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Inside the Sotheby's Auction

Last Ride in Asbury Park

New Jersey Bids Farewell to its Greatest Carousel

By Claire Whiteside; Published in New Jersey Monthly, June 1989; Used by Permission

Sotheby's auction catalogue.
This is a story of love, money, tears, precious childhood memories, and one of the most magnificent carousels in the country - the turn of the century gem from Asbury Park. For a few fleeting hours, it looked as if this were a story with the happiest of endings. On February 25, 1989, New Jersey's prize, one of only 80 American carousels of the same caliber, was briefly rescued from the auctioneer's gavel, a hoped against hoped for moment of cheers and jubilation that quickly dissolved into a bitter town fight. Television perfect endings, it turns out, aren't the stuff of real life.

The scene of the drama's central act was the beige walled, beige carpeted auction room at Sotheby's in New York City. There on a Saturday in February, the carousel's 76 horses, deer, giraffes, cherubs, and gondolas stood round the perimeter of the chair filled room. Huddled haphazardly together, nostrils flaring, manes dancing, jewelled reins sparkling, they were now just a lot number. Their collective price tag was estimated at $900,000 to $1,000,000, a figure that included the carousel machinery.

Together perhaps for the last time, the Asbury Park animals comprised a veritable museum of carving styles. Although the carousel has been ascribed an official construction date of 1910 by the National Carousel Association, the structure that housed it dates from 1887, and it is likely that the carousel replaced all or part of a former one in the same pavilion. This seaside, four abreast carousel was exceptional in that over the years, as fire and various tragedies damaged the ride, it had been reworked by a cross section of the best carvers.

Just who those carvers were was something clearly well known to the fur coated crowd that filed into Sotheby's for its first ever carousel auction. "That's a Dentzel," a woman whispered to her husband, pointing to a choice outside row steed carved by a famous Philadelphia firm. "Yes, but it's big for the living room," he replied.

Stander (Looff, circa 1888) with a peek-a-boo mane, layered blanket with jeweled trappings, and two lions' heads at saddle cantle. Jumper (Illions, circa 1910) with tossed mane, jeweled strap, wolf's head and tassels at saddle cantle. Giraffe (Looff, circa 1888) with thick parted cropped mane and jeweled trappings.

The scent of treasure was in the air, and the man who stood to profit was Sebastian Vaccaro of Vaccaro Enterprises, restorer of the Berkely Carteret Hotel and owner of Palace Amusements in Asbury Park, where the carousel had stood for nearly a century. Vaccaro was a reluctant seller. He loved the carousel, he often said. His office was decorated with merry go round memorabilia, and he'd spent two years and an estimated $400,000 restoring and childproofing the carousel. But Vaccaro had a problem. He needed money. "The pollution last summer just devastated us. Business was off 50 to 70 percent," he explained before the auction. A million dollars was not a sum to ignore. Hence, in November, Vaccaro made a surprise announcement that Palace Amusements was closed in favor of a condominium complex. Within three months the horses that had carried Vacarro's parents as well as his children were being eyed by a standing room only crowd at Sotheby's.

"My hope and my dream is to sell the carousel intact as an operating machine," Vaccaro had said. But in the absence of a major buyer with deep pockets - a Disney or a major mall developer - the proud steeds were to be sold off one by one.

That was the inevitability that a certain group of spectators was preparing for at 1:30 p.m.on February 25. With a half hour to gavel time, this group could be spotted by set jaws, eyes that blinked back tears, and T shirts that read, ALLOW OUR CHILDREN TO REACH FOR THE BRASS RING. Twenty or so strong, they were the core of the Friends of the Palace Carousel, a nonprofit group that had been organized to try to raise funds to rescue the carousel.

Fervent sales of buttons and T shirts netted a few thousand dollars; a fundraiser at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park brought in about $4,000 more. Contributions poured in, $5 here, $10 there, "each letter with a memory, a plea, an expression of outrage," said Arlene Bluestone of Monmouth Beach, one of the mainstays of the group. "People felt they were losing a part of their heritage, a memory of a time when life was a little bit slower."

The Friends of the Palace Carousel knew they needed an angel, and a few days before the auction, they found someone pretty close: New York City entertainment lawyer Ron Taft, who had grown up in Belmar and who offered to lend the group $700,000 interest free. That sum, plus all the change they could gather, was offered to Vacarro five days before the auction. Four days later, they were turned down cold. Vacarro wanted to raise a total of $1.1 million, an amount that seemed impossible to raise overnight.

Camel (Looff, circa 1888) with realistic face, fringe blanket and detailed hair carvings. Jumper (Illions, circa 1910) with waterfall main, twin eagles at saddle cantle and jeweled trappings. Goat (Looff, 1888) with plaid blanket, deeply carved hair, expressive face and double eagle backed saddle.

But as auctioneer David Redden got ready to gavel the crowd to order, hope had not vanished altogether at least for Donna D'Amico of Ocean Grove, another of the Friends' leaders, who said she had one ear cocked for the phone. "We've given everyone Sotheby's number. We're just hoping someone comes through."

Almost to a person, the Asbury Parkers were too wired to sit down. The tragedy for Arlene Bluestone was that "there's no question in my mind that if we had more time we could have gotten the money." Her husband made his way to her and said, "Carol Keller is crying." "Already?" responded Bluestone, adding philosophically, "We've done everything we could have done."

The focus of her attention for the last months was Lot 40, which meant that she and the tense Asbury Park group had to witness the sale of 39 lots of individual animals from other carousels - standers (the most valued), jumpers and prancers - that made their entrance one by one on the beige stand. These prized horses attracted heated bidding, which seemed to augur well for Vaccaro. He felt certain the Palace ride would sell as a single lot, an outcome Sotheby's carousel consultant, Charlotte Dinger of Morristown, author of The Art of the Carousel, also hoped for. "All the bidders were there," she said later.

Certainly two were. When it came time for Lot 40, auctioneer Redden, whose voice is the sort that frequently breaks into a British cadence, announced that "in the interest of preservation" the Asbury Park Carousel was being sold intact. The opening bid he solicited was $400,000. There was a taker. And a counterbidder. The price rose to $500,000. But all that Redden's subsequent auctioneering and coaxing yielded was a breathless silence. "Pass," he finally pronounced, meaning that the carousel's reserve price - often 80 percent of the estimate - hadn't been met. Redden might as well have said "past," for that was the only tense that seemed applicable for a once grand piece of New Jersey's history.

Moving as one, the dazed Friends of the Palace Carousel left the room. Anguished sobs swelled from the hallway beyond as Redden tried to regain the attention of the clearly shaken audience. Much of auctioneering is theatre, building a mood, playing with pauses to heighten the tension and lure reluctant bidders to enter the fray. Redden had lost his crowd. Amid the confusion, the first of the Palace's horses was auctioned off without even being carried to the stage. Seven more were bid on before the auction was halted. Four failed to find buyers; those that did sell brought only 80 percent of the minimum estimate. Few buyers, it seemed, had the heart to participate in dismantling the carousel. Redden announced that instead of selling the Asbury Park horses, he'd switch to other lots and allow Sotheby's time to figure out how to get the Palace horses on stage.

Carousel with most of the animals removed for the last time, 1988. Photo courtesy of Suzanna Harris Libbin. view larger image
After fifteen non-Asbury Park animals had sold including a Dentzel rooster that brought in a record $135,000 a stir was heard in the back of the room. Navy blue suited Sebastian Vacarro made his way to the auctioneer's stand. "In the interest of conservation," Redden announced "and because the Asbury Park carousel has not sold as a single lot, Mr. Vaccaro has withdrawn the remaining lots and will continue to work with the Friends of the Palace Carousel. Sotheby's will allow the seven buyers to cancel their sales after the auction." Cheers and wild applause rose up from every corner of the room. What carousel collectors love even more than buying splendid horses is seeing carousels operate in their historic roles. "God is great, God is good, God is here today," whispered one of the women from Asbury Park.

Cameras flashed and newspaper reporters swarmed around Vaccaro, who was positively beaming. "The story has a happy ending. Number one, the carousel will continue to operate. And number two, it's going back to Asbury Park," he said. The Friends were jubilant, and Vaccaro, aside from his obvious sentimental attachment to the ride, had good reason to smile. He and the Friends had just shaken hands on a $1.1 million deal. In addition to the $700,000 from Ron Taft, he would accept what was essentially an I.O.U. - a note for $400,000 that they could pay back as their fund raising progressed. But by Monday morning, this moment of good will and celebration would seem like a mirage.

"I had to read it in the paper that they'd changed their offer," says a bitter Vaccaro. What transpired on Sunday was that the Friends of the Palace Carousel finally got a hold of Taft. As the Friends' lawyer, Jerold Zaro of Eatontown, explains, participating in a $1.1 million sale was "out of the question" for Taft, who told the Friends, "You're not buying prudently, you're buying emotionally." Since the individual horses sold poorly and the highest bid for the carousel was only $500,000, Taft reasoned that half a million was pretty close to its true worth. He sliced the Friends' offer in two. "Five hundred and fifty thousand was a real slap in the face to Vaccaro and I kind of agree with him," says D'Amico.

The bizarre twist to this convoluted story is that what D'Amico and the Friends were interested in paying for the carousel was not relevant. "It's not our money," she points out, adding that "we never sat down and wrote anything on paper; we're not negotiators." Her group had naively assumed that Taft's loan was theirs to do with what they pleased as long as they paid it back. The legal catch they didn't foresee was that if the Friends didn't raise the money they anticipated, their creditor would own the carousel. Hence rumors circulated that Taft was simply trying to buy the Asbury Park ride at a fire sale price and then sell it later for a huge profit. Counterrumors cast Vaccaro in the villain's role. As Zaro explains, "The benefactor's position, " a reference to Taft, "is: 'I don't want to see these people struggle to pay back $700,000 and then not be able to meet Vaccaro's note for $400,000 and have him get the carousel anyway.'"

Needless to say, once the fur began flying between Taft and Vaccaro and a threat of a suit was aired, negotiations quickly broke down. In the aftermath, Vaccaro said, "I still don't know what I'm going to do....I'm still trying to find someone to buy the carousel as an operating unit." The list of prospective buyers he was courting did not include the Friends.

But on April 22, the carousel machinery as well as 25 animals were put on the block at Guernsey's, another New York City auction house. The rest of the horses will be sold in the coming months. Dismantling the carousel is something Guernsey's co-owner Barbara Mintz considers "heart wrenching." But, she says, the carousel was already dismantled when those seven horses were sold." She says that Guernsey's, which has specialized in carousel figures for six years, has "saved a lot of carousels by finding buyers for them. Sotheby's just wasn't set up to sell a big carousel."

Be that as it may, the one certain truth about all the rumor and innuendo that swirled around the Palace carousel is that the ride is not coming home to Asbury Park. New Jersey's children will have one less place to reach for the brass ring.

At the turn of the century, New Jersey, with its glittery seaside resorts, was one of the best places to ride carousels. Of the hundreds that flourished from the 1890s to the 1930s, only a handful have survived.

The reason has as much to do with the economics of running a carousel as with the $40,000 a fine horse can bring at auction. Even though fiberglass reproduction horses cost from $2,500 to $5,000 each, with non-wooden horses "you don't have the maintenance costs," explains Charlotte Dinger. Old fashioned carousels need to be restored every now and then, and just to strip off the paint and repair the horses' legs, and the damage on the wood can run $500,000 or more," she says. Another expense that is killing small carousel operators is insurance costs, which can run $50,000 a year if the ride has a brass ring mechanism. Little wonder that in recent years, gems such as the ride at Point Pleasant have closed up shop. Equally unsurprising is the present status of the carousel on Soupy Island, in West Deptford, with figures made by Freidrich Heyn, whose late nineteenth century factory was considered by some experts to have produced the most magnificent of German carvings. The carousel has been closed to the public since 1987, its fate apparently in limbo.