Local fur buyer Bill Geiger stood in a crowd of buyers, trappers and spectators at Missouri’s last fur auction of the season and carefully examined the lots.
Low prices at the Fur Harvester Auctions, which took place the day before in North Bay, Ontario, Canada, gave Geiger high hopes that raccoon, coyote and bobcat prices would be lower here as well.
A conveyor belt carried in furs from across the state: skinned beavers, river otters, raccoons, muskrats, bobcats, opossums, minks, red foxes, gray foxes and beavers along with boxes of beaver tails, squirrel tails, deer hides, other miscellaneous furs, and animals frozen whole for taxidermy.
Auctioneer Kevin Whitworth shouted instructions through the loudspeaker: “If you need some tags, come on up.”
Department of Conservation agents waited at a table to tag each bobcat and otter. The tags are part of the Convention in Trade in Endangered Species Act, which regulates North American trade of animals with appearances similar to protected species (such as the Canadian lynx or sea otters).
Whitworth’s auction-calls ushered in a steady flow of fur across the conveyor belt.
He started the bidding at $4 on two bundles of 29 hares:
“Six dollars and fifty cents on number five,” Whitworth said with a nod to the “5” written on a piece of paper stuck to the high-bidder’s cap
The auction on Feb. 21 was Missouri’s third and final auction of the recent trapping season. The Missouri Fur Trappers Association hosted three auctions at the Boone County Fairgrounds in Columbia.
Bidding began at 8 a.m. Trappers streamed in and out of the fairgrounds. They arrived in pickups filled with bundled pelts. They lined rows of tables and fussed with the appearance of their furs, trying to make the pelts as presentable as possible. Then, they left with checks.
The temperature inside the enclosed fairgrounds room rose with the sun, and with it came the scent of damp fur and thawing flesh. The temperature became a worry for Geiger; melting could damage quality.
“This is the bottom of the ladder for fur,” he said. “This is the starting point.”
Local players in the global market
Geiger and fellow fur traders preserve an industry older than the United States. As the first middleman between trappers and garment manufacturers, his position is similar to that of Missouri fur buyers living when St. Louis — founded as a fur outpost in 1764 — was the epicenter of the American fur trade.
Like the frontier fur buyers of the 1800s, Geiger still travels the American interior purchasing pelts from trappers. The week leading up to the auction found Geiger and his 24-year-old son, Luke, on a whirlwind trip buying furs from Missouri trappers in St. Joseph, Mound City, Union Star and Millersburg. Then, they traveled to Tiptonville, Tenn., for an auction hosted by the Tennessee Fur Takers Association.
Running a trap line is no longer a viable livelihood, Geiger said, but for many it remains a rewarding hobby. For Geiger, fur buying is a winter supplement to his summer job paving highways for APAC Missouri. He said the fur trade contributes 10 to 20 percent of his annual income. He also owns cattle and leases land on the Boonville farmhouse where he grew up. There, he spent much of his childhood trapping in the surrounding hills and streams.
In 1974, Geiger became a licensed buyer. After three years of independent operation, he started buying fur for Joe Duryee and Duryee Furs Co. Geiger is one of several buyers working for Duryee across North America.
Duryee often accompanies Geiger to auctions. At the recent auction in Columbia, he stood with arms crossed and examined the lots moving past. Every so often, he’d adjust his mesh cap, signal a bid and then readjust his arms.
“(The fur trade) has good points and bad points,” Duryee said. “If you’re on the ride up or the ride down, it can make you or break you. It’s kind of like the stock market.”
Duryee became involved in fur buying by selling to North America Fur Auctions (NAFA) when it was still owned by the Hudson Bay Company. After a few years on his own, he found financial backing and expanded his business.
“In those peak years, I was doing $7 to $8 million worth of business,” he said. “Then it went down to $700,000 to $800,000; then it boomed back up. Now, we’re doing $2 or $3 million again.”
Now, as prices abroad fall, Duryee said, American fur dealers are often trading among themselves. Sometimes, they store fur in freezers until prices recover. The Department of Conservation allows licensed fur dealers to buy from trappers until 15 days after the season ends, but licensed buyers may trade among themselves year-round.
The recent season began Nov. 1 and closed Feb. 15. That meant the last day licensed fur dealers could legally buy from trappers was March 1.
“Some of us local dealers trade in the country,” Duryee said. “If one guy has an otter market, then we sell our otters. If I’ve got a better coyote market or gray fox market, then I buy gray foxes and coyotes off of them.”
Although much of the wild fur caught in the United States eventually reaches large auction houses in Canada (Fur Harvester Auctions in North Bay, Ontario, or North American Fur Auctions in Toronto, Ontario), many buyers now have connections to clothing manufacturers.
Duryee said he doesn’t do much business with the large Canadian auctions anymore. After sending his fur to international fur dressers in Canada, he ships most of it directly to clothing manufacturers in Greece. From there, the garments are sold predominantly in Russia.
For the past five years, the international fur market has grown steadily. However, the North American price for river otter fur collapsed this year after Chinese stock markets plunged.
“Otters at auction went for between $120 and $140 last year; this year they went for around $45,” Geiger said. “The Chinese quit buying them.”
At the last fur auction in Columbia, the average price of otter was $40.29 per lot. Geiger stays in touch with current market values through the large Canadian auction houses. Both auctions offer buyers across North America a look at standard prices on the international market.
“Now if it weren’t for the Russians, these ‘coons would be $2 or $3 instead of $5 or $10,” he said.
The Hudson Bay Fur Company, which was responsible for exploring much of Canada in the 17th century, was the original owner of NAFA’s auction house. After the fur market crashed in the early 1980s, the Hudson Bay Company began selling its fur-related businesses. In 1991, NAFA bought the Hudson Bay Company’s auction houses and consolidated in Toronto.
“When the fur was really high back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, everyone thought that was the time to get in,” Geiger said. “But that was the wrong time to get in.”
Fur had become extremely fashionable worldwide. Then animal rights groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) led anti-fur campaigns that accelerated the trend’s descent from high couture. Activists labeled fur wearing unethical just as new buyers and trappers were flooding the market with goods. Prices plummeted.
Today, Missouri has approximately 30 active fur buyers with roughly 150,000 licensed trappers, said Dave Hamilton, resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Both figures were much higher in the heyday of trapping 30 years ago. Hamilton estimated that the number of trappers nationwide was approximately 500,000 then.
After 10 hours at the auction, Geiger wrote the last few checks for lollygagging trappers. He sat beside an open suitcase that contained a purse of cash (nearly empty), a pouch of natural chewing tobacco (completely empty) and files of paperwork.
Luke Geiger and a few helpers moved the remaining purchases and supplies into the trailer. Duryee stopped by to see how the day’s purchases went.
“It was a little cheaper,” Geiger said, “especially the muskrat, the mink, and maybe the beaver were a little cheaper because of the two Canadian auctions—the trendsetters—but the gray fox and the coyotes were real good. It was a pretty good sale.”
Geiger was surprised that the raccoon price had held despite the Canadian auctions. He flipped through a three-ring binder full of receipts. His expenditure for the day totaled $8,302. Since the trapping season began, Geiger said, he had spent more than $100,000.
“It’ll take three months to get everything scraped up so we can sell it next fall,” Duryee said. “They’ll be scraping beavers and ‘coons into July and August. Hope we’re done by September. Then, usually the market starts to pick back up in September and October.”
To those buyers still lingering about the fairgrounds, an auction attendant handed out the figures from the day.
Geiger looked at the total amount spent by all the fur buyers: $74,860.
He put the paper into his briefcase, dipped into a fresh bag of chewing tobacco and climbed into his pickup.