mebane antique auction
photograph by Marissa Joy Kaplan

The auctioneer from Mebane has rummaged through hundreds of attics in North Carolina, and the process is always the same. First he asks for a fresh lightbulb. Then he covers the hallway rug to protect it from cascading dust. After pulling the attic string, he climbs the steps, walking along the outer edges in case the wood in the middle is rotten.

Four steps from the top, he pokes his head above the ceiling and swivels 360 degrees, looking for stray squirrels or cats. He steps across the creaky floor, making sure that his shoes are hitting plywood, not ceiling joists. The Christmas boxes are usually stacked near the door, close to the newer items. But the Mebane auctioneer is more interested in the back of the attic, where the older stuff, objects accumulated decades ago, resides.

These are the items passed down by parents and grandparents. They contain stories — generations of tales buried in mothballs. Some of the original owners might have forgotten those stories. But the auctioneer, Jon Lambert, will resurrect them.

You mean Jon Lambert, the junk man? The boy from Southern Alamance High who turned down a wrestling scholarship to become a picker with his daddy? You mean Jon Lambert, the guy who digs through barns and sifts through trunks, who rescues old lamps and jugs and clocks and radios cast aside as worthless? Who dusts off stuff and breathes new life into them?

“We’re sentimental,” the auctioneer says, explaining his trade. “We enjoy talking about objects descended from our ancestors. The family Bible. The clock on the mantel. The piece of pottery great-grandmother churned butter in. The basket she used to pick eggs from the chicken house.” North Carolinians, the auctioneer reasons, find identity in their old artifacts. Step into his gallery and you’ll see the stories spread across his tables.

• • •
 

In 1974, 8-year-old Jon Lambert and his father, Jimmy, were hunting rabbits in a Burlington field. Between shots, Jimmy, an Alamance textile mechanic, spotted White House Vinegar jugs and Jumbo Peanut Butter jars in a junk pile. “Jon,” he said, “I may be wrong, but I bet we could make some money off these.” Back home, Jon scrubbed the jugs and jars until they sparkled. Father and son took them to flea markets in Greensboro and Lexington, where each one sold for up to $10.

Over the next decade, Jimmy Lambert became one of the state’s most gifted “pickers” — a title given to people who make a profession out of accumulating old artifacts and selling those objects to antiques dealers.

Jimmy canvassed sidewalk sales and knocked on doors, acquiring items: pie safes and oak desks and country store benches, textiles and silverware and china and pottery. The ex-mechanic became a dogged traveler, comfortable around wealthy bankers and country farmers. He’d traverse the state, flash his charm, and ask owners about the stories behind their old stuff.

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The owners were endeared, baffled, inspired. “Jimmy, you just give this old furniture a better home,” some said. “Now why would anyone want to buy this beat-up cabinet with mouse holes?” asked others. Back in Burlington, antiques dealers queued up in Jimmy’s driveway, arriving early to get a good place in line.

Jon researched and appraised the items his father unearthed, mesmerized by their designs and origins. In his free time, the boy scouted flea markets, longing to find gems that would impress his dad. Jon’s moment came one morning when he was 11, before the sun rose over a flea market in Virginia. Jon and Jimmy had arrived with flashlights to get an early look at the merchandise. As Jon wandered the grounds alone, he spotted an apple cider vinegar pint jar, offered the vendor $20, and presented it to his father, who smiled. They resold the jar that afternoon for $40. I did it! Jon thought.

• • •
 

The tall sign reads MEBANE ANTIQUE AUCTION GALLERY, but the “Antique” is so faded that it’s difficult to make out. The sign is squeezed between a gas station and an oyster bar on a quiet stretch of U.S. Highway 70, a piece of land that used to belong to the Bingham Military School. The cinder-block building, which once housed a roller skating rink, is set back from the road and surrounded by an old split-rail fence.

A musty smell fills the interior. Cluttering the room on every side is a collection of old objects: brass boxes and cocoa pots and snare drums and Depression glass and Aladdin lamps and tinware and swords and railroad lanterns and pottery and pottery and more pottery. A 1970s Barbie doll trunk, a 1940s sewing kit, a 1930s chalkboard, a 1920s sprinkler set. Sweetheart locks and English porcelain from the 19th century. An alligator-hide physician’s bag, an air rifle, ashtrays, and hollowware. Silver and board games and guitars and glassware and gold.

Like his father 30 years ago, Jon is one of the most knowledgeable antiques dealers in North Carolina — one of the only auctioneers who deals newly acquired items each week. A former picker, Jon now represents trust accounts, executors, inheritances, and estates. Every Friday, buyers from Richmond and Charlotte arrive to bid on the auctioneer’s goods. Like his showroom, Jon’s brain is a virtual attic crammed with stories packed away over the years — “a walking encyclopedia about the local stuff,” says one collector.

Inside his office at Mebane Antique Auction Gallery, Jon rests back in a chair and nurses a plug of dip in his lower lip. The 48-year-old wears jeans and a short-sleeve olive shirt. A gentle smile pokes through a graying goatee. He arrived this morning at 8; he’ll leave at midnight. Friends knock on his office door to say hello, and potential sellers inquire about appraisals. No problem, says Jon, just bring your items by tomorrow. No, there won’t be any charge.

The main showroom seats 350 bidders who sit on a motley collection of furniture: folding chairs, church pews, movie theater seats. Chairs with cushy pillows. Attached to each seat with duct tape is a bidder’s number. “Jon, why don’t you change your seats?” people ask. The Alamance auctioneer likes keeping things authentic: “Look, I’m real,” Jon says. “These seats are clean. They work. They’re just a little … not matching.”

When new buyers walk into the auction house, the routine is usually the same. The auctioneer offers a tour. The customers admit they’re unsure what they’re looking for. Their eyes wander; they linger around the tables. And then: “I remember that!”

Reasons run the gamut. “My grandma had that ashtray on her coffee table …” “I saw those cobalt jugs sold on the side of the road during road trips to the beach …” “I played that pinball machine during childhood vacations …”

“It’s a memory,” Jon explains. “Maybe 20 years after the fact. It might be grandma’s mantel keepsake, or the duck decoy at the country restaurant, or an object from dad’s old trunk. Buyers come in, take a tour, and then — boom. Nostalgia.”

An astonishing array of objects are on display at Mebane Antique Auction Gallery’s treasure trove. Look closely, and, like most visitors, you’re bound to find a memory.

 

In 1984, Jon arrived at a crossroads somewhere in the middle of Montana. He was on a post-high school graduation road trip with a cousin. The duo had left North Carolina in Jon’s Ford pickup. They’d cut through West Virginia, sped through the Rust Belt, and rumbled through Chicago and Colorado into Yellowstone National Park. Somewhere near Billings, Montana, they reached an intersection surrounded by farmland. Jon wasn’t sure which way to turn.

His personal life had reached a turning point, too. He’d earned All-Conference Honors that year as a 145-pound wrestler at Southern Alamance High. North Carolina State University had offered him a partial scholarship. But the young grappler seemed more motivated by a life off the wrestling mat.

He had picking on his mind.

Throughout high school, Jon had continued to learn the craft from his father. The budding antiques-man would challenge history teachers, quibbling about Civil War trivia and the provenance of local pottery. Once, when Jon arrived at a girl’s house for a first date, he engaged her father in small talk while the girl was preparing upstairs. He spotted a Wood & Loy salt-glazed jug on a living room shelf and offered the father a price. Five minutes later, he was escorting his date to the car with the jug in his hand.

Now, at a country intersection in Montana, Jon thought of his father. This is my chance to prove to him I can find stuff. Not far from the intersection, the teenage road-tripper spotted a blacksmithing sign in front of an old store. He hopped out of the truck and introduced himself to the proprietor, whose family had lived on the farm for generations. “You got any swage blocks?” Jon asked.

“Sure do,” said the man. “Come on back.”

But inside, something else caught Jon’s eye: tongs. The same tongs his grandfather had owned.

Boom. Nostalgia.

Jon and the blacksmith struck a deal, and afterward, the man fixed dinner for Jon and his cousin.

For the remainder of the trip, Jon kept picking. He bought a crosscut saw and salvaged wooden pallets from a dumpster to build a crate to pack his finds and mail them home to Alamance County. And he discovered his love of meeting and talking with strangers.

Back home, Jon sat down with Jimmy, presenting him with a Galloway hit-and-miss motor. He knew his father loved motors. When Jimmy smiled, Jon was rewarded: He’s proud of me.

Jon dropped his wrestling scholarship and began picking full-time. The ex-wrestler joined Jimmy at Funwood Auction House in Reidsville, selling items on a small oak table. In 1992, the young picker opened his auction house in Mebane. Today, beyond the main showroom, the middle room is packed with stuff: several dozen jukeboxes, record players, Coke machines. Battery-operated toy monkeys; a vintage pinball machine featuring topless mermaids; a collection of grandfather clocks that will sell for $1,000 to $2,000 each. An iron slave collar with bells that still ring, which had come in just that morning. Dry sinks and tea tables and stagecoach trunks and a handmade 1829 Pasquotank County pine blanket chest.

 

In the fall of 2002, a Burlington man named Pete “the Greek” Mattos, a restaurateur in Alamance County, called Jon. Mattos was downsizing and wanted to sell off some of his estate. When Jon came to Mattos’s house, the Greek tried to show off his antique furniture. But Jon was more intrigued by a ceramic pot in pieces on the ground. “Why’re you on your knees picking up shards?” Mattos asked.

In the auction house the next day, Jon spent 10 hours gluing the shards together like a puzzle, piecing together what amounted to half of a pot — a salt-glazed, cobalt blue crock featuring bird dogs and eagles, and signed by T.W. Craven. At the auction, Mattos watched as the price soared. “Jon, you’re putting me on!” Mattos yelled from the crowd.

The piece sold for $9,800.

Auctioneers gravitate toward their particular skills. Some are pitchmen. Others are historians. Jon is a hunter-gatherer. For him, it’s all about the discovery. During estate sales, Jon will ask about the stories behind the objects in the owners’ homes, barns, sheds, cabins. Often people don’t know the value of their possessions.

Several years ago, an 1830 James River presentation crock — one made for a special occasion — turned up in the home of a couple who was moving. The couple believed that the piece, made by Virginia potter John Poole Schermerhorn, was worth about $200; it sold for $49,000. More recently, in a Walkertown barn, Jon fought off a possum and discovered a North Carolina first national Confederate flag, made after North Carolina seceded from the Union in 1861. It sold for $27,000.

Both sides of Jon’s family trace their North Carolina roots to the 18th century. His mother, Peggy, is a direct descendant of Simon Dixon, the Quaker made famous in Snow Camp’s Sword of Peace. Because of his heritage, Jon feels a sense of duty toward the state’s early artisans. “These were our potters, our gunsmiths, our furniture makers. I like to find their items, hold them, care for them, and bring them to others,” he explains. “It excites me to be part of an object’s survival.”

Jon’s father died in 2005. Now, whenever Jon contemplates whether to buy or how to sell an object, he listens for Jimmy. “I can still hear Dad talking to me today. His thoughts will come to me.”

Now, when Jon visits the estates of people across the state, owners react the same way they did 40 years ago, when Jimmy Lambert knocked on doors. “You just give this old furniture a better home,” some say.

Jon muses about what these objects meant to North Carolinians. “We’re proud of our identity, our values, and the objects our ancestors made and built,” he says. “When customers walk in here, they see our state 50 years ago. They see it 100 years ago. They see it 200 years ago.”

 

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John H. Tucker is a staff writer for the Triangle-based INDY Week. In 2014, he won a first-place award for general news reporting from the North Carolina Press Association.