Sail, circus and train collections sold at estate auction in Camden

Amazing collections of master hobbiest Les Bex sold
By Susan Mustapich | Oct 03, 2017
Photo by: Susan Mustapich J. Pearson & Sons Antiques hired auctioneer Dan Brooks, right, for the Les Bex estate auction Sept. 30 in Camden.

CAMDEN — A collection of tens of thousands of useful and whimsical items -- parts of historic sailing vessels, countless boxes of model trains, packages of miniature circus animals, circus posters, skis, tools and machines -- was auctioned at the estate sale of Les Bex, Sept. 30 in Camden.

Bex, who lives at Windward Gardens in Camden, owned and captained schooners and ran tours on the Betselma in Camden Harbor for many decades, worked ski patrol at the Camden Snow Bowl, collected Lionel trains, and built miniature circuses, life-sized circus wagons and collected circus memorabilia.

The auction was conducted by J. Pearson & Son Antiques of Searsport. Four or more runners, constantly on the move, took lots off tables under a large, covered storage structure to the auction area beside. The runners lined up, feeding the items to auctioneer Dan Brooks, who called out descriptions, bids, and "sold" with hardly a pause. A massive collection of Lionel trains, many in unopened boxes and entire train sets of all sizes, one-of-a-kind circus posters, including Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, were sold for prices mostly from tens to hundreds of dollars.

A life-sized circus tent, model-size circus tents, and a number of circus dioramas made by Bex were part of the sale. In 2011, Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport featured the Bex Bros. Circus, a display of miniatures Bex worked on for decades, in the multi-media exhibit, "The Circus Comes to Town." At the time, Courier Publications Arts and Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest, wrote, "The Bex Bros. Circus was a regular feature at the dollhouse shows put on for many years by the Camden Lions Club and it also used to show up at local schools and in shop windows. But 25 years ago, Bex packed most of it away and put it into a storage unit … well, maybe not every piece."

Parts of historic sailing vessels came down from the loft of an old barn, including line, blocks, pulleys and wooden mast hoops. The barn was once used for building small boats by Elmer Collomer, a former owner of the property. In 1962, Collomer, who was in his 80s, built the Heritage, a 30-foot yacht combining classic design elements of larger windjammers and the Friendship sloop. The Heritage is now a daysailer in Camden Harbor, owned by Captain Jeff Beck. On Sept. 29, Beck stopped by the barn on Cross Street, hoping he might find the boat's original plans.

Capt. Ray Williamson also stopped by the auction. Williamson and his wife Ann bought the Maine Windjammer Cruises fleet from Bex in 1986. Before buying the fleet, Williamson worked for Bex as a captain for three years. Pointing to a calliope wagon on the property, Williamson said he helped build it. "If you worked for Les, that's what you did in the winter," he said. A calliope is supposed to run by steam, he said, but to build this wagon, he used plastic pipe for the calliope. Inside, there was an electrical machine that produced steam, and the calliope music played on a cassette tape machine.

Williamson said Bex always had a passion for the circus. "He used to carve his own miniature figures. He bought a plastic injection molding machine to manufacture his own wagon wheels."

"He is a really great guy, who took me in," Williamson said. "When I got to Camden, I had two kids, and it was all about the schooners. Fifteen years before, he was my age, and when he first got here, he had two kids, and got involved with the schooners. We used to joke around all the time. I used to call him Uncle Les and the crew thought he was my uncle. He was like an uncle. If you needed something, you would go to Les and he would figure out how to get it."

When the Williamsons bought the Mattie, Mistress and the 80-foot Mercantile, Bex financed the deal. "It only happened because he wanted it to happen," Williamson said. If a bank and surveyors were involved, they would have required a million dollars in financing, because the boats needed major restoration, he said. Williamson bought Bex's ship saw, the most essential piece of equipment for the restoration, he said, and worked for four years restoring the fleet. The work culminated with the schooners recognized by the United States Congress as National Historic Landmarks. Williamson's book "Maine Windjammer Cruises, Keeping the Tradition Alive" tells many stories of Camden's historic schooners. The book's final chapter tells the story of how Bex gave the Williamson family their start on the life they would build in Maine.

In recent years, Bex suffered a stroke, and went to live at Windward Gardens. After rehabilitation, he returned to his Cross Street property, and lived in the little white house for a while. But he was not doing well, Williamson said, so he went back to Windward Gardens. "When it was obvious he wasn't going to make it back to Cross Street, he left everything to his kids, to be taken over immediately."

Williamson ended up buying most of the boat-related items that remained after the auction, and with his crew, was still moving it off the property on Oct. 3. "He had a sail-making machine, and three more in the loft. He had eight gallons of a paint the schooners used to use. Maybe we would use one gallon a year. He stockpiled everything," Williamson said. In sum, the Cross Street property contained "an unbelievable collection of his lifetime interests."

J. Pearson & Son Antiques hosted an online auction site, in addition to the live auction. The calliope sold to a woman in California for $1,500. The side show painting by Fed Johnson, renowned in the circus world, sold for $1,500 as well.

The sale will continue on the Cross Street property Oct. 7, Jeff Pearson said.

During the auction Sept. 30, the miniature circus figures and animals, vintage boat equipment and parts, and miscellaneous but meaningful pieces of Camden's history, were loaded into pickup trucks and vans and dispersed to who knows where. If those inanimate objects could talk, there would be a thousand stories to tell on this page.

Courier Publications reporter Susan Mustapich can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at

Les Bex with the Mattie circa 1981. The Mattie was rechristened the Grace Bailey in 1990, after undergoing historic restoration and attaining National Historic Landmark designation. (Courtesy of: Maine Windjammer Cruises)
In the early 1980s, Ray Williamson served as captain for Capt. Les Bex's Maine Windjammer Cruises for three years. In 1986, Williamson and his wife Ann purchased the fleet of schooners from Bex, and sail them today from Camden Harbor. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
Posters from circuses around the country were sold at auction on Cross Street in Camden Sept. 30 (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
Buyers with boxes of Lionel trains at the Les Bex estate auction Sept. 30 in Camden. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
A miniature circus made by Les Bex at the estate auction Sept. 30. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
A circus wagon built in the barn on Cross Street was up for auction Sept. 30. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
A poster from the traveling Roberts Brothers Circus show at the Camden Snow Bowl. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
A circus sideshow painting by Fred Johnson was one of the prized items in the Les Bex estate auction on Cross Street in Camden Sept. 30. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
A Camden High School marching band jacket was purchased during the tag sale Sept. 29, prior to the auction. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
An ship saw occupies the center of the ground floor, and seems to hold up the loft of the barn on Cross Street. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
This poster advertises tours of Camden Harbor on the Betselma for four dollars for adults. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
A massive collection of Lionel trains, many in unopened boxes, were found at the Les Bex estate auction Sept. 30. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
This cabinet of miniature circus figures is a small representation of the thousands of figures collected or made by Les Bex. (Photo by: Susan Mustapich)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Oct 03, 2017 15:35

Gone but not forgotten. Memories always seem to be passed along.

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