The Culture

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Master Auctioneer?

We sold a horse. We sold Yeti coolers. We sold wireless meat thermometers, Craftsman shop vacs, trailer tires, and vintage saddles. When stomachs were growling, we sold popcorn snacks. A rum cake, made by one woman’s ninety-year-old Hawaiian grandmother, sold for hundreds of dollars. A three-speed 1921 Emerson fan and a football signed by former Oklahoma Sooners coach Bob Stoops each went for much less. In desperate times, we sold whatever we saw nearby: eyeglass frames, an American flag, a Texas flag, folding tables, a lectern—even the very microphone we held.

We were six days into an eight-day course at America’s Auction Academy, practice-selling everything in sight. Sixteen of us sat on gray banquet chairs in a fluorescent-lit conference room in a Radisson Hotel in Addison, a Dallas suburb. Our instructor, a wildly successful auctioneer named Mike “McGavel” Jones, paced in front of the class. Jones, a bald man dressed in a suit and tie, moved with the posture and efficiency of a drill sergeant who had been drinking strong coffee since dawn, but he spoke with a preacher’s flair. Though many of us had arrived at the Addison Radisson as amateurs, Jones assured us we had come a long way.

By now, we could authoritatively deploy lingo like “knock-down price” and “quantity options.” We had learned about things one might find while auctioning off the contents of an abandoned storage unit, both the intriguing (a gun collection!) and the unexpected (a Zamboni!). We were close to grasping a basic “chant,” the hypnotic blur of words and numbers that builds to a crescendo as a sale is finalized. But that evening, Jones expected us to demonstrate our new skills in a live-streamed charity auction. The stakes, he reminded us, were very high: hundreds of people on Facebook would be watching, and thousands of potential dollars to help the very sick children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Scottish Rite Hospital for Children were on the line.

“I feel so good today,” Jones said, launching into what was intended to be a rousing pep talk. “I don’t know why I feel so good.” He took a breath and looked to the wall as if it were a beautiful horizon. He returned his attention to the class, and his speech took a sudden sobering turn. “Imagine today was your last day.”

The room fell silent until one student, David Skidmore, a retired IT professional from Friendswood with rosy cheeks and white hair, piped up unprompted with a story he’d read about a singer-songwriter who stopped mid-performance, told the audience, “I’m sorry,” and dropped dead.

Raising an eyebrow and nodding, Jones continued: “Imagine today was your last day. Your last week. I don’t mean to be morbid.” He paused for a moment of silence as we contemplated our mortality. Another student, John Montgomery, a Burleson building contractor and fifth-generation Texan with a booming Old Testament voice, announced that if today were his last day, he’d like to take the opportunity to eat some more of the doughnuts that our classmate Cliff Brister had brought that morning. Others agreed.

But before we raced to the doughnuts, Jones led the group in prayer, as he’d done to mark our other milestones. “May our chants be the best they can be,” he began. “May they serve the Lord’s purpose.” He took a deep breath, stood straight, and high-kneed back to his lecture chair, trumpeting with a smile, “I’m filled with the Holy Spirit!” He took his seat, and Lori Jones, the vice president of America’s Auction Academy and a former spouse of Mike Jones, passed out a half-inch-thick packet titled “Licensing & Regulation Auction Law.” Each one landed in front of us with a solemn thunk.

Mike “McGavel” Jones, founder of America’s Auction Academy.

Photograph by Drew Anthony Smith

I was not an obvious candidate for auctioneer school. I’m not a particularly fast talker, I’m not loud, and I’m loath to ask for money. But I’ve always been fascinated by the auctioneer’s chant. Who among us hasn’t been entranced by the rhythm, the energy, and the mystery of the auctioneer’s incantations?

As the daughter and granddaughter of voice teachers, I have witnessed many a student’s metamorphosis from a squealing lamb into an operatic soprano. But I couldn’t begin to imagine how one would teach a novice to chant like an auctioneer, speaking so dizzyingly fast that the words jangled in uninitiated ears like a foreign language. The technique seemed Talmudic, as cool as beatboxing and Tuvan throat singing.

That, and it seemed like a good party trick.

And so I enrolled at America’s Auction Academy, the biggest auction school in Texas. A few minutes later, an email arrived containing a 62-page introductory practice guide, including an intimidating amount of number drills and tongue twisters. I clicked on an audio file and tried to follow along. I did all right at first but grew overwhelmed within minutes, stumped by this one:

Betty Botter bought some butter
But she said, “This butter’s bitter
If I put it in my batter
It will make my batter bitter”
So she bought a bit of better butter
Put it in her bitter batter
Made her bitter batter better
So ’tis better Betty Botter bought
A bit of better butter.

Any English proficiency I might have assumed of myself was suddenly insufficient. I was like a choreographer in a forty-yard dash. But I practiced every morning for twenty minutes in the weeks before the program began; by the time I packed my bags, I felt only minimal jaw cramping.

When I arrived at the Addison Radisson at 8 a.m. on the first day of class, a sound system in the front of the room was blasting James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Students handed in any outstanding paperwork, and everyone took their seats at fold-out tables covered in black polyester tablecloths. A student named Lorraine Bice stopped by my table on her way to the front of the room, clutching her belongings to her chest like a high school freshman. She spoke with a disarmingly thick Dolly Parton drawl, and her sweet face was framed by a caramel-highlighted shag hairdo. She owned an antiques store in Jefferson, she explained, and after she started hiring an auctioneer friend to host auctions for her, she decided to learn the business herself. “My feet don’t usually hit the floor till nine o’clock,” she said, shaking her head with a woozy smile. “I didn’t know eight o’clock came twice a day.”

As the administrative scurry settled, Mike Jones marched to the front of the room. “Morning,” he said, taking a seat in an elevated chair. The class’s response was respectably audible, given the early hour, but Jones raised an eyebrow and hollered, “Morning! You’ve got to project!

“What I’m trying to do is teach you everything I know in eight days,” he continued. Jones was a National Auctioneers Association Hall of Famer who started out dirt poor and decided to get rich, specializing in the sale of large ranches and the liquidation of industrial properties. We wanted to get rich too, he assumed, unless we were idiots.

Who among us hasn’t been entranced by the rhythm, the energy, and the mystery of the auctioneer’s incantations?

With that, he launched into the characteristics of the auctioneer chant we would be learning. Live bid-calling is like a series of contracts, and when an auctioneer says “Sold,” accepting the bid, the highest bidder is on the hook. Therefore, each part of the chant is crucial. “A chant is made of three components: a statement, a question, and a suggestion,” Jones began. The jumbles of syllables between the numbers are called filler words. The class scribbled. The basic chant Jones proposed—the one we would employ for the remainder of the class and that would provide a soundtrack for all our dreams and nightmares—was “One dollar bid, now two, now two, will you give me two?”

This chant was the “Dick and Jane” of the form, the starter set upon which we would build our own auctioneer identities. A chant is as much a trademark to an auctioneer as James Brown’s scream and Bob Wills’s high-pitched holler were to them. All chants, Jones stressed, must be conducive to rhythm, melody, and clarity, exploiting words that easily roll off the tongue. Filler words and phrases like “bid ’em at” and “gimme” and “I’m bid” and “how ’bout” are better than “what about,” since consonants that use the front of the mouth (like b) require less breath than letters like w. Jones asked us to hold our hands in front of our mouths to compare “who” to “gimme” to demonstrate how much more breath was required for the former. The numbers need to be clear; the filler words are there for pleasure—to add an energetic, pressing, hypnotic quality. Filler words should give buyers time to consider their next offers but not so much time that the rhythm of the chant is broken. A clunky chant could lead to a hoarse auctioneer and confused or sluggish audience members, reluctant to bid.

“There is no book,” Jones continued. “There’s no company that says, ‘This is how you do it.’ There is no professor except me, Professor Jones.”

Actually, America’s Auction Academy has several auctioneer instructors and is one of a handful of well-regarded auctioneer schools in the United States. Jones founded the academy in the nineties, and it grew with Jones’s business and reputation. He had started out doing consignment auctions in 1979, back when going to an auction was a national pastime. “There were three TV channels, no malls, no computers. And there were people who didn’t have any money but came anyway,” he told me. “It was like a fair.”

In 1981 Jones got his big break: he was hired to liquidate the contents of Western Auto stores. Pretty soon, he was selling a Western Auto store every week. “They used to call me the Western Auto king,” he said. Soon he was liquidating Montgomery Ward stores, True Value hardware stores, and missile plants.

In an economic downturn such as the one we’re experiencing, auctioneers might find themselves busier than ever as businesses begin to waver and individuals begin unloading property. In 2008, shortly after the Dow dropped seven hundred points in one day, Christie’s auctioned off $30 million worth of jewelry and precious stones. (When the Great Depression struck and farmers began losing their land, auctioneers thrived, but they acquired a reputation as last-resort vultures, which lingered for decades.)

Jones soon left full-time liquidation behind and began auctioning high-dollar real estate: ranches and commercial properties worth millions of dollars. By the early 2000s, people didn’t need a mediator to help them buy their collectible dolls and their vintage chairs. If they wanted something like that, they could get it on eBay. The digital disrupters had shifted the world to a marketplace without the middleman. By building his business around real estate and industrial properties, Jones was better inoculated than others against the shifts in the industry. In 2012 he was inducted into the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame, introduced as “a balding dynamo from Dallas.”

I’ve listened to Jones’s own chant several times; in 1998 it won the International Auctioneer Championship. Best I can tell, it begins, “Five dollar now five gidibid five dollar now ten gidibid ten, ten now fifteen digibigit now fifteen now fifteen gidibid, now twenty?” He varies his hum around a low F key, breaking in with updates like “You’re out here!” and acknowledgments like “Thank you, sir!” The chant strikes the perfect balance between soothing and invigorating, like mall music.

It was like rubbing your stomach and patting your head and reciting the alphabet backwards to a beat.

Standing before the class now, he launched into a short example. “I’m at fifty dollars, now seventy-five, will you take it at seventy-five?” he started. Watching an authority chant up close was hardly demystifying. Jones held the microphone with his right hand. He used his left to both acknowledge bids and query potential bidders in the audience—fingers together, palm facing up, reaching high to direct his attention to the back of the room, extending low to indicate a bidder in the front of the room. He was a performer and a conductor at the same time, scanning the crowd for any hint of interest and responding with an inquiring expression. Physically, he exuded calm, steady authority.

“You have to sound melodic, but you don’t have to do a lot. If you roll it out right, it sounds like you’re doing a lot of work, but you’re not, really,” he said. He stressed that the chant needed to fit the situation. “If you’re doing a charity auction and you go too fast, you’ll lose your crowd. In real estate, you’ll scare them to death.”

In the front row, a thin young man named Tyler Bell raised his hand. “Mister Mike, I have a question,” he said. “Like, I listen to a lot of John Korrey? And he says he uses his tongue a bunch and that’s what makes his numbers pop? Is that because he does cattle?”

Jones nodded. “Yes. That’s why. John is a cattle auctioneer out of Colorado,” he told the rest of us. “If you’re sitting in an auction block all day pedaling numbers, you’re going to master that rhythm. It’s coming off your tongue. If you want to be a cattle auctioneer, there are only one or two everyone wants to be like. Who do they sound like?”

“John,” Bell answered.

“John and who else?” Jones asked.

“Ralph Wade,” Bell said.

“Who is Ralph Wade?” Jones grew enthusiastic, as if he were about to lead the group in a testimonial. Dismounting from his tall chair, Jones walked to the side of the room and retrieved from a side table a 25-inch-tall doll dressed in jeans, a shiny belt buckle, a tuxedo shirt, a jacket, and a black cowboy hat. The doll’s mouth showed its lower teeth—frozen, eternally, mid-chant. Jones held the doll by the rod against its back.

“This is Ralph Wade,” he said, unable to hide his admiration for the Luciano Pavarotti of his field. “We had him stuffed. Ralph has his own damn doll!” Jones pushed the belt buckle, triggering, in the doll, a barely decipherable chant. For 27 seconds, we all leaned in, grown adults listening to a doll for all the wisdom it could impart.

The author chants during a charity auction while instructor Mike Jones looks on.

Photograph by Drew Anthony Smith

That morning, like we did every day, we warmed up with tongue twisters and number drills, our forearms outstretched like a droning choir of capitalists. “You need to have hands out, asking for money,” Jones said on the first day. “That’s your number one job. No lazy arms. Put your hands out.” We needed to appear natural, moving one hand out in the direction of a possible bidder. Where is the bidder? What’s your current bid? What’s the bid you want after that and the one after that? Where are your hands? How’s your rhythm? Are you projecting from the diaphragm? Is your chant melodic? Quit swaying from side to side! And smile!

Keeping track of our mouths, the movements, and the increasing numbers was more stressful than I’d imagined it would be. It was like rubbing your stomach and patting your head and reciting the alphabet backwards to a beat. Though the room was freezing, I was sweating. I could use a beer, I thought. It was 10 a.m.

That afternoon, our solo bid-call practice commenced. One by one, we performed in front of the class. To start us off, Jones selected Dawson Cowen, a nineteen-year-old butcher from San Angelo. Cowen was buff, with shoulder-length Nordic-blond hair. He’d been attending various trade classes to round out his interests: farrier school, concrete-tank-pouring school, gunsmithing school, and now this. “I’d like to do this so I don’t have to work for anyone else,” he’d told the class when he introduced himself earlier that day. Now he stood before us, twitchy and unsure of what was expected of him.

“Hands up,” Jones said. Cowen held his forearms at a 45-degree angle from his body and spotted an item on his table that he could pretend to auction off. “I’m going to be selling a leather notebook, hand-inscribed,” he started, opening the bid at twenty dollars. Someone offered him five dollars. “Five dollars, can I get ten—”

Jones interrupted him. “This is going to be painful,” Jones explained. “You are going to have to get ‘can’ out of your chant. ‘Can’ creates doubt. ‘Can I get?’ I don’t know; can you? How about ‘will’ you get or ‘how ’bout’?” He asked Cowen to place his hands behind his back to avoid waving them around. “Let’s go,” Jones said. “Start over.”

Cowen sighed. With his arms still behind his back, he looked like a firing squad victim. He started back up, stumbling intermittently and accidentally eliminating crucial basic-chant words like “now.” “Twenty dollars, can I get—will you give me twenty dollars? I got twenty dollars, will you give me thirty dollars?”

“Remember the basic chant?” Jones asked.

Cowen allowed a frustrated smile. “At the moment, no,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, no one was eager to follow him. To keep the sequence moving, Lori Jones summoned each consecutive student with a tap on the shoulder. Lorraine Bice, with her drawl, struggled with her bids’ increments. John Montgomery, with the big voice, stepped up. Montgomery already conducted charity auctions for his local business associations. “I do it poorly,” he told us. “I’d like to do it better.” He pointed his fingers at his audience like he was shooting them. Many students had difficulty with rhythm, and I had a hard time with all of it: I swayed, I couldn’t project, I stiffened my hands like a toy soldier, and I concentrated so hard on keeping track of my increments that I sounded unnecessarily somber, like I was delivering bad news from the number world.

Imagine your most timid relative standing up at Thanksgiving and commandeering the table with Lizzo swagger, busting out “Cuz I Love You.”

We all stumbled over our chant. At some point, Jones placed a whiteboard with “Will you give me” directly in front of us, as a reminder. But even with that assistance, we were floundering.

That is, until Tyler Bell stepped out front. Bell, a high school senior from Anderson, near College Station, had close-cropped hair and a country boy’s polite ways, with his “sirs” and “ma’ams.” He’d introduced himself earlier by saying, “My name is Tyler Bell, and I have a mom and a dad and a sister.” He said he’d always wanted to be an auctioneer because he liked “the nature of it, the spirit of it.” He was so shy he barely glanced at us for the first few seconds. We all looked on supportively.

Then he started with a confident nasal hum. “Alllright, ladies and gentlemen—” He immediately roused curiosity. Who was this, and where had he come from? His chant was transformative. Imagine your most timid relative standing up at Thanksgiving and commandeering the table with Lizzo swagger, busting out “Cuz I Love You.” He had luster; he had control.

His performance was as daunting as it was inspiring. He’d been doing hometown auctions for a few years and had been to a junior competition, we later learned, but he showed more than experience. We were completely in his thrall. While the rest of us were struggling through our chants, Bell had already mastered that unteachable thing all the best auctioneers have: total conviction.

Lorraine Bice sells a gift box from her hometown during a charity auction at America’s Auction Academy, at the Radisson Hotel in Addison, on January 22, 2020.

Photograph by Drew Anthony Smith

Over the coming days, we settled into a routine. At eight o’clock each morning, we started with our drills. Next, Jones would usually ask us to open our giant red binders to a new chapter, and we’d hear a lecture from Jones or a guest auctioneer sharing his or her expertise. At some point, we’d each step up to the front of the room to “sell” one or two items and be critiqued by Jones and the class. Then we’d break for lunch. In the afternoon, we’d do it all over again—on good days selling a little bit better than the one before.

Flailing our arms and jumbling our increments, we all discovered our individual chant handicaps. “Do not get discouraged,” Jones told 26-year-old Blaze Simonson, who seemed to have many difficulties. Each time Simonson finished his practice, he just smiled and shook his head. “Right about the time you’re about to kill yourself, you’re going to get it,” Jones told him.

I was unable to easily count past a hundred anymore, which was unsettling. I also had another, more profound concern: I was worried that my voice was too high-pitched. I can sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in a round, deep tone, torturing my children with a wall of volume, but I have a very hard time projecting my speaking voice without sounding screechy. Some women would call my self-consciousness about my high voice a function of the patriarchy, but I disagree. In auctioneering, high and loud voices are as irritating as low and loud voices are mesmerizing.

On the third day, Jones brought in a champion named Cheri Boots-Sutton. One of the most successful women in the male-dominated industry, Boots-Sutton had a raspy voice and a steel spine. She had won the 2012 World Automobile Auctioneer Championship and the 1999 International Auctioneer Championship–Women’s Division. Women used to be an anomaly in the auction business, but their numbers have grown—our own class was about 30 percent women.

Boots-Sutton had offered to coach us individually in an adjacent conference room. When it was my turn, I asked her if she had any advice for my voice. “Women can’t make it unless you can adjust your voice,” she said. “I used to be able to sing soprano, but I don’t touch those notes now. I can’t. I’ve trained my voice to be low because you have to be aggressive—especially in the auto industry. If you’re a passive auctioneer as a woman, you might as well not even try. It’s going to eat you alive.” After my meeting with Boots-Sutton, I practiced my drills back in my hotel room. My voice cracked at key intervals, and deepening it made it sound comically artificial. Plus, it hurt. It felt like a small peach was lodged deep in my windpipe.

Halfway through the course and barreling toward graduation, we had become exhausted by our chants, though we were stopping less often to groan and sigh deeply. I began to turn my focus to bidders, and we were all feeling more comfortable. Bell no longer suppressed his swagger: at lunch one day he told the waitress proudly, “Baby, I’m an auctioneer.”

By the afternoon of the fifth day, Jones declared us ready to go out into the world. A few students volunteered to drive, and we piled into their cars for a field trip to a used-auto auction house. After winding our way into an adjacent Dallas suburb via caravan, we regrouped in the lobby of a warehouse-type building. We slapped on visitor badges, then walked into a long, cavernous, exhaust-filled room outfitted with garage doors to the right and left. The auction was already in full swing, and we stepped into a cacophony of bid calls. We hovered near the door, surveying the situation. The space was laid out like a vast bowling alley: there were eleven lanes, and an auction was being held in each one. An auction employee drove a car into the facility from the right-hand side, where interested parties would survey the car in motion; when the vehicle parked at the auction block at the left-side garage door, a brief auction would begin.

For the past fifteen years, car auctions have been a booming sector of auctioneering. “By the seventies, Sotheby’s and Christie’s had come to New York and opened auction houses,” a longtime auctioneer named Mike Brandly told me. “In the 1980s, we started to see collector car auctions develop. The 1990s—oh, man, we were rocking and rolling.” Since the start of this golden age, car auctions have drawn followers and become a hugely profitable business. And it’s not just collectible cars: average cars, and even clunkers, have value to someone. While in Texas the term “auctioneer” might call to mind a livestock auctioneer in a cowboy hat, car auctions bring bigger money.

The room buzzed like a stock exchange floor, with each auctioneer selling a car literally every twenty seconds. “Watch your step,” Jones told us. A driver easing down a lane would not be watching out for tourists.

This was a place for professional auctioneers and professional bidders—car dealers, mostly—who worked like dance partners. Some of the dealers bid with a head movement, others with a wave. I saw one guy bid by raising his eyebrows, and when I turned my head toward the auctioneer, he instantly noticed my gaze, responding with an expression that asked, “Are you interested?” (In another lane, I unthinkingly pointed toward a TV monitor and almost bought a Ford F-150 for $50,000.) Here, dealers could size up the competition and buy their merchandise efficiently, without even taking their hands out of their pockets. “Coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Bell would say later.

The average auctioneer makes $50,000 a year, but the best auctioneers make six figures. Just like in real estate, everyone is chasing the biggest sales. Every auctioneer wants to sell higher-priced items, like fancy cars and yachts. Beyond the payout, selling high-priced goods is just more exciting. We saw how the rapidly escalating prices created a sense of urgency in even these seasoned bidders.

People often pay more at live and online auctions than they would in a more straightforward transaction. They suffer from afflictions like “the winner’s curse”—when auction winners pay either more than they planned to or more than the item is worth—and “bidder’s heat,” a frenzied mindset as old as ancient Rome (calor licitantis). We’re helpless against the primal pull of competition.

While buyers may come to an auction looking for a bargain, a funny thing happens after they take their seats. “You need to know this, as an auctioneer,” Jones said. “The minute a lot of buyers place a bid on an item, they’re desperate to keep it. They become territorial. They’re thinking, ‘I’m not letting someone else get it’—then someone outbids them on it! ‘How dare you!’ ”

The increments also have a huge effect on competition. Starting low gives the crowd the impression of a deal, which sticks in their minds even as the bids begin to soar. Then, once the auction gets rolling, the increments usually increase: if an auctioneer is raising the bid in ten-dollar upticks and a bidder shouts out a twenty-dollar raise, bids generally keep going up at that rate. That causes other bidders to think, “Hey, this Garfield mug is hot!” They become even more motivated.

Auctioneers and their assistants, called ringmen, must keep track of the most-interested parties. They physically lean toward those bidders to gauge their interest, flattering them with attention. They call the regulars by name and play the bidders off one another.

AUDIENCE MEMBERS WALK IN WITH A SKEPTICAL MIND, BUT THEY SECRETLY CRAVE A PORTAL INTO ANOTHER DIMENSION, WHERE ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

Since the dealers at the car auction were buying inventory, they weren’t behaving as emotionally as someone might at a weekend estate auction or a charity auction. They didn’t tend to indulge themselves beyond their budgets. But they were keeping an eye on one another just in case a bidder known for sharp buys knew something the others didn’t about the car’s condition or value. We could see it happening around us: bids might come along steadily, then one knowledgeable dealer would bid and the other dealers would perk up, causing a frenzy for a few seconds before the price reached a tipping point and all but the winner kicked the ground and walked away.

At an auction, “actual worth” falls away. Worth is dependent upon bidders’ momentary whims—various, unique, personal equations that neutralize the outside world’s opinions as well as the seller’s sentimentality.

The bidder, I saw, was like a spectator at a magic show. Audience members walk in with a skeptical mind, but they secretly crave a portal into another dimension, where anything is possible. Where financial realities are suspended in the face of tantalizing urgency. Whether that old poster is really worth the thousand dollars you paid for it is almost irrelevant. You won!

 

By the evening of the livestreamed charity auction, most of us had settled on some version of a chant. Lorraine Bice announced that she was “fine with being slow.” Tyler Bell had only gotten more confident. Some students, like Blaze Simonson, would deploy the chants they’d been using for years, with only modest alterations. After struggling in chant practice sessions, Simonson had revealed himself to be the Susan Boyle of our class during an after-hours session with a guest lecturer, chanting confidently. When I cornered him in the classroom, he aw-shucksed his way through an explanation: he had been auctioning livestock for about two years, and his obstacle during class had less to do with chants generally than with adjusting to Jones’s basic chant.

I, for one, planned to stick with the easy chant—nothing fancy. I had mastered the “will you give me” filler, the rhythm, and the pace. I was still struggling to keep track of my numbers, but I was in good shape. Dawson Cowen offered me a single critique: “The only thing I can really say to you about improvement is just loudness.”

We gathered in the lobby restaurant in our best attire. Those whose formalwear included cowboy hats wore cowboy hats; those whose included heels wore heels. Leaning against high-top cocktail tables, classmates gave one another pep talks before entering the conference room, where a few friends-and-family bidders and the online audience would watch us conduct an auction. For most of us, it would be our first involving actual money.

“I think it will be an experience,” my classmate David Skidmore told me. “We have to get used to standing in front of people and talking. We have to control our breathing. I think that’s the main thing: control your breathing and smile. Identifying the bidders and then knowing what number you’re at.”

Students practice during a training course at America’s Auction Academy, at the Radisson Hotel in Addison, on January 22, 2020.

Photograph by Drew Anthony Smith

I wasn’t yet confident I could do any of those things, independently or together. When I bumped into Cowen, I mentioned that I could hear him down the hallway, practicing, as I was walking to the elevator. “Did you hear me mess up too?” he asked. The pressure was on Cowen now, as his mom had advertised the class auction on her Facebook page and secured his first job. “The lady who does my mom’s nails is big into charity auctions, and she’s got one lined up for me already,” he said.

“He’s already on the move!” Lorraine Bice said.

Inside the conference room, Jones wore a stars-and-stripes necktie and situated himself in front of the camera, flanked by a Texas flag and an American flag. “Let’s kick it off,” he said. “You want to hear a cool song?” Signaling to Lori Jones, he cued the Leroy Van Dyke 1956 country hit “The Auctioneer,” tapping his finger against the microphone to the beat.

The song narrated the tale of a boy in Arkansas who “wouldn’t listen to his ma” and skipped school to watch auctioneers at the local auction barn. The song is three minutes long. About one minute in, I thought Jones would fade it out. He didn’t. He played the whole song, looking placidly around at the class. Bouncing their knees and nodding their heads, a few of the students mouthed the rapid-fire lyrics.

We were off. Bice introduced herself—“I may not be the fastest person tonight, but I am the happiest”—and sold a box of goodies and gift certificates from her hometown. Skidmore presented a camouflage golf bag, putting on the hard sell: “If you’re a hunter, you might be able to stick some guns in there.” John Montgomery, testing the decibel levels of the speaker system, sold custom knives. Cowen sold a San Angelo gift basket, encouraging bidders with eyebrows up, free hand out. Bell expertly sold a pair of size 10 boot pad inserts with a confident purr, throwing in “One more time for fun!” to bring the bids up to $50. Simonson sold a skinning knife, starting out, “Lookie there, now; good knife there, now; how much here, now?” before launching into a beautiful, droning chant. He reached out toward the audience—to the left, to the right—with such absorbed concentration that he didn’t notice Jones, holding the knife nearby, continually having to dodge Simonson’s arm to avoid slicing it open.

Then it was my turn. I started by selling two Texas Monthly BBQ Club subscriptions for $80 apiece, and then I sold an old Auction Academy computer bag for sixty bucks. It was thrilling and nerve-racking. But besides pointing with my index finger (insulting) and rocking back and forth like a hockey goalie (distracting), I held my own. With a microphone in my hand, I didn’t worry about volume. My voice thrummed along just a few notes lower than what felt natural. Afterward, as I left the stage, Jones commended me for applying myself. I was finally starting to understand what our guest lecturers meant when they said the numbers come naturally; six days in, I could give the crowd almost three-quarters of my attention.

Over the remaining days we would learn about livestock and ethics. We would take a written test, which everybody would pass. We would pose with Jones as we received our diplomas. Bice would head back to her antiques shop in Jefferson. Cowen would prepare for his first big auction back home. Bell would return to Anderson, where he’d graduate from high school and win the Oklahoma Junior Bid Calling Contest—“one last ride,” he said—before moving into cattle auctions.

But on the night of the charity auction, as Lori Jones announced our grand total of $8,159 for the charities, I scanned the room’s tables, stacked with gift baskets and neckties and religious books and socks.

That was when I realized we could sell damn near anything.

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Fast-Talking Times at the Addison Radisson.” Subscribe today.

Tags: The Culture, Auctions

Comments