Fast-Talking Auctioneers: What Is That Old Boy Saying?

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Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

Growing up, many of us have seen auctioneers doing their thing. In movies, television shows, or even taped recordings of actual auctions, attention focuses on this bizarrely talented person who single-tonguedly controls a stream of bidders with a torrent of slippery, silky sounds of selling:

“250, 250, I have 250, will you make it 350? 250 for 250, 250 for 250, I have 250 looking for 350, 350, 350, annnnnnnnnnnnnnd I have 350, I have 350, will some’ne gimme 400, 400,” etc.

We assumed that this is the way of all auctioneers, but a little research revealed that it is in fact a distinctly American tradition. The largest auction houses in the World, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, take great pains to carry out sales in a clear, organized fashion, and most auctioneers don’t even specify what bid they are looking for, asking instead for bidders to supply their own figures. This deliberate, restrained style is of course credited to the British who not only have superior accents, they also have better selling manners.

It is unknown where or when Americans developed this uniquely frenzied style of public speaking. As for the why, there are several complementary reasons.

First, a steady vocalization helps to create a sense of urgency as if the current bid were rushing by on a river, and if you don’t grasp it now, you’ll miss it forever. Second, a constant stream of sound is rhythmic and subtly conditions listeners to make bids at regular intervals. Third, talking fast makes auctions entertaining which creates incentive for people to visit in the first place. Fourth, being entertained puts people in a good mood, which increases the chance that they will bid.

The U.S. is also known for making auctioneering a competitive sport, which is supremely fitting for a country that makes a sport out of pretty much anything. Auctioneers are awarded prizes for how quickly and accurately they can stuff as many syllables as possible into a flow of information.

North Carolina is one out of nearly 30 states in the U.S. that regulate auctions and require auctioneers to be licensed to practice. Auctioneers hold a lot of power in their events, and in many cases receive a percentage of the sell price, thus motivating them to drive prices higher and pack as many items into an auction as possible. Licensing thus entails would-be auctioneers to study the laws and ethical principles passed by the people of North Carolina.

In addition, North Carolina stipulates that “No person shall be licensed as an auctioneer if the person:

  • is under 18 years of age;
  • is not a high school graduate or the equivalent;
  • has within the preceding five years pleaded guilty to, entered a plea of nolo contendere or been convicted of any felony, or committed or been convicted of any act involving fraud or moral turpitude;
  • has had an auctioneer, apprentice auctioneer, or auction firm license revoked; or
  • has, within the preceding five years, committed any act that constitutes grounds for license suspension or revocation under N.C.G.S. 85B or 21 NCAC 4B.”

There is therefore quite a lot of history, psychology, law, ethics and linguistics that go into what many of us see as a meaningless waterfall of words. This is to say nothing of the practice required to achieve the physical dexterity to be an auctioneer, let alone a great one.

Many states have schools to help train aspiring auctioneers embark on their new careers. To support the speedy rate of delivery, students are taught to regulate their breathing, relax their vocal chords, develop a musical sense of call-and-response, and even to use a metronome in pursuit of balance.

It can feel goofy to try for the first time, but with practice and discipline, anyone can develop this skill and possible career path. At the very least you can have a new trick to show off at parties and win free drinks.

Fast-Talking Auctioneers: What Is That Old Boy Saying? was last modified: February 4th, 2015 by Raleigh Classic Car Auctions

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