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Antique tools

These are not the tools of the future. There is nothing of the robot about them -- no automatic arms and fingers to fold, bend, weld, cut, join, and pierce; no chips or diodes to sense unseen commands; no photoelectric eyes to divine variations of thickness or unanticipated flaws in cold mother material; no miles of wiring or printed circuit board to carry commands from spinning reels of mysteriously coded tape to surfaces hardened beyond anything nature ever provided.

Yet their kinship to the monster robotic tools that are revolutionizing all of manufacturing is as certain as that of the most primitive feral-eyed aborigine in the remote jungles of New Guinea to his brother, the tweed-jacketed nuclear physicist at MTI.

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These are tools. Tools with a capital T. Tools that require only a keen-eyed, strong-backed, muscular-armed wielder to transform raw material into objects that lighten the load, speed the passage, and enrich the life.

They are lying on tables around a room today, at rest. There are over 500 of them, in all sizes, shapes, and materials. There is rosewood and mahogany here, wrought iron and gleaming brass, ivory and cow bone, fine English Sheffield steel and crudely hammered file blades, varnished birch and sweat-patinaed pine. There are saws and hammers, calipers and mallets, planes and lumber rules, slitting gauges and fruitwood scrapers.

This is the world of tool collecting. The tools in this particular room, at the Ramada Inn in Keene, N.H., are the offering at the spring antique tool auction of John P. Bittner of Putney, Vt.

Mr. Bittner, a Michigan native, has specialized in antique tools for the last decade. Seven years ago he held his first antique tool auction. They have proved so popular that he is now recognized as the leading auctioneer in the young field. This spring's affair, the 12th in the catalogued series, featured what some collectors believed was one of the most spectacular assortments of antique tools ever auctioned in America.

For this auction bidders drove and flew to this town in western New Hampshire from 19 states and three provinces in Canada. They came prepared to buy. Over 70 percent of those registering for bidding numbers bought merchandise, a remarkably high number for a general-line antique action, but not unusual for a tool auction.

Because of Mr. Bittner's reputation, he gets the cream of the tools available. In May 1982 he sold an 18th-century small molding plane made by a black apprenticed laborer, Cesar Chelor of Wrentham, Mass., for $2,700. That price remains an American auction record for a handmade tool.

For two days bidders debated the merits of prospective purchases, evaluated their checkbook balances, and spent nearly $100,000 on the old tools. And one thing become evident. Beyond Mr. Bittner's auctioneering talents, beyond bidders' bankrolls and balances, the real stars of the show were the tools.

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There were tables of smoothing planes and compass planes, chamfering planes and dadoing planes, molding planes and reeding planes, in woods as varies as beech, boxwood, mahogany, ash, pear, and bird's-eye maple. There were saws for fretwork, meat cutting, repairing barrel staves, fitting stairs, and framing houses. Big saws for use in a dug pit on raw logs, little saws for use in a watchmaker's shop.

There were tools that seemingly jumped straight from the pages of the book that hastened interest in this collecting field, "A Museum of Early American Tools" by Eric Sloane, and other less well-remembered tools, tools for making tin candle molds, surveying the West, and plumbing the bathrooms of America.

Collecting antique tools is a farily recent phenomenon, perhaps less than a decade old, but there are a few who qualify as veterans in the field. John Bittner is one of those. He has some observations about tool collecting.

"Because of the millions and millions of 'tools' available out there, many of us, the general public, and much of the influential antiques-oriented media or marketplace, do not differentiate between 'tools' and TOOLS," he says.

"As a result, fine antique tools have not received the stature, the recognition, or the prestige to which they are entitled. Also, traditional tool collectors may have tended to be either less affluent or more conservative than collectors in many other fields, with the result that no tool, however deserving , has ever approached the record price reached by such things as dolls, decos, flasks, coins, stamps, paintings, prints, furniture, ironware, glass, china, or any one of hundreds of other categories."

"We may be on the verge of a dramatic breakthrough," he concludes. "Knowledge within the field is growing by leaps and bounds; collectors are becoming more discriminating and specialized. The public perception may be improving. There is increasing publicity, and, most of all, there is still so far to go."

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