Tom “Spanky” Assiter, Auctioneer
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Assiter, who lives in Canyon, is the founder of the auctioneering firm Assiter & Associates. He has been an auctioneer for 25 years and has hosted approximately four thousand auctions. In 2007 he was inducted into the Texas Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame and the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame.
When I was growing up, in Floydada, my mom and dad used to square-dance in the gymnasium of the junior high school, and I went along since we didn’t have money for babysitters. And there was a fifties country song by Leroy Van Dyke called “The Auctioneer” that the couples used for dancing. I learned to mimic the chants in that tune, and soon I was just like the little boy in the song: “He’d sneak away in the afternoon / Take a little walk and pretty soon / You’d find him at the local auction barn.”
The way auctioneers talk during the auction is called a chant or a crying bid, but most call it a chant. There are a number of schools you can go to across the country to learn auctioneering. Before going to college—I have a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from West Texas A&M University—I attended the World Wide College of Auctioneering, in Mason City, Iowa, in 1975. There, I learned that a chant has three parts. First, there’s the statement. “I’m bid ten dollars,” for example. Next, there’s the suggestion, or what you’d like to have. “Ten dollars, twenty dollars.” Then, if the audience’s bidding slows down, we come to the third part, which is the question. “Somebody give thirty. Twenty, thirty now. All right, Texas Monthly, will you give thirty-five for an article?” And the more you practice, the faster you can say it.
Most auctioneers specialize in a type of venue: real estate or farm machinery or cattle. Things like that. But I’m able to sell at different venues. For the past fifteen years, I’ve worked the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction—I’m the lead auctioneer now—and I’m also one of five auctioneers for Keeneland Thoroughbred Racing and Sales. If I have a specialty, it’s in residential, commercial, and agricultural real estate.
I think I became versatile because I didn’t have an exclusive auctioneering mentor, like an auctioneering father, so I studied a number of styles. When I was 21 or 22, I’d drive up to four hundred miles to watch an auctioneer. I’d watch for hours and pick up techniques from an equipment auctioneer one day, then a cattle auctioneer the next. I’d listen to the inflection in the voice. If the auctioneer was friendly, I’d ask, “What are your filler words?” These are phrases like “Would somebody give me twenty, now?” that prevent silent gaps in the auction. And I’d watch their professional image. It’s like watching a preacher or a speaker or a movie star. I studied the body language.
I also watched the auctioneers pick up on cues from the bidders. People are motivated by emotion. When’s the last time you saw somebody jump up and down because they paid the electric bill? Some buyers are urged to bid by an auctioneer’s smile, others by a nod, others by information: “This is a first-edition book” or “This sire won the Kentucky Derby” or whatever. You’re trying to understand what motivates a bidder. Are you going to buy the car because it’s red or because it has 20,000 miles on it?
While the chant is what auctioneers are known for, it’s only about 5 percent of the job. At the start of an auction, I’m a salesperson—for example, at a real estate auction, I’m talking to the person getting the home ready. The next day I’m an attorney, drafting a contract between the seller and me; the next day I’m a marketing specialist, working to get buyers in; the next day I’m an auctioneer, calling the bids and trying to get the most money; the next day I’m an accountant, distributing funds for the property that was sold.
You have to be on your toes at all times. Let’s say you’re at a classic car auction and there are 200,000 people in the auditorium. There may be ten to twenty guys who want that car as inexpensively as they can get it and a seller who wants to get the most. So you have to stay focused. You’re like a race car driver running the Indianapolis 500 just inches away from other cars going more than 100 miles an hour. If you don’t focus, mistakes happen. We have another set of eyes and ears next to the auctioneer so we don’t make those mistakes.
Some people have a negative image of the profession and think we’re trying to take advantage of a situation—a bankruptcy, a death. I feel we provide a good, honest service when people need us. Still, you don’t get used to the situations. I knew a gentleman very close to our family who never had children, and when his wife passed away, he asked my dad to be the administrator of his estate and sell his things when the time came. When he died, we auctioned off the house, his watch, wedding ring. Every item. For sure, I’ve sold stuff that was close and dear to me.
The longest we’ve ever run an auction was nineteen hours. It was for a Western wear store, and it went until four in the morning. We try not to do that. We’ve learned to use time differently, so at a multiple-day event like the classic car auction, we’ll do about two hundred cars a day. The most expensive car I ever sold? A 1966 Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake for $5.5 million. It was like catching the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. The strangest thing I’ve sold is a Robosaurus, a robot that picked up cars and breathed fire. From the cockpit of the machine, the owner had a microphone, and while I was conducting the auction, he was asking the audience, “Who wants to be my master?”
I got married in February 2004 to another auctioneer, Amy Sparks. A month later, I found out I had a brain tumor. I had surgery and everything was going well. Sometime afterward I went to the World Automobile Auctioneer Championship, which is a major contest for auctioneers. And Amy asked, “Do you know what today is?” She said, “One year ago today you were getting out of brain surgery.” I got to thinking about that. The year before, I had come out of the operating room at 3:00 in the afternoon, and one year later, at 3:05, they crowned me World Champion Automobile Auctioneer.
“The Auctioneer” song has a part where the boy’s fame spreads from shore to shore. That was my goal. And three times in my life I’ve had the opportunity to sell on one coast one day and on the other coast the next day. I’ve also sold in 42 states and 8 foreign countries. I enjoy what I do. I live it. I breathe it.