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What They Do

Insider Info

Auctioneering has a long history and tradition. But technology is changing the field.

"Today's auctioneers are embracing the opportunities of modern technology," says Holly Neuman. She is director of communications for the National Auction Association (NAA).

Auctioneers "are incorporating the best of what that technology has to offer, while at the same time relying on the time-tested methods that have made the auction method so successful throughout history," she says.

"Auctioneers are able to offer clients opportunities -- including worldwide marketing via websites, items sold online, live auction bidding via the Internet and much, much more."

Everyone recognizes the mesmerizing chant of the auctioneer.

"Thirty-five, 35, we got 30, looking for 35, standing at 30,000, who's gonna break this spell -- 35! We've got 35, do I hear 40? Forty big ones, hubbida hubbida, can somebody gimme 40? Let's go! We've got 35, no takers! Come on, 35 going once, going twice...sold! To the bidder with the red cap for $35,000."

But an auctioneer is more than a fast talker with a microphone. The auctioneer is the person who makes an auction happen. Usually, the auctioneer is the owner and operator of the auction firm.

The fast talking is just an exciting part of the whole operation. An auction is a public sale where items are sold to the highest bidder. Property, jewelry, cars, clothes -- practically anything can be auctioned.

Usually, an auction is used to dispose of merchandise or to "liquidate assets." You would do this if you were short on cash but had lots of heavy machinery and property. Since you need the money right away, you would auction off all that stuff. It's kind of like a garage sale.

Because of this quick-sell capability, auctions are used to sell stuff from a bankrupt company. It's sad that someone went bankrupt, but it's great for all those other people who are still in business, because they can buy all kinds of great equipment at a bargain price.

Auctions are also used to sell off the estates of people who have died. Car dealers, as well, often use auctions as a means of buying used cars. In fact, everyone can use an auction, whether it's for buying or selling.

Even big corporations have auctions.

The auctioneer is a marketing specialist. Auctioneers must know the value of the seller's merchandise. They also must know how to attract attention with the right advertising. Their goal is to get the best price for their seller, because that enhances their reputation.

An auctioneer is involved in every part of the auction.

Before the event, the auctioneer must work with the seller to set up the merchandise. Good presentation can help get a good price.

On auction day, the auctioneer works with clerks, bid spotters and cashiers to put on the show. It is fast-paced and lively. Hundreds of items may be sold.

After it's all done, the auctioneer oversees sorting everything out. All of the items must be accounted for, the money must be collected and recorded, and the site must be cleaned up.

As an auctioneer, you will do some "chanting" or "bid crying," as it is called. For this, you need a strong voice. Four to six hours of chanting can be very exhausting.

Al Briggs is the executive director of an auctioneers association. He says high voices are bad news in the business. According to Briggs, a high voice comes out of the amplifier like a scream.

However, Briggs notes that there are lots of female auctioneers coming into the field. Traditionally, he says, "It's [been] grossly unbalanced.

"But it doesn't matter a darn because women make great auctioneers if they have the right voice," says Briggs.

Most auctioneers own their own auction company. They may have members of their family involved in helping with the business. Other auctioneers, sometimes known as freelancers, work on a contract basis for a daily flat rate. A few auctioneers work as employees for regional auction companies.

Auctioneers may spend some time in an office, meeting with clients and making arrangements. But sooner or later, they have to be at the auction site.

Auction sites could be anywhere. Some items, like jewelry, are small enough that the auction can be done in a nice hotel room or hall. But a lot of merchandise must be auctioned off outdoors. Auctions of farm equipment often take place at the farm.

Usually, an auctioneer will use an auction barn. It is specially designed to handle tractors or cows or cars, depending on what the auction house specializes in.

This job involves more than 9 to 5. Auctioneer Joe Tarpley says he's had some long days. "Just the other week, I was on a 5 a.m. plane to North Carolina to do a contract," says Tarpley. "I didn't get back home until midnight."

Some business even requires a night or two out of town. Add in the weekends and evenings when the auctions are taking place, and you've got a pretty mixed-up schedule.

Besides a strong voice, there aren't that many physical requirements to do this job.

However, you may do some heavy lifting as a beginner. You have to be somewhat mobile in order to visit sites, explore estates or inspect and gather equipment.

Briggs says that during the organizing of an auction, "there is a tremendous amount of physical work to do."

He gives an example from a farm auction last year: "It took the auctioneer and his wife, their two kids and two hired people...three weeks to dig everything out. There were five or six buildings full of stuff!" he says.

Some may call it grunt work, but Briggs says learning how to set up an auction is one way to get started. "It's a great way to learn what it's all about and it's a great way to learn what something is worth," he says.

Try to get a part-time job doing something for an auctioneer. There are jobs as cashiers, bid spotters and people who line up merchandise. From there, you can become more involved as you go. Of course, let the boss know what you'd like to do.

Veteran auctioneer Perry Wiggins says there are other good opportunities in this business. Bid callers, the people who are often hired on a contract basis to do the bid calling for an auctioneer, make a good living. Bid assistants, or ring workers as they are often called, can also make a great living. They work between the caller and the crowd. It's more of a one-on-one sales job.

Since auctioneers work on a commission basis, income varies greatly from month to month. It depends on the type of merchandise you are selling.

Paintings sold at Sotheby's in England, for example, go for millions of dollars. The commission on just one of those would make you drool. Some car auctions, on the other hand, sell cars for less than $500 each.

Calvin Ogren is the past vice-president of the California State Auctioneers Association. He says earnings vary, depending on the job. For example, an auctioneer might deal with entire estates, high-end collectibles, or high-volume but insignificant online items.

"Every job is a little bit different," he says.

The bottom line is, auctioneers have to work for their money. "There's a lot of money to be made in auctions but it's a lot of work," says Ogren.

While many auctioneers oversee all kinds of sales, others specialize. For example, some may do only car auctions, or auctions of public property or items seized by the police.

At a Glance

Work the crowds to get the best bids you can

  • Women are still very much a minority among auctioneers
  • Online auctions are becoming more common
  • You can study at an auctioneering school, but a business or marketing background is valuable, too


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