At an auction in Manhattan's Parke-Bernet Galleries seven years ago, Showman Billy Rose thought that a Frans Hals painting was his for $20,000. But from the auctioneer's pulpitlike rostrum, Parke-Bernet's President Hiram H. Parke sedately cajoled more bids. "What's the matter," called Rose, "you got a stiff arm?" Not until the price had risen another $10,000 did Parke's arm loosen up enough to bring down the hammer and sell the painting to Rose.

With such genteel stiff-arming of the buyer, white-haired Hiram Parke, 76, who looks more like a bank president than an...

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