Schwinn Family Bicycle Collection Sale, 1997
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Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, Chicago, Illinois
It truly was the end of an era on the afternoon of April 6 when the last vestiges of the Schwinn family bicycle collection went on the block at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago, Illinois.
It felt more like a circus, however, with more young children than had ever been seen at an auction there. They added to the more than 400 people, including television camera crews, who packed the auction room to the rafters.
Mouths hung agape when the hammer went down on the first lot, a 1968 Schwinn Sting Ray Orange Krate, the one millionth bicycle manufactured by the firm. It sold for $16,100 (including buyer's premium). A round of applause ensued, setting the tone for the entire auction. Even the opening bid exceeded the estimate ($700/900) by several hundred dollars.
When the hammer went down on the last lot, few of the 178 items had failed to exceed their high estimates. Only one, a composite bicycle frame in a crate, sold below estimate: $172.50 against $200/400.
The Schwinn collection wasn't restricted to Schwinn bicycles. The collection contained many 19th-century bicycles that preceded the company, including bone shakers from the 1850's and 1860's and an 1888 Columbia tricycle from Pope Manufacturing Company of Boston.
"[They are] just wonderful pieces of craftsmanship that were in pretty good condition. And then the whole gamut of Schwinn bikes from the twentieth century, from the Depression era, the fat tires, the Sting Rays," said Glenn Coleman, coauthor with Judith Crown of No Hands: The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, an American Institution.
The bicycles had been displayed for three years at Chicago's North Pier by the Bicycle Museum of America, which lost its lease last spring. Even though the collection, which Coleman called "one of the best and most complete collections...in the top twenty if not top ten in the world," was displayed in a mall-like structure in a public place in a major city, its presence was unknown to many.
The sale included bicycles, bicycle stands, and Schwinn signs, plus a silent auction of memorabilia including bicycle industry advertising, bicycle parts, photographs, and bicycle industry magazines dating from the early 1900's.
Sketches for the drive chain used by bicycles were drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 15th century, but the modern bicycle was born in the mid-1800's in France. The first U.S. bicycle patent was awarded in 1866, but it was Ignaz Schwinn who made the bicycle famous in America, and the Schwinn story synonymous with the American dream. In 1895 German immigrant Schwinn founded the Arnold, Schwinn & Co. bike factory with Adolph Arnold. For nearly a century Schwinn set the standards for American bicycles from the Black Phantom to the Sting Ray and the Orange Krate.
Due in part to complacency and poor business practices, the Schwinn Bicycle Company fell behind the competition—particularly in the mountain bike craze—and ultimately filed for bankruptcy. One of the few things the Schwinn family got, aside from about $2.5 million from the sale of the company, was the bicycle collection owned by the Schwinn Trust. The buyers of the company had no interest in the collection.
In his book No Hands, Coleman says the family was allowed to keep the bicycle collection because of the "tchotchke clause." Those "tchotchkes" netted about $750,000.
Richard Schwinn, grandson of Ignaz Schwinn and now with Waterford Precision Bicycles in Waterford, Wisconsin, said "it's tough" to see the collection on the block. He felt, however, that the bikes would end up in good hands with collectors who could afford to preserve and maintain them, something the Bicycle Museum of America could not do, which is one of the main reasons the museum closed.
Sunday afternoon Schwinn sat alongside bidders and onlookers, a huge grin stretching across his face. Although disappointed that a few lots didn't do as well as he had hoped, he said the sale was "doing well." He then laughed when asked if "doing well" wasn't an understatement.
Richard Schwinn didn't even bid, saying with a laugh that he was "way too broke to bid on anything here."
The live auction was lengthy, lasting three and a half hours. The reason for the slow pace was the crowd. Particularly at the beginning, whenever an intense bidding war took place, the crowd had to be calmed down. Such was the case when a 1941 Schwinn Paramount sold. Estimated at $2500/3500, it went at $21,850.
"Crazy," as in "it's just crazy," was the adjective most often used by Hindman, her employees, and auction-goers alike to describe the frenetic atmosphere, while a silent auction was in full swing upstairs.
Back on the floor, even cast-iron bicycle stands, which generally hover around $100, were going for upwards of $200, with one selling for $920 (est. $80/120).
Hindman herself gladly contributed to the celebratory atmosphere when at lot #51, less than one third through the sale, she ordered cases of champagne and glasses for everyone in attendance as the auction house had exceeded its high estimate of $221,230.
There were many exceptional sales, one of which was an 1898 Wolff American Companion by R.H. Wolff & Co., Ltd., New York, that sold for $23,000 (est. $2000/2500). A late 1870's Shire bone shaker from J. Shire and Company, Detroit, Michigan, opened at $8000 (est. $2500/ 3500) and sold for $19,550.
Only two lots later, an 1884 Singer Extraordinary made in Coventry, England, an odd-looking bicycle by virtue of the large front wheel and tiny back wheel, sold for $20,700.
The top lot was an 1869 Dexter bone shaker manufactured in Poughkeepsie, New York, and estimated at $2000/3000. It sold for $24,150.
The old standbys, possibly the same models once owned by bidders, also commanded surprisingly high prices. A 1972 Schwinn Sting Ray Lemon-Peeler with the gear shift on the bars sold for $3450 (est. $300/500). The novelty 1949 Donald Duck bicycle made by The Shelby Cycle Company, Shelby, Ohio, sold for $6670 (est. $1500/2000).
James Dicke II, a private collector from New Bremen, Ohio, snapped up 162 of the 178 lots as well as a majority of the silent auction items. Over the last five years, Dicke, whose grandfather worked for Dayton Bicycle Company at the turn of the century, has collected about a dozen bicycles, which he said are both old and "not so old." The bicycles will be on view in mid-May at a former senior center in New Bremen, but Dicke said plans are in the works to establish a bicycle museum in New Bremen.
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