By George Brown
Last week I attended the National Auctioneers Convention in Indianapolis. It may seem an oxymoron to use the words exciting and convention in the same sentence, but spending almost a week with a thousand or so fast talking auctioneers was both enjoyable and educational.
A “first timers” breakfast was held on opening day for the estimated 30-40 of us attending for the first time. Most, like me, recently graduated from one of the dozen auction schools scattered throughout the U.S. Unlike me, most were young, very young. I was hoping there would be an award for the oldest first timer, or at least a certificate that read, “You’re a brave fellow for trying this at your age.”
If there had been such a certificate, I would have received it, hands down; but despite being old enough to be called grandpa by most of the other first timers I proudly wore my first timer ribbon throughout the convention.
The various best practice sessions were interesting but the highlight of the week was getting to hear other auctioneers call bids, which they did at training sessions, at the “Fun Auction” on Wednesday night (a fundraising event open to anyone brave enough to participate), and, finally, at the granddaddy of all bid calling contests, the International Auctioneer Championship.
This year’s IAC contest pitted 100 highly talented men and women (yes, there are many female auctioneers) who could melodiously and hypnotically chant until the cows come home, or at least until the last cow is auctioned. And wouldn’t you know, this year’s International Auctioneer Champion is a Buckeye, Andy White from Ashland, Ohio.
My boss, Joel T. Wilson (who has not yet been named to the NAA Hall of Fame but should be), is doing a good job of teaching me the trade and coaching me to become more than a novice bid caller, but after hearing Andy White and his fellow competitors, I have lost all hope of ever becoming the IAC Champion. Hey, a fellow can dream, can’t he?
However, I did get to meet a former champion at dinner on Thursday evening. I had the good fortune and honor of being seated with Don Shearer from Kissimmee, Florida. Don was a serious minded financial management guy when he joined the Walt Disney Corporation in the mid 60’s, but soon after, and quite by accident, he became the company’s official Disney “Auction Ear,” which remains Don’s nickname to this day.
With great enthusiasm and true Disney animation Don told me the story of his auctioneering career – something all auctioneers love to do. As Don began sharing his story I couldn’t help but observe that his ears, although not large, were noticeably round and that he expressed himself in a rather humorously goofy sort of way. But it was the rapid, pleasantly quirky, quacking cadence to this Donald’s voice that confirmed why he was able to so capably serve as the “Disney Auctioneer Ear” for 35 years.
One of the comforting things I learned at the convention (actually, that I already knew but which was reconfirmed) is that every auctioneer has his or her own unique chant and it is difficult to say one is truly better than another, the annual selection of an IAC champion notwithstanding. Whether you happen to like or dislike the way a particular auctioneer calls bids is a matter of preference, so long as you can understand the auctioneer well enough to follow the bidding. When the hammer falls and the auctioneer shouts “SOLD,” it doesn’t matter whether he or she called bids slowly in the English style, or rapidly, as we do here in the U.S.
As for the success of calling bids slowly, consider the success of Sotheby’s, founded in 1744, and Christies, founded in 1766. Both firms remain in operation today based on successful business plans, not their manner of calling bids. Hmmm, maybe this is an employment opportunity I should pursue.
Still, our purely American style of chanting is both entertaining and successful. This raises the often asked question, why do auctioneers talk fast? Well, I could tell you but doing so would mean violating the auctioneer’s oath that I took when I enrolled in the Ohio Auction School and which all auctioneers silently recite to themselves just before starting every auction. But I am allowed to comment about the origin of the rapid chant.
There are two popular theories on this subject. Some believe rapid bid calling dates back to “fast talking” men engaged in the business of auctioning off young maidens as brides back around 500 B.C., but there is very little documentation to support this theory.
Another theory with a more recent and plausible history is that our U.S. style of fast bid calling began during the American Civil War. As the story goes, Union forces would plunder the livestock and possessions of Southern families as they passed through the countryside. These goods and merchandise were often confiscated by the company commander, and an officer, usually a Colonel, would be called upon to auction the items on a given day and time. As a side note, this title of Colonel caught on and was popularly used by auctioneers until as late as the 1950s (for example, Colonel George Brown, Auctioneer…has a nice sound to it.)
Presumably, on one particular occasion a Civil War Colonel wanted to quickly auction off the plunder gathered by his troops so he called bids rapidly as though using a marching cadence, “Sound off, what’ll ya bid, 1-2 — 3-4! As it happened this Colonel, whose identity has long sense been forgotten, called bids with a strong melodic nasal sounding voice. Well, this rapid cadence, melodic, nasal sounding manner of bid calling caught on, and, with various modifications, is still used by auctioneers to this day.
My final takeaway from the convention is to cling to the hope that if I do this long enough I might just turn into a real auctioneer. I have good reason for hope because the same thing happened in my last career. After working in services for senior citizens for forty years, darned if I didn’t become one.
George Brown is a freelance writer and apprentice auctioneer. He lives in Jackson Township.