To an American auctioneer, the art of the sell is in the “chant.”
“I got 20. Gimme five. Gimme five more. Give me 25. Twenty-five there!”
The rat-a-tat chant, delivered rhythmically with a booming voice, feeds the tension in the room and gets the adrenaline flowing.
The auctioneer points at bidders — one then the other, then back to the first — daring them to go higher and higher. Bids come in seconds. There’s no time for thought.
“Gimme five. Gimme five more. Gimme 30. Gimme 30. Gimme 30? Sold for 25!”
If the auctioneer is really good, bidders may find themselves going higher than they ever intended.
“It’s theater. It’s understanding and reading the crowd, and rewarding certain behavior,” said Richard “Jeff” Jeffers, a long-time art dealer and CEO of Selkirk Auctioneers and Appraisers in the Central West End and Garth’s Auctioneers of Ohio. “I’m really a marketer and a psychologist.”
There’s an art to auctioneering, and students from across the country came to St. Louis to learn it this week, paying $1,000 for a multiday course from the Missouri Auction School.
The students are an eclectic bunch. Royce Edwards of Fond du Lac, Wis., clerked at an auction when he was a teenager. He caught the auction bug, but his wife didn’t want to be married to an auctioneer. So he spent his career as a state employee.
“She divorced me three years ago. It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “Now I’m 71 and I’m going back to auction school. I always wanted to do it and I’m doing it.”
Several of the students have rural roots and grew up going to auctions for livestock and farm equipment. “It’s always fascinated me — the rhythm of the delivery, the sound,” said Jeff Lucas, a farmer and landlord from southern Indiana.
Peggy Ladd of south St. Louis grew up on a farm but became an engineer. Through her volunteer work, she heard that a woman-oriented charity couldn’t find a woman auctioneer. Ladd plans to fill that void at charity auctions and galas around St. Louis.
It is, indeed, a male-dominated business. There were 12 men and four women at the class at the Selkirk gallery, where they learned about auctioning and art.
Auctioneers are “people persons,” said Paul Dewees, president of the Missouri Auction School, which has been training auctioneers since 1905. They are outgoing and good at sales.
And they’re very good talkers. Auctioneers develop their own chants with their own words and patterns, but with one thing in common. When the bidding is going, the chant never stops.
The chant is mainly two words — the last bid, and the bid they’re seeking. “Between that there are filler words,” Dewees said. It sometimes turns into a countrified rap song with a toe-tap beat: “I’m at one dollar, bidding now, two now two, will ya gimme two.” Sometimes it’s “melodic, pleasant sing-songy almost nursery rhymey,” he says.
Or, it can sound like a verbal machine gun, words flying so fast that it’s nearly unintelligible to auction newbies.
The aim is to create “auction fever,” a psychological urge to bid. “It’s a quick-decision business. We want to create that sense of urgency,” Dewees said. “By the pace of the auction, by the rhythm of the chant, we can sometimes draw those people in so they’re continually bidding.
“In the heat of the auction, there are five people wanting the same thing, and the sense of competition is a very funny thing,” Dewees added. When a bidder bids, for that instant, unconsciously, he thinks he owns the item. “You’re thinking, ‘I know what I’m going to do with that,’ ” Dewees said.
That makes it hard to see another bidder take it away.
“Being an auctioneer isn’t hard. It’s uncomfortable,” Jeffers said. The salesman is rapping the chant, scanning the audience, doing math in the brain to calculate the next bid. He’s carrying the show, with money at stake, and that’s an uneasy feeling.
The auctioneer surveys the audience. “I’m seeing facial expressions. I’m seeing body language,” Jeffers said. “Sometimes I see a couple and they’re discussing whether to bid a piece. She’ll say no, and the other one will bid anyway.”
When a bidder looks down, he’s done, and the auctioneer knows to look elsewhere.
He watches out for “sniping” — an Internet auction term that applies to live auctions as well. A bidder stays silent to the last instant before the hammer falls, before turning in the high bid.
They auction cattle. They auction cars. They auction fine paintings and sculpture. The auctioneer’s dress may differ — cowboy boots in the barn, jacket and tie in the gallery. They make subtle allowances for the ambience. The rap at a cattle auction is a tad softer than when selling fine art — especially when the paintings cost lots more than a cow.
“My chant might sound slower, more conversational,” said Jeffers, but it still has a beat to it. “I’ll sell 85 lots an hour,” said Jeffers. “If you sell slow, they become disinterested. Twenty-three lots an hour doesn’t cut it.”
There are strategies to consider, as well as questions of fairness.
At art auctions, bids come in over the Internet and by phone to employees behind the audience. Some buyers leave their maximum bid with the auction house, and an employee places them during the auction.
That leaves the auctioneer with a choice. Some will start the bidding at the top bid they have in their pocket. After all, the house makes the most money when prices are high — and that’s certainly what the object’s owner wants. Most auctioned objects are sold on consignment with the house getting a percentage.
But Jeffers doesn’t think it’s fair to the bidder who named his top price. Auctioning is a trust business. “If I go right to that top number, that does not elicit trust,” Jeffers said.
So, he starts the bidding lower, and his employee ups the ante in time with other bidders. Often that means the bidder gets the object below his maximum price.
Jeffers’ opinion on that subject isn’t unanimous. “You have a lot of auctioneers who will tell you you’re silly. You just lost money,” he said.
At other auctions, there are no bids in pocket and no moral dilemma to the choice.
The auctioneer may start the bidding high, and then drop the price if no one bids. If that’s the tactic, don’t be too quick to lower, Jeffers tells his students. Linger a little to see if somebody speaks up.
“If you drop now, they’ll make you drop again and again,” Jeffers told the class. Experienced auction buyers psych out the auctioneers. If they know that a particular auctioneer likes to start high, they’ll sit back and wait for the price to drop.
The other option is to start low to encourage bidding, then hope that auction fever drives the price up.
Auctioneers are largely entrepreneurs — hiring themselves out to auction houses, lawyers selling off estates, farmers selling the farm and looking to retire, or family selling off the possessions of deceased relatives. Good ones might make $50,000 to $100,000 per year, Dewees said.
Most of the work is done offstage, dealing with sellers. Getting the auction in order. Sometime the task requires sympathy.
Sellers are often at a “transition point,” Dewees said. It may be Mom and Pop moving to a smaller home and getting rid of things that won’t fit. Sometimes the sellers are relatives selling off a deceased person’s estate.
“It’s an emotional day. All their friends and family are there,” Dewees said. “They’ll say, ‘I have memories of Grandma rocking me in that rocker.’ ”