Editor’s note: Charlotte Bartizek first wrote this story for The Dallas Post in 2011. It is reprinted here because the theme of the 67th Annual Back Mountain Memorial Library Auction is “The Year of the Auctioneer.”
Going to the library auction leaves me dumbstruck, in awe of the men and women who stand on the stage each year for hours, yelling and gesturing. Saying things I can hardly understand. Getting people to spend money in a heartbeat.
How do they do that?
Maybe you’ve wondered what makes a good auctioneer. So I asked a few of them what it takes to work the block.
Surely, I thought, it takes a large, booming voice and some training.
“Well, you know me; my voice goes up and up and up, the pitch goes higher and higher the more excited I get,” says veteran volunteer auctioneer Joe Killeen.
Killeen became very excited the first year he auctioneered in 1982 when one of the items he sold went for $2,000.
“The price just kept going up,” he said. “I’d never been an auctioneer. I’m not a professional but they told me that, as auction chairman that year, I would be the prime-time auctioneer, too!”
So much for training and experience.
Well, certainly an auctioneer would have to have some knowledge of antiques and be careful to be precise and accurate when on stage, I thought.
Killeen volunteers, “I don’t always read what’s on the card. I look and say `What’s a Limoge? Or the card says to start the bidding at $200. I’ll say, ‘Who’ll give me a buck?’”
Killeen keeps the audience engaged; he likes the interaction with the people.
“I always have fun. I just let it go and think of myself as the warm-up act,” he admits.
With the crowd a little warmed up, the business of getting people to spend serious money for a good cause falls to people like Jeff Townsend.
“I always wear my favorite straw hat while auctioneering,” he said. “I’ve worn it for 27 years.”
While trying to get $500 more on the already $4,000 bid for a Sue Hand painting, Townsend offered to “throw in my hat to the next $500 bidder.” The extra incentive worked and Townsend lost his hat.
I’m beginning to realize that the fine art of auctioneering has a lot to do with the ability to make personal sacrifices and be creative.
Few can top the next two auctioneers when it comes to stage presence and creativity.
“I’m a real ham and such an actress,” says Carol Sweeney who has made dressing herself in costumes from the Attic Treasures booth a part of her act. “Everything I wear can be bought at the auction. I only provide the shoes,” she notes.
One year, she wore a wedding dress and Clarence Michael, the other auction chairman, wore a tuxedo.
“It breaks things up a little and I enjoy doing it,” laughs Sweeney.
Kerry Freeman, the 1977 chairman and a virtual fixture on the block, says you have to be a showman to be effective. These days his signature hat is a black bowler but I’ve seen him with a lamp shade and a doily on his head. He freely models clothing on stage, regardless of gender appropriateness, poses and demonstrates items for sale, including an antique toilet.
Of course, all showmen pay the price for their antics. One late Sunday afternoon when the auction was still held on Main Street, Freeman and Killeen, who had done 12 to 13 spots, were hot and hoarse from yelling. Through the crowd strolled Jack Stanley, an old Rotarian, with a huge Styrofoam cup.
“It was full of Manhattans and got us through the rest of the night,” Freeman remembers. I guess that would be called a cup of inspiration.
While some auctioneers may be inspired and most are creative and entertaining, Sonny Smith, who started auctioneering 30 years ago with Bill Spurlin, Bob Richardson and Joe Stager as part of the Back Mountain Jaycees, has rhythm.
Smith loves the feeling of rhythm he feels with the audience, the flow of the crowd coming and going.
“And I used to have a kind of a signature golf club when I was up there,” he said. “I’d beat the club on the block to get their attention.”
The crowds were smaller then and, with fewer auctioneers, the men had more auction time apiece.
“I guess they got tired of me beating up on the block and I had to get rid of the golf club,” Smith laments.
So you need to have rhythm.
Smith and the auctioneers enjoy working the block with each other.
“We still have a great bunch of guys that all work together well,” Smith said. One of the auctioneering talents must be the ability to cooperate.
Rhythm, creativity, a little training, some experience, people skills and the desire to have fun all come in handy.
Well, I thought I was getting somewhere with these postulates about the fine art of auctioneering, until someone told me about the “Doctor Auctioneers” who are Dr. John Rothschild, Dr. John Shaskus and the late doctors Dr. Craig Aicher, Dr. Vincent Carboni and Dr. Lester Jordan. Always drawing good audiences from their thankful patients, the doctors’ nightly totals looked good. It takes a faithful following to be a good auctioneer.
So I’ve made a composite of the ideal auctioneer.
An untrained amateur, he/she must be a cross-dresser, willing to take off or put on clothing at a moment’s notice. Someone who is willing to give up anything. A person who gets very excited and likes to have fun.
Maybe someone with a high-pitched voice, who doesn’t quite follow directions. But someone who pays close attention to people and where they are all the time.
A yeller, a screamer, an entertainer, an opportunist wanting to make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time to benefit the community and library they love.
Oh, heck, let’s just give them all a big applause and the title, Doctors in the Fine Art of Auctioneering.