establish the business.
“This whole procedure is based on trust,” said Toswell. “The strength of this business is everybody is on a first-name basis. Once in a while you get a trapper who complains about the sizing of the fur and we can deal with them directly,” he said.
Bob Watts, president of the Fur Harvesters Auction House, said, “We were concerned about the fur industry and where it’s going. We were keen to become interested in the market. Because in previous years there was no Native presence in the fur industry.. They were only at the producer’s end.”
He also said they had two things in favour of starting up, namely the name of North Bay, which is best known for wild fur. And Fred Glover, general manager, who’s well known and respected in the fur industry.
“So far it’s been a good time, ahead of projections made when We first started.”
The auction house has a unique program called the Registered Participation Certificate program where a commission is charged on the sale of each fur, and the money goes to the operation of the Fur Harvesters Auction and long-term planning. What’s left over is sent back to the trappers who sent fur to the year’s auction. Last year, over $50,000 was divided among the trappers.
“The purpose of the program is to put money back into the hands of trappers,” says Bob Watts. “Of the 10-per-cent commission put on the furs, the auction house usually takes six per cent and the remaining four per cent goes back to the trappers.”
The Buyer and his Mission As I continued to tour the place, I counted about 40 buyers attending the auction.
I talked with some of the buyers to see what they were looking for and what they thought of the fur market. One of them was Barney Keena, a broker from Toronto who’s has been coming to this auction for 21 years. As a broker he charges a commission for buying fur for the many companies he represents like in Toronto, London, Milan, Paris and the Far East What Keena is looking for at this sale is fisher, marten, muskrat, red fox and wild mink.
“Over the past few years the price of fur has gone up and down,” he says as his helpers, mostly teenagers, run after bundles the Keena and other buyers request to see. “This is because of the fashion demand. People are saying they want to wear mink, or beaver. So it affects the market prices.”
This statement was echoed by another buyer from Toronto, Neil Pearson, who has come to inspect and bid on marten and wild mink. “The demand is rising during the last two years, but with the warm weather lately, it’s less of a necessity to buy a fur coat. But the demand has been rising and fur is an item people like.” Pearson is there representing a few European manufactures and designers.
Of all the buyers at this market, there are probably 15 brokers, and five principals (dealers and manufactures from Montreal and Toronto) with the balance being individuals who are country dealers and shippers.
Let the Auction Begin…
That same day before the auction, a mini-auction was held where all the lesser grades and smaller items such as lower-grade beaver, weasels, squirrels, coyote and wolf were auctioned off. The main ticket items were to be sold for the next day.
Although the following day I couldn’t get up for the start of the auction at 7:30 a.m., by the time I got there an hour and a half later, the race was well underway. Buyers were busily bidding on the selected lots they inspected days before.
The caller starts off with a start-up bid. A lot of beaver may start at $52 and work its way up from there with each buyer bidding higher. Sometimes, no bid is placed and finally the caller lowers it by$5. Even that sometimes doesn’t work and buyers present their own bid, which is sometimes rejected because the auction house doesn’t want to sell at a low price.
As I realized after a few hours, this is what goes on for the whole day. When I began to lose interest just watching and running out of film, I decided it was enough for the time being.
So as I begun to leave, I couldn’t help but notice the group of school graders entering the building, and their first comments I heard were, “What’s that smell?”