Tagging along to an estate sale with her fellow Needlepointer, antiques shop owner Sarah Byrne, Angie Curtis impulsively bids on a tattered embroidery of a coat of arms. When she gets her prize back home to Haven Harbor, she discovers a document from 1757 behind the framed needlework—a claim for a child from a foundling hospital. Intrigued, Angie is determined to find the common thread between the child and the coat of arms.
Accepting her reporter friend Clem Walker's invitation to talk about her find on the local TV news, Angie makes an appeal to anyone who might have information. Instead, both women receive death threats. When Clem is found shot to death in a parking lot, Angie fears her own life may be in jeopardy. She has to unravel this historical mystery—or she may be the next one going, going . . . gone . . .
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"Happy the maid who circling years improve Her God the object of her warmest love Whose cheerful hours in pleasant moments The book the needle and the pen divide."
— Stitched, with three alphabets, in 1794 by Lucy Davis, age thirteen, in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
"This is an adventure?" I grumbled, still half asleep, as I maneuvered my sweatered-parkaed-and-booted self into the passenger seat of the faded red van Sarah Byrne used for her antiques business. "The sun isn't even up. I couldn't read the thermometer outside my kitchen window clearly because it was covered with snow, but the temperature is somewhere near zero."
Sarah laughed. "Good morning, Angie! Aren't you the born Mainer who likes to take early morning walks?"
"Not in the dark. Not in a deep freeze. So ... not in February." I managed to fasten my seatbelt after lengthening it to fit over all my cold weather attire. "And definitely not without coffee." I'd managed to get myself out from under my quilts and feed Trixi, my six-month-old black kitten, but I hadn't had time to make coffee. "When I lived in Arizona I missed Maine winters and hated the heat. I'd forgotten about frozen noses and toes." I looked out at the dark world. "Although once the sun comes up all that snow and sparkling ice will be beautiful."
"'It sifts from Leaden Sieves — / It powders all the Wood. / It fills with Alabaster Wool / The Wrinkles of the Road —'" said Sarah.
"Emily Dickinson quotation, right?" I wasn't even wide-awake yet, and Sarah was already spouting lines from her favorite poet.
"Emily always has something relevant to say," she said, smiling at me. "Don't worry. Coffee is doable. We'll stop at the Dunkin' Donuts up on Route 1. You'll have plenty of time to wake up before we get to Augusta."
"The auction doesn't start until nine o'clock," I complained. "Why did we have to leave at five-thirty?"
"The preview opens at seven, and it takes more than ninety minutes to get to Augusta," she reminded me. "You and Patrick went to Portland yesterday to check out art galleries, so we couldn't go to the preview then. We have to get to the auction house in time to register and claim seats and check out the lots being auctioned. Sales are always 'as is, where is.' Auctioneers sometimes miss details, and no auctioneer knows about all antiques. You can't totally depend on his or her word for anything during the sale."
"Definitely not," said Sarah. "That's why we have to decide ahead of time what we want to bid on, and how much we're willing to spend on each item. It's easy to get carried away and spend too much if you haven't planned ahead."
"And you do this once or twice a week." I shook my head incredulously, hoping the motion would help keep my eyes open.
"This time of year I pick up inventory for next summer. Summer's when antique collectors and people furnishing their homes in 'authentic' period styles invade Maine with full wallets and open credit cards. I only open my shop 'by appointment or chance' in January and February."
I hadn't known anything about antiques (other than those I'd grown up with in my early nineteenth-century home) until I'd met Sarah. Some of her antiques were fascinating, and some strange. But she made a living from her shop, From Here and There, so she knew what she was doing. Months ago I'd said it might be fun to attend an auction; auctions were a Maine experience I'd missed.
This was the first one she'd thought I might be interested in. Several pieces of antique needlework were being sold, and, after all, the business I managed, Mainely Needlepoint, was all about needlework. Most of the time we did new custom work, but we also identified and restored older pieces.
"Did you and Patrick have fun in Portland yesterday?"
The heater in the van was beginning to make a difference. My nose was no longer frozen, and I pulled off my gloves. "We had a good day. Patrick's been on a painting binge for the past month. He still has trouble holding a brush because of his burn scars, but his occupational therapist says painting will improve his flexibility. Between his painting and opening his gallery on weekends, I haven't seen him much recently. I've been organizing the accounts for Mainely Needlepoint and contacting decorators we haven't worked with to try to add some commissioned projects. So when Patrick suggested I go with him to Portland to check out other galleries, I agreed. He's looking for galleries that might feature his art, and, at the same time, collecting names of artists to add to his gallery here in Haven Harbor." I was getting a crash course in art. Dating an artist and gallerist could do that.
"I'll bet you had a good lunch, too. Portland has great restaurants."
I nodded. "But not a long lunch. A lot of galleries are in Portland." My feet had hurt after walking all day in my L.L. Bean boots. They kept out snow and slush, but, despite my heaviest wool socks, they weren't comfortable for long city walks.
"Did Patrick find any artists whose work he liked?"
"A couple he's going to contact. And Clem — you remember Clem Walker?"
"That television reporter you went to high school with?" Sarah crinkled her nose. "Couldn't forget her. She was here at Christmas, along with her crew, filming people like Skye, who wanted a quiet holiday without publicity."
Patrick's mother, Skye West, was a well-known actress, and Clem and her camera crew had been pesky around the holidays. "She was, I'll admit. But she's an old friend, and she's helped me out a couple of times in the past year. Sometimes a reporter has to be a pest to get a story. Anyway, she called me a few times in January. She's dating Steve Jeffries, a sculptor from Biddeford, and she wanted Patrick to see his latest exhibit. She's hoping Patrick will take a couple of Steve's constructions for his gallery. Yesterday we saw some of his work."
"How was it?"
"Large. Interesting. Movable metal sculptures someone with a lot of money might install in his or her garden or in front of their business. Abstract, of course. Some were wind-sensitive, like giant pinwheels."
"Sounds big for Patrick's gallery."
"True. But he was intrigued by a couple of Steve's smaller pieces. In any case, art was yesterday. Today is antiques. I'll be excited as soon as I wake up."
Sarah pulled between mounds of plowed snow into the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot and joined the cars in the takeout line. "One large hot chocolate with whipped cream," she ordered, and then looked at me.
Sarah knew me well. "And one large coffee, black. Plus a small box of assorted donut holes." She winked at me. "Sugar for energy, right?"
A few minutes later we were back on our way, sipping and munching.
"We'll make good time," said Sarah. "I was afraid the roads would be icy, but so far they've been sanded."
Route 1 was clear of snow, although in the early morning darkness it was like driving through a white-walled tunnel.
The coast of Maine gets little snow most years, considerably less than western or northern Maine, or the White Mountains in New Hampshire. But this year had been different. We hadn't seen grass since Thanksgiving.
"Road crews are out twenty-four hours a day when they're needed."
"You're right," said Sarah. "I haven't missed one auction this winter, or had one canceled. Everyone with a truck seems to have a plow attachment."
"Plowing is one of the winter jobs fishermen and landscapers and those in summer tourist industries count on," I agreed. "At least in years when there's snow."
"Most Mainers welcome snow." Sarah shook her head. "Open winters, when there's little snow, are devastating for people who work in winter tourist industries like skiing or snowboarding or snowmobiling."
"So ... before we get to Augusta, fill me in. I know there are needlepointed pictures and samplers in the sale that we'll check out. What else do we have to do?"
"First, we register and get our bidding numbers," Sarah explained. "We'll have separate numbers, since I'm a dealer."
"What's the difference?" I asked, relishing a jelly-filled donut hole and trying to keep from dripping jelly on my parka.
"I don't have to pay sales tax, since what I'll buy will be for resale," Sarah explained. "You have to pay tax. We both have to pay the buyer's premium."
"Fifteen to twenty percent added to the winning bid that goes to the auctioneer and his staff. So when you bid, remember, including taxes, you'll be paying twenty-five percent more for each item than you've bid."
"That's a lot," I commented.
"It can add up," Sarah agreed. "But unless there's a bidding war, auction prices are lower than retail. They have to be, or dealers wouldn't buy, and most of the bidders today will be dealers. And because dealers will only bid wholesale values, people like you, making personal purchases, can get bargains."
"I remember the mink coat you wore to Skye's Christmas party," I reminded her. "You got that really cheap."
"I did," she agreed. "Not everyone wants fur these days. But I don't think any fur coats will be in this auction. Most of the lots today, according to the flier, are furnishings from two estates near Augusta. Old Maine families."
"Why wouldn't the families keep their heirlooms?"
Sarah shrugged. "Sometimes multiple heirs can't agree on dividing an estate. Should they consider current value? Memories and sentiment? How can distributions be made equitable? So instead of arguing they put everything up at auction and bid against one another for whatever they want. And, of course, sometimes no one in the family wants anything, so it all ends up at auction. Technically, we're going to an estate sale. More typical auctions include items consigned by many different people."
"An estate auction doesn't sound like fun for the families involved."
"No," Sarah agreed. "But their loss may be our gain."
I shook my head. "I'm lucky I'm the only descendant in my family. Gram's already given me her house and a lot of the things in it." Gram had married Reverend Tom last June and moved down the street to the rectory, where Tom lived. They were happy, and, at twenty-eight, I'd unexpectedly found myself the owner of a large Haven Harbor house. I was still getting used to the challenges of home ownership. "What families are selling their estates at this auction?" Maybe I'd heard of one.
"The brochure didn't say. Consigners don't always want to be identified, because of family squabbles, or financial difficulties, or just because they want privacy. Every family's different." Sarah didn't need to say anything more. Her recent family experiences with inheritances had not been positive.
"Not knowing who the owners were makes it all a little mysterious," I added.
"Sellers at auctions are seldom identified. People downsizing; people who've cleaned out their attics or barns and found interesting items they don't want to keep. People who've inherited things their parents treasured, but that they don't want. 'Our own possession — though our own — / 'Tis well to hoard anew — / Remembering the Dimensions / Of Possibility.' Remember that collection of antique needleworking tools I bought last fall?"
"Of course. Gram loves the Limoges needle and thimble cases I gave her for Christmas."
"That collection had been handed down a couple of generations. Earlier owners had added to it, but the current owner removed a few items she was especially attached to, and then auctioned off the rest. That happens, especially when someone has amassed a large collection. No one in the family wants the whole collection, so it ends up at an auction house where it's bought by other collectors, or by dealers."
"So, what do we do after we register and get bidding numbers?" I asked, wiping sugar off my hands and lap and finishing my coffee. The sun wouldn't be up until almost seven, about the time we'd get to the auction house. But I finally felt awake.
"We put our coats on the seats we want, to reserve them, and we buy catalogs."
"Lists of everything to be sold?"
"Right. In the order they'll be sold. The list includes a brief description, and an estimate of the amount the auctioneer thinks the lot will go for. That's helpful, but don't feel confident or intimidated by the estimates. They can be wildly inaccurate," Sarah advised. "And remember, you're bidding not only against people in the room, but also those bidding by telephone or Internet, and those who've left bids before the auction starts. What each item is sold for depends more on who the bidders are on any given day than on the lot's value, although both are important. A mid-nineteenth-century iron bank in the shape of an elephant may be worth seventy-five dollars to an antique dealer. But if there are collectors of banks, or collectors of elephants, in the audience, it could go for hundreds. Dealers drop out of the bidding when it gets too high for them to resell at a profit, but collectors sometimes keep going way above retail prices."
It sounded complicated.
"And then we get to look at the items themselves?"
"Exactly," Sarah confirmed. "We'll both want to look at the samplers and other needleworked items, but after that we can wander. I want to check out the pine furniture they advertised and the folk art and antique toys. They sell well for me."
"I'll look at the jewelry," I mused. "You once told me jewelry can go below appraised value, and I only have one or two pieces that aren't costume jewelry. It would be fun to dream."
"Exactly what auctions are for," Sarah confirmed.
The van was heating up, or maybe I was, after the coffee. "Sorry to have been so grumpy when you picked me up," I said. "I'm looking forward to this. My first auction! It's like a treasure hunt."
"You never know what you might find," Sarah agreed. "Just make sure to look carefully at anything you might bid on, so you don't have any surprises after you get it home."CHAPTER 2
"We have nearly, if not quite, lost the art of embroidering in wool, in which our grandmothers so excelled. Tokens of their labor and skill remain in many an old country house, where coarse twilled calico, or perhaps a flimsy neutral fabric of neutral tint, has been transformed into a priceless heirloom, covered diagonally by foliage and birds in worsted embroidery."
— From Peterson's Magazine (an American magazine for women), April 1874.
The auction house parking lot was full. Most of the spots between piles of plowed snow were filled by trucks or vans; the occasional car was an exception. And, despite the month and weather, license plates were not only from Maine but also from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and even North Carolina.
"Dealers," Sarah pointed out. "The brochure was designed to be enticing. Two old families, items from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and possibly before. That's catnip to an antique dealer."
We lined up at the registration desk. The other bidders ranged in age from twenties to, I suspected, eighties. Many seemed to know one another. Sarah gave the auctioneer's wife, who was registering bidders, her Maine resale certificate. All I had to do was fill out my contact information and a credit card number. ("There's a surcharge if you use the credit card. Paying by cash or check is preferred. The credit card is just backup," Sarah whispered.) Or, I figured, to be used if I took whatever I'd bought and headed out without paying. I was glad I'd brought my checkbook.
Sarah was number sixty-three, and I was sixty-four. Lucky numbers? I hoped.
My adrenaline (or was it the caffeine?) was flowing as we hung our coats on two seats in the third row, on an aisle.
"So we can get out easily if we want to buy coffee or use the ladies' room," Sarah explained. "From the third row we can see the items as well as anyone, but the runners won't be stepping on our feet."
"The men and women who get the items from the display room, bring them to the auctioneer, and then walk them around to display them while the bidding is going on. If the items are small, the runner will then deliver them to the highest bidder."
I nodded, fascinated. This world had its own vocabulary.
The display room of the auction house was about the size of a high school basketball court, but with a lower ceiling. Paintings, prints, quilts, wall clocks, mounted deer, moose, and bear heads, and an assortment of household items like bed warmers, farm tools, and copper pans were hung on one wall. Rows of furniture, from potty chairs to beds to bureaus, dining room tables, desks, rocking horses, and butter churns, stood in rows in the middle of the room. Glass cases of jewelry, china, old guns, and small decorative items were along the back wall. Carpets and rugs filled one corner. The rest of the items, from kitchen tools to snuff boxes to dollhouses to writing boxes, were arranged on tables.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Thread Herrings"
Copyright © 2018 Lea Wait.
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