Many years ago, in a small Eastern European country, the customs department had an interesting practice. When travelers returning to the country brought home an item purchased abroad they were required to declare its price and it was on that price that they would calculate and pay the duty. To prevent travelers from declaring a price below the actual value, the custom inspectors had the right to buy any article for the declared price. When that happened, the Customs Department would auction the item and keep the money paid at the auction.
One day a merchant arrived at the border. When asked if he had any items to declare, he said that he had a shipment of 500 gloves. The inspector asked how much they were worth. The merchant said that the gloves were of substandard quality. They were only worth a pfennig apiece.
The officer asked to see the gloves that were only worth a pfennig apiece.
The merchant handed the inspector a glove.
The inspector found it was a beautiful fur glove – a marvelously warm fur glove – and immediately purchased the entire shipment for a pfennig a glove. He was delighted with himself. He knew his superiors would think well of him because of the money he would surely earn for the Department when the gloves were resold.
When the day of the auction came, the inspector looked to see if the merchant was in the crowd. Those who tried to avoid the duty often came to the auction to try to repurchase their merchandise. The inspector looked and looked but the merchant was not there. The inspector was disappointed; he had hoped to see the look on the merchant’s face when the lot was sold for a hundred or two hundred times the declared price. “Oh well, he thought, “it doesn’t matter. What is important is the money that the Department will make today!”
Soon it was time for the gloves to be auctioned. The auctioneer’s helpers brought two large crates onto the stage and pried off the lids. The auctioneer reached into the nearest crate, grabbed a glove and lifted it so the audience could see it. “Here you see the quality and workmanship of this beautiful fur glove and the others – 500 in all – that a foolish merchant tried to declare were worth no more than a pfennig a piece!”
The audience snickered at the foolishness of the merchant. Only a fool would have thought he could convince the customs inspector that the beautiful gloves were worth a pfennig.
The auctioneer cried, “Who will open the bidding?”
However, before any bidding could commence an old man at the back of the crowd called out, “What! Are you not going to show us the rest? How can we decide to bid if you don’t show us the others?”
The auctioneer was annoyed. “I have inspected them and I can assure you they are of the same quality.” And at that he reached into the crates and grabbed a handful of gloves. Sure enough, they were all just as beautiful as the first. He shouted, “Satisfied? Now who will start the beginning?”
But before the bidding could begin, the old man cried out again, “Look! They are all left handed!”
The audience looked and the auctioneer looked and, sure enough, all the gloves they were holding were left handed gloves.
The auctioneer and the auctioneer’s helpers searched frantically through the crates to find right handed gloves, but they found none. All the 500 gloves were indeed left handed
The audience began to laugh. They laughed until they had tears in their eyes. It took the auctioneer nearly 10 minutes to get them to quiet down and as soon as they did someone would whisper loudly “all left handed!” and everyone would laugh until the tears started again.
The sale was a complete fiasco. No one seemed to care about competing for any of the auctioned items. Anyone who purchased that day got a bargain. It didn’t seem as if anyone would bid for the 500 left-handed gloves, but in the end the old man offered to buy them for half a pfennig a glove. He was the only bidder.
As he was loading the crates onto his wagon, one of the onlookers called out, “Old Man, what are you gonna do with 500 left handed gloves?”
“Perhaps I will sell them to soldiers who have lost arms in the war.”
“Ha! You better hope they lost their right hands.”
The old man finished loading the crates and started down the road. When he got a mile down the road, far away from the border he began to smile. He smiled because he knew that on that same day, in another city on the border, his son was bringing in another 500 marvelous fur gloves, all right handed, and when he was asked their value he would declare them each worth but a pfennig…
Note: I came upon this story in one of my old journals – from 1973. I was then living in a boarding house in Cuernavaca, Mexico studying Spanish. One of the other lodgers, an American named Ed, told me the story one night. I later found a similar story in Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art (May 1, 1886).