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Tom Stackhouse, 73: Auto collector

Tom Stackhouse passed away on Nov 4, 2005, at the age of 73. He spent his life collecting stuff -- two whole barns full of it. A big chunk of his collection was automotive related.

  • The beginning of morning rush hour, cars on the highway traveling to and from downtown

Tom Stackhouse passed away on Nov 4, 2005, at the age of 73. He spent his life collecting stuff — two whole barns full of it. A big chunk of his collection was automotive related.

Several weeks before he died, he put everything up for auction.

RM Auctions of Blenheim, Ont., was chosen to conduct the sale. About a month before the sale, scheduled for Sept 18 through 20, RM staff went en masse to Tom’s home and property near Delhi, Ont., to catalogue and photograph everything in sight. It took them several weeks. The auction contained 1,157 “lots.” A few examples: Lot 3283 — 1953 Mack B50 Single Axle Tractor; Lot 4100 — Coca-Cola Ice Box; Lot 4184 — De Soto Hood Ornaments; Lot 4319 — Esso Restroom Signs; Lot 1031 — Vintage Bobsled; Lot 3275 – 1941 Chevrolet Special Deluxe Convertible.

RM’s Terrance Lobzun said it was a massive collection, and certainly the largest and best single collection of “petroliana” anyone had ever seen. (Petroliana being memorabilia and collectables associated with gas stations and repair shops).

Lobzun said it might seem to the layman or hobby collector that Tom’s was an eclectic, random collection. It was actually the opposite. Tom knew the relative worth of everything he had. When Lobzun spent some time with Tom during the cataloguing phase, Tom would often point to a particular piece, and say something like, “there’s a rare piece, it’ll fetch a high price,” and he was always right.

According to Lobzun, Tom not only knew what he was doing, he was also always in a great position to acquire the stuff, particularly petroliana. Tom Stackhouse ran several businesses in the tire, auto service, and auto salvage areas, and when he came across any dealer-only sign, hood ornament, or promotional piece that had collectable potential, he filed it away. And, as any great collector, Tom kept records of every notable find, and included as much related documentation as possible, which can significantly increase the value of any item.

The condition and merit of the collection was borne out on the auction days, as many pieces sold way over estimates. A double-sided porcelain Cadillac V8 dealer sign sold for $25,300 (estimated at $5,000 to $6,000). A Goodrich Tires metal dealer sign depicting a Canadian Mountie sold for $23,000 (estimated at $9,000 to $11,000). A Shell Clearvision double gas pump with original globes sold for $17,250 (estimated at $7,000 to $9,000). An Early 1900s tin policeman stop indicator sold for $3,500 (estimated at $300 to $450). Complete auction results can be seen at www.rmauctions.com.

In the end, the no-reserve sale generated over $2 million and established many new record sales for some items.

But, one wonders how Tom Stackhouse felt during those sale days, held on his property, as people left with the stuff he spent so much time trying to find, or simply came across, but had good reason to haul into one of his barns.

During the pre-sale preparations, Lobzun asked Stackhouse a fair question: Why sell the stuff? The multi-fold answer was along the lines of, time to cash in, too difficult to maintain, let other people enjoy it.

But Lobzun also remembers when one of the young RM cataloguers greeted Stackhouse one morning with a, “how you doing today Tom?” and Tom, in a good natured tone, said he’d be a sight better if everyone would just put everything back in the barns and leave.

You get the feeling he might not have been in a rush to sell everything had his health been better.

Lobzun once asked him which aspect of collecting gave him the greatest thrill — chasing that object, or owning that object? Stackhouse said, hands down, it was always the chase, and added that, once something’s at home, on a shelf, the party’s over.

So maybe Tom wasn’t wistful about the antique signs, tractors, and oil cans leaving his possession. Maybe he was wistful about what they represented — moments when he was thoroughly and happily engaged in a pursuit.

At any rate, it sure looks like he had a great life. Any life spent doing what you’re inclined to, would seem like the way to go.

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