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On the popular PBS presentation ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ the magic moment comes when the appraiser segues into ‘the price at auction would be…;’ the same magic moment occurs when a rose society decides to embark upon a rose auction as a source of funds. This article seeks to elucidate some of the characteristics and practices accompanying rose auctions in the Southland area. While the great flower and rose auction at Aalsmeer can trace its lineage back to l912, it is unlikely that more than a few Southland rosarians would be aware of that lineage (and even fewer could pronounce it, including the author).
The basic reason for the advent and continuance of the rose auction is financial. Probably the first rose auction in this area was that of the Pacific Rose Society about fifteen years ago. Current Pacific Southwest District Treasurer Chris Greenwood sought an alternative to the traditional means of fund-raising: sale of cut flowers, or miniature roses, or other ‘street fair’ activity. Rising expenses and dues as a diminishing source of total revenue made it apparent that one big fundraiser would be preferable to the slow accretion of small profit margins. Chris sought out assistance from Tom Carruth of Weeks roses in the form of donations of ‘hot’ roses; these new and otherwise not quite yet available roses created consumer excitement and formed the basis for generating cash. Star Roses and Jackson and Perkins also agreed to donate new rose varieties as well.
A similar tale of declining revenue from dues coupled with diminishing returns from small-scale activities provided the genesis for the Ventura County Rose Society auction about five years ago. Previously the VCRS sold roses on Mother’s Day weekend in May at a local mall in the Oxnard area in order to supplement society income. However, over time, the number of people willing to sacrifice Mother’s Day weekend for that purpose diminished and the burden on the remaining volunteers increased accordingly. After newspaper reports of a murder at a local mall, the enthusiasm of even the remaining group for mall sales disappeared in a cloud of gunsmoke. So Jeri Jennings, the newsletter editor, suggested a rose auction as a substitute. The first auction was so successful that the practice has continued.
With the financial aspect the compelling force, it is not surprising that the rose auction proceeds fund a variety of different operating costs. Pacific Rose Society uses the its auction proceeds to fund its extensive rose show with the largest number of classes in California. Santa Clarita uses the money to support the trophies—including Waterford—that grace its rose show. Orange County supports its monthly room rental fees with the proceeds from the auction. Ventura County supports its newsletter and monthly meeting fees through the agency of the auction. In many instances the money represents around forty per cent of the operating expenses of the society for a given year with reported profits somewhere in the 3000-dollar range. The major exception to this pattern is the San Diego Rose Society, where the auction is purely lagniappe for more particular causes—such as seed money for promotion of the National Convention in 2004 or some other special purpose as opposed to current operating expenses.
Again, with the exception of the San Diego Rose Society, all of the societies are concerned with maintaining low dues figures and either directly or indirectly the rose auction moneys contribute to that goal. In comparison with many other volunteer activities, the dues structure of rose societies is exceptionally low; fifteen dollars for a family membership is not uncommon (although Pacific recently raised their dues to twenty dollars for a family membership while retaining the fifteen dollar figure for single memberships). Santa Clarita, Los Angeles Rose Society and Ventura County still maintain the fifteen-dollar figure although Orange County Rose Society has bumped its price to eighteen dollars for single or family memberships.
The sources for the roses at the auction range from those in which the roses are almost entirely supplied by members of the rose society to those where almost all of the roses are bare root roses supplied by major vendors to all possible variations in-between. Thus, the original model of Pacific Rose Society still acquires a large percentage of its roses as bare roots contributed by the major vendors in the area—Star, Weeks, and Jackson and Perkins. At the other end of the continuum would be Santa Clarita where no bare root roses are offered at the rose auction because it is held in May as opposed to the January/ February auctions of Pacific, Los Angeles, and Ventura County. The Santa Clarita auction consists of member donated roses to the point where only five per cent would come from vendors or purchase. In fact, one individual probably provides three-quarters of the plants at the auction whether recycled, budded roses or rooted cuttings. Member contributions are the main basis for the Orange County auction as well as the Los Angeles Rose Society auction; however, both Orange County and Los Angles report contributions from local nurseries as a supplement to the member contributions. ‘Member contributions’ here generally refers to a few members who contribute plants either by way of rooted cuttings or the recycling of plants no longer useful for exhibition purposes or for reasons of limited space and an unlimited desire for newer roses. Ventura County has an interesting mix for the sources of its roses. Probably forty percent of its roses come from individual donors; another forty per cent come from vendors with a decided tilt toward boutique vendors, and another twenty per cent are purchase items.
The kinds of roses sold tend to reflect the populations of the sponsoring organization; almost all of the roses are sold to persons who populate the local society. Pacific started out with the newest and most exciting varieties being offered by the major vendors; in later years it added some tried and true miniature varieties when Cal Hayes became the auctioneer. To a lesser degree the offerings have expanded to include garden varieties in addition to the exhibition varieties as public and society interests have changed. Last year there were even some Old Garden Roses—Irene Watts, for example.
The number of roses can be up to two or three hundred—although last year’s auction advertised that 500 roses would be for sale. There is probably some optimal number of roses that can be offered for sale given the auction format, but certainly auctioning off two hundred roses tests the patience of the bidders and the stamina of the auctioneer.
Orange County focuses on miniature roses with some Hybrid Teas and Floribundas. Santa Clarita rarely has multiples of the same rose and tries to keep the number of roses down to about a hundred to a hundred and twenty five. Ventura County offered 150 roses last year and sold them all; this year there were 240 roses and about two dozen remained unsold at the end of the day. Ventura County takes the view that only about one hundred different roses can effectively be sold in the time frame permitted by the two and half hour schedule for bidding. Ventura County also offers a smorgasbord of rose offerings; offered for auction in 2003 were 30 shrubs, 30 Hybrid Teas, 12 Floribundas, 18 polyanthas, 20 OGRs and 21 miniatures. The highest average price ($21) per rose was earned by the polyantha class; the $52 bid on ‘Mary Guthrie’ was the highest of the entire auction. The Los Angeles Rose Society auction operated with one third of the 153 roses in 2003 being contributed by vendors and two thirds by the membership; of the total number of roses only about a dozen fell into the polyantha or Old Garden Rose classes.
Not all auctions are alike and the variations can be meaningful. Pacific Rose Society has a potluck dinner before the auction while Santa Clarita has an entire themed party involving BBQ or a Mexican Fiesta or a Luau. Ventura County has auctioned roses, fixed floor sale roses and a silent auction of rose memorabilia and exotica all happening at the same time. Nor are the bidding methods the same. The Dutch method provides that a bid start from a point and be lowered until all the roses are sold; this is not the usual system in Southern California. Santa Clarita will not permit a rose to be sold for less than five dollars and all of their roses are sold. Pacific bids up to the highest bidder who gets the pick of the multiple bands of roses and then the second highest bidder gets to choose until the bids exhaust the number of roses or the figure of five dollars is reached; at five dollars the rose is offered for the last time. The Pacific Rose Society features a group of those who wait until the bid reaches five dollars and then flock to the table to claim the prize, a fluttering movement one begins to associate with ‘five dollars?’ over the course of an evening. Roses not sold for five dollars are simply not sold; leftover roses are potted up for monthly raffles or contributed to other societies for auction. Ventura County tends to transfer roses from the auction to the monthly raffle tables. A couple of local societies simply give leftover roses away in order to be rid of them. This is tough on a rose auction chair; almost as tough as seeing ten ‘Flutterbye’ bushes sell for a dollar apiece or some other atrocity.
Bob Martin Jr has been the auctioneer for the Santa Clarita Rose Society for the last five years as well as being instrumental in the auctions at both Los Angeles and Ventura County; a society could do worse than garner the talents of Bob Martin as an auctioneer. Having grown personally over 1500 roses provides him with an invaluable database from which to promote roses for sale. Cal Hayes is the auctioneer for both Pacific Rose Society as well as the Orange County group; he can speak authoritatively about the exhibition potential of any rose with an unerring eye. The qualifications of both men indicate that the auctioneer has to be in the possession of enormous amounts of information about a great many roses; wit, humor, and great physical endurance also help. Peter Alonso of the eidetic memory for roses replaced Bob Martin as the auctioneer for Los Angeles Rose Society in 2003. Jeri and Clay Jennings have auctioned for Ventura County, the last time in 2001. As someone who has substituted for Bob Martin on one occasion at the 2002 Ventura County Rose Auction, the author can testify that the process is exhilarating, educating and exhausting; it involved creating a loose leaf notebook with data and pictures on every rose offered for sale, gleaning information from the standard texts, and diligently searching for factoids and illustrative tales regarding the particular roses. It was not dissimilar from studying for the California Bar Exam. It is also worth noting that the top auctioneers, Cal Hayes and Bob Martin, are among the top exhibitors nationally as well as regionally; all of the other auctioneers mentioned exhibit as well.
There are a number of pitfalls associated with rose auctions that are not immediately apparent. One is that eventually the same people wind up producing the rose auction year after year in a society; given that the process is labor intensive and highly stressful, it can contribute to the ‘burn-out’ of valuable rose society members. Where there are member contributed roses that are cuttings or budded, the chair has to maintain a reasonable degree of vigilance regarding such things as patents or trademarks, so as not to infringe inadvertently, rights protected by law. The desire to protect and preserve low dues fees is more than laudable given the social security status of many rose society members and it can even have acute dimensions; at least one rose society in the Northern California district lost 50 per cent of its members upon raising the dues in successive years up to 20 dollars. However, it should also be clear that relying on the rose auction for forty percent of the operating funds in a given year is an inherently unstable basis for financial planning, particularly if the auction is the primary activity of one or two members identified with the process. The period of adjusting to a learning curve for a new group of rose auction personnel can be a scary process indeed. And the long term implications of providing essential services unrelated to the payment of dues can only be a matter of speculation, but the attrition of the nexus between dues and society services should be worrisome over time.
Nevertheless, a rose auction is a splendid event. It has all the excitement that a theme park environment can provide with drama and farce. There are opportunities for buying new roses cheaply. A variety of educational data can be supplied in the guise of identifying and praising a rose up for sale or auction. Constant references to the characteristics of the area and the propensities of the rose reinforce important information about the nature of the climate, the humidity, the mildew, the rust, the potential for blackspot, single blooms to a stem, the virtues of single roses, and the unlikelihood that ‘Clothilde Soupert’ will open for a rose show or that ‘Huilito’ will ever open at all. Gatherings of rosarians are always arenas in which citizens of great and small means, high and low status and crosscutting cultural and generational attitudes meet on an equal footing to talk and rate roses. The auction is rosarian democracy in action. And one of the glories of the auction is the sight of strong willed rosarians bidding in contravention of self-interest and common sense for the privilege of overpaying for a rose even while others wait for the ‘five dollars?’ signal and rustle in anticipation.
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