Saturday, June 11
I’d booked a ticket on a flight with Air Choice One from Chicago to Mason City, Iowa, home of the World Wide College of Auctioneering. The airline is so small that its flights are not listed on monitors at O’Hare Airport. You call a phone number off the website, and get directed to a door at the far end of a terminal.
The airplane seats eight passengers, and flies far lower to the ground than a regular commercial jet. I doze and wake to watch rivers winding through Iowa prairie, baby stalks of corn in neat rows. It’s the beginning of summer in June. I’m returning to my roots: the farms and fields of Iowa.
I decided to attend the World Wide College of Auctioneering after a phone conversation with my mentor, Bruce. He was the mayor of Dixon, Iowa, my hometown, for many years, as well as a professional auctioneer. I grew up listening to Bruce conduct estate auctions, announce baseball games, lead frog-jumping contests, and host other public events. I had called him from Brooklyn to tell him about all the auctions I’d done that spring. It was around 11 a.m. on a Tuesday.
“You are lucky you got me. I’m just having a cocktail,” he said.
“Do you have the day off today?”
“Nope, just finished work.”
I’d told Bruce that I’d raised over a million dollars the past few months for nonprofit organizations, done a seven-city tour with Dos Equis to auction off The Most Interesting Man in the World’s coveted collection. I told him about the BBC radio producer who wants to do a documentary about my going from “pigs to pearls”—a live auctioneer from Iowa, who now breaks fundraising records at top galas in New York and the Hamptons.
“Sorry, kid, you’re beyond me. I can’t help you. You’re on your own,” he said.
“Bruce,” I said. “Don’t you have any more advice?”
“If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit.”
The World Wide College of Auctioneering was founded over eighty years ago by the legendary auctioneer Col. Joe Reisch. The school has graduated over 40,000 auctioneers, who have gone on to win more state, national, and international auctioneering contests than any other school of its kind. Their Hall of Fame/Hall of Champions is a who’s who of the most successful auctioneers in the business today. My mentor graduated from the World Wide College of Auctioneering in 1973.
As the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho wrote: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”
I arrive at the Best Western Hotel, which is part of a truck stop off Interstate 35: gas stations, fast-food chains, and Cancun, a Mexican restaurant. The grass beside the road is dark green and smells like flowers. Roads run straight and flat and stretch for miles before terminating on the horizon. Cool wind blows over hot plains and feels like waves of cleansing water on my skin.
Class starts tomorrow at 8 a.m. The course is twelve hours for nine days straight, with one-hour breaks for lunch and dinner.
Sunday, June 12
Roll call is in the hotel ballroom. Sixty-eight aspiring auctioneers sit in five long rows of tables surrounded by wall-to-wall photos of members of the World Wide College of Auctioneering Hall of Fame/Hall of Champions. All but seven of the students are men. American and Canadian flags hang on one wall; a large poster lists qualities of a successful auctioneer : integrity, dedication, persistence, determination, tenacity, confidence.
The college president, Paul C. Behr, opens with a statement about the value of personal integrity in the auctioneering business.
“Folks, we may be in the auction profession, but we are in the people business.”
He follows this with: “Man, I really love a good cup of coffee. And this is not a good cup of coffee.”
The class stands to bellow the Daily Dozen Drills, a series of tongue twisters and counting exercises. We repeat, “The big brown bug bit a big brown bear” ten times in a row, in three sets. I have to take deep breaths to get it all out. Then we do number drills, like counting to a hundred in ascending increments of two and a half (two and a half, five, seven and a half, ten, twelve and a half, fifteen, seventeen and a half, twenty) then back down again, three times.
My specialty in New York and the Hamptons is fundraising at benefit auctions. I also work as a master of ceremonies and perform the occasional art auction. I call Bruce during a morning break. I tell him I’m at his alma mater to learn how to perform different types of auctions. “I want to be able to branch out,” I say.
“Well, that sounds good. You have to be able to masturbate with both hands.”
After break, we split into five groups, with one instructor per group. We take turns bid-calling while the instructor critiques our chant. Bid-calling is the putting forth of numbers, the calling out of bid amounts to assembled buyers. The practiced auctioneer’s bid-calling chant is a mixture of alternating numbers and filler words. You need filler words to produce a good, smooth, rhythmic chant. Examples of filler words are now , dollar , and bid . There are many others: go , make it , bid it on , bidder down here .
We are taught two basic forms of the chant: a two-part and a three-part. The two-part chant states what the auctioneer has—an opening bid: “I’m bid one dollar.” This is followed by what the auctioneer wants—a higher bid: “Now two.” The three-part chant simply adds on a question: “Would you give two?” We are encouraged to practice whichever feels more natural.
The idea is to produce a fluid chant that will effectively communicate with buyers at a live auction. It is meant to create a sense of urgency, coupled with the fear of loss. As a bidder, you are driven to temporarily experience the thrill of ownership. I have what you want, but you have to bid now if you want it to be yours. The auctioneer’s chant is a one-sided conversation that involves a battery of verbal and nonverbal cues to incite bidder participation.
I go for a run before heading to the cafeteria for lunch. The room and buffet trays are empty. Auctioneers must eat fast. A server returns from the kitchen with a plate full of barbecue pulled pork sandwiches, baked beans, and potato chips.
After lunch, we practice the Daily Dozen Drills again, and listen to a lecture on the Role of Professional Ringmen/Ringwomen, or spotters. They stand on either side of the auctioneer to help receive and communicate bids. They work as additional eyes and ears on the selling floor. I don’t employ them at benefit auctions, but sometimes I have volunteers to help point out bids.
A seventeen-year-old classmate from Nebraska asks me where I live.
“Brooklyn,” I say.
“Wow,” he says. “The farthest east I ever went was Manhattan, Kansas.”
Monday, June 13
Up at 7 a.m., breakfast at 7:30 a.m., roll call at 8 in the hotel ballroom. We launch into the Daily Dozen Drills. The most complex tongue twister of the lot is Betty Botter. “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 Potter bought a bit of better butter.” We repeat this thirty times rapidly.
The last and most intense number drill of the series is the quarter drill. “One, one and a quarter, one and a half, one seventy-five, two, two and a quarter, two and a half, two seventy-five, three, three and a quarter, three and a half . . .” The counting goes all the way up to one hundred, and helps develop a familiarity with numbers, so the actual bid calling becomes second nature. All twelve exercises take about twelve minutes to complete. We practice deep diaphragm breathing and it leaves me feeling lightheaded. It’s an oxygen binge.
We break into smaller groups again. I’m the first to jump on the microphone, to sell imaginary tickets to an AC/DC concert. Many of the students are young cowboys from Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Oklahoma. They ride horses, wrangle cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens, grow crops. My chant is slower and choppier than theirs, but my love of the microphone is unparalleled.
“Two tickets to see AC/DC, with backstage passes to eat fried chicken with Axl Rose. I’mmm bid one dollar now two dollar now two, two, two dollar would you bid two? I’m bid two dollar now three dollar now three, three, three . . . now four, now four, now four dollar now five dollar now six, six, six dollar now seven dollar now seven, seven, seven dollars would you bid seven?”
My classmates raise their hands, hats, and bid cards with practiced understatement. I’ve not attended cattle auctions in person, but guess this style of bidding is part of the show. You have never seen such a cool thing as a subtle bid from a country boy imitating a big-money bidder at auctioneer school.
Some of the students have chants like bumblebees, buzzing with deep Southern accents. The desire to auctioneer is palpable among us.
Today’s lunch is fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and buttered sweet corn off the cob. We go to our rooms and change into our best clothes, then walk half a mile to the local high school auditorium for a class picture. It has just rained and the grass smells even more like flowers.
Our afternoon lecture is on Auction Law, and I struggle to keep up with legal decisions on auctioneering principle, agency, and delegation. The Mason City lawyer makes me think twice about any promises I might make on a microphone. In fact, I decide I will make none.
We break into groups of four to practice our chant; each student sells three items to our classmates. It’s an intimate way to sell. There is no microphone, and no large spaces for our voices to echo. One of the instructors says it’s like putting a bidder in the middle of an invisible figure eight of energy. I’m not sure what that means, but go with it. I wonder if he’s my new mentor.
I’ve been told to pare down my chant to as few filler words as possible: less talk and more selling. It’s a common refrain here at the World Wide College of Auctioneering. Even the fastest smooth talkers in the group, who already sound like pros I’ve seen on YouTube, are consistently told to slow down. Without clarity, speed is nothing.
Dinner is fat slabs of steaming beef lasagna. I make a plate to take to my room, then go for a swim. We spend all of our time in the big ballroom and hotel conference rooms, and I remind myself to step outside once in a while. Air, water, food, and sleep have never felt so necessary. Tonight we finish at 10:30 p.m. I can’t remember the last time I did one thing for so long.
Tuesday, June 14
I’m tired this morning, but am getting better at the Daily Dozen Drills. We meet new instructors and then break into groups as usual. I stand up first to sell, because I want to be the best. The chant comes more naturally than ever, and the instructor doesn’t say much. The whole class is improving.
We do a round of selling facing the wall instead of the class. I listen to the instructor bid aloud to know when to raise my increments, rather than taking bids visually. The numbers roll out of my mouth. Filler words pop up in between bid calls. The instructor, a car auctioneer from Chicago, has me face the group again. My classmates smile. The chant is upbeat, and bids float out. I pass the microphone to the next student.
After a lecture on Growing Your Auction Business With Social Media, we break for lunch: chicken fajitas, Mexican rice, chips with cheese and salsa. I make a plate, take it to my room, go for a run. It’s a hot, muggy day and looks like rain. Our schedule is exhausting and interesting at the same time. I look out my hotel room window at the parking lot and interstate in the background. It rains.
Wednesday, June 15
A student refers to the auctioneer chant as a cry. “I cry all the time when I’m driving cross country,” he says. Our instructors talk about how different auctioneers chant. Soft , sweet , mellow , and beautiful are a few of the words they use to describe the sound of numbers and words woven together with semi-unconscious precision. After a lot of practice, the chant is automatic. If the World Wide College of Auctioneering teaches one thing, it’s to strip down the chant to its purest form. Also: Practice, practice, practice.
“One dollar, now two, now two, now two dollar now three, now three dollar now four, now four, now four, would you give four? Four dollar now five, now five, now five, now five, five, five dollar now six, six, six, now six, now six dollar, now seven, now eight, now eight, would you give eight? All in, all done? SOLD it to you for seven dollars , buyer number 646.”
Time for a confession. Benefit auctioneers don’t really chant. We take our lead from the English style of auctioneering—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Philips—which is more like speech with varying tones of urgency.
Another confession: I became an auctioneer quite by accident, and my original chant was improvised. Bruce, my mentor, influenced my style, but so did Jay Z and the DJ at my hometown strip club. After becoming successful in the benefit business and on tour with Dos Equis, I wanted to up my game. Auction college seemed the best way to connect with the American style of auctioneering. But I had no idea how hardcore learning to chant with real cowboys and girls would be, and trying to keep up with their fast talk is kicking my ass.
Thursday, June 16
Last night I could not get to sleep. The sound of auctioneer chants buzzed in my brain. I heard them in the hum of the refrigerator, the sound of my urine in the toilet, the bubbling breath I released underwater while swimming. I drank a beer but needed something stronger.
Werner Herzog made a documentary about the World Auctioneer Championship in 1976. I watched it, and then watched videos of Ralph Wade, an auctioneer who appeared in another Herzog film, Stroszek . Wade stands outside of a foreclosed trailer home, tearing through numbers at lightning speed before a mute crowd. I watched videos of Blaine Lotz, the 2014 World Champion Livestock Auctioneer.
The morning is rough. There is an adrenaline high from all this bidding and chanting and it’s a challenge to come down. Practicing day and night feels manic. Tomorrow night the college will hold a student auction, open to the public and streamed live online. Each student will auction off three items and serve as ringman/ringwoman to their classmates. No one knows what to expect, but I’m too beat from all the fourteen-hour days to worry much.
Today’s speaker on Internet Auctions and Marketing once sold a dollar bill signed by both Bonnie and Clyde for $24,000. The couple stopped at a roadside diner in Texas, where Clyde boasted of killing lawmen to the cook. The cook asked if he could have Clyde's autograph before the police killed him. Clyde said the police would have to catch him first; then he and Bonnie signed the dollar bill for the cook. I bet it would sell for over $100K in New York today.
The lecture is three hours long. I walk out in the middle of it and lie in a patch of grass outside the hotel by the highway. Practicing my chant is fun, but the sleep deprivation is taking a toll. My mind is constantly racing with numbers and filler words: one say two go three now four and five dollar bid six say seven now . My foot is stuck on the accelerator and I don’t know how to take it off. Last night, I just wanted to fuck and die. But I need to nail my chant before tomorrow’s student auction, and prove that I can auction with the best.
Friday, June 17
It's easy to tell benefit auctioneers from tobacco, car, livestock, real estate, and antique auctioneers. Tobacco auctioneers are the fastest, but such auctions are obsolete. They used to sell tobacco leaves straight from farmers to cigarette companies like Lucky Strike and Philip Morris, sidestepping along piles of tobacco as they chanted. Car auctioneers are next. They rip through numbers with maniacal precision, turning microphones into automatic weapons. Livestock auctioneers, who primarily sell cattle, are equally fast, but tend to inflect their chant with a telltale drawl. Think city talk versus country twang. Cattle auctioneers are what most people think of when they think fast-talking auctioneer. There are many types of commercial auctioneers who sell real estate, antiques, collectibles, art, and just about any form of property. Their pace varies depending on the sophistication of the buyers. A Christie’s auction is probably the slowest.
Benefit auctioneers, who fundraise for nonprofit organizations, are different. We encourage more of a dialogue with their audience. Our chant depends entirely on how people in the room react to the auction. I start to realize my strength lies in the subtlety of performance, as opposed to a rapid-fire numbers game. Trying to chant like car and cattle auctioneers is too much. It’s chasing the wind. In the afternoon, I decide to pull aside five classmates with recognizable benefit auction skills to practice bid-calling together.
Benefit auctioneers have a unique value proposition. Our pace may be slower, but we’ve got personality. There’s a light in our eyes, bounce in our step, and our presence at auctioneer college is special. Jessica, from Kansas City, who has never auctioned before, is such a natural. Her practice performance makes everyone in our little group laugh hysterically. We would give her money in a second.
At our student auction, I revert to my old chant, from before auctioneer school. My bid-calling of the numbers definitely comes quicker, but my filler words, and spoken asides, are pretty much how I’ve always done it. Instincts kick in.
“My name is Lucas Hunt. I’m from Dixon, Iowa, and grew up working on pig farms. The farmer said it was the smell of money but I thought it stunk. I moved to the Hamptons for some fresh air, became a beach bum, and wrote this book of poetry. Who will give five dollars for the book?”
“Five, now ten, now ten, now ten dollars is the new high bid, go fifteen, say fifteen, can I get a fifteen dollar bid? Now twenty, now twenty, now twenty dollar bill. Twenty-five, now thirty in the back, thank you back-room bidder, I love you. Now thirty-five, now forty, bid it on, bid it up, now forty-five, forty-five, would you give forty-five? Now fifty, make it fifty-five, fifty-five, fifty-five. Sorry to jump you sir, now fifty and fifty-five. We are at fifty-five, say six, say six, say six, say sixty, now sixty-five and seventy.”
“Would you give seventy? Seventy? Seventy? All in, all done? SOLD it to you for sixty-five dollars, buyer number 133.”
I feel out of control, like I’m on mushrooms, but my performance is received well. The speed of my classmates’ chants is contagious. I am the only auctioneer to walk off after selling just two items. Everyone else sells three.
Saturday, June 18
It’s the last day of school; tomorrow we graduate. I’ve opted to take a two-day bilingual training course for certification to auction in Spanish. Our instructor is a wired Puerto Rican from New York who needs no microphone. He’s like a combination of a coked-up Al Pacino and George Costanza on steroids. He has a passion I admire.
We practice number drills in Spanish and learn a few foreign filler words and auction terms. It’s hard to concentrate, but I enjoy the challenge of chanting in Spanish. “Uno dólar, ahora dos y dos y dos dólares, ahora tres y tres y tres dólares, ahora cuatro . . .” There are two nonprofit organizations that have asked to work with me in New York. Both benefit children in Guatemala. I feel ready.
I take oral and written exams. Afterwards, I’m terrified that I forgot to say “SOLD” at the close of my oral exam. An auctioneer must say “SOLD” for a sale to be binding, and not saying it in the exam is an automatic fail. I keep going over things in my mind; the stern- looking judges and my classmates sitting expressionless as we were ordered to do. I go out by the highway and lie in my patch of grass again. I could pass out here. Things are breaking apart inside me.
My mom and dad arrive in Mason City; they’re here for the graduation ceremony tomorrow. We drink beer and have snacks; they meet my classmates. Then they go to bed. I go outside to watch fireflies in moonlight. A group of cowboys stand around a truck and drink beer in the back parking lot of the hotel. They sing “Amazing Grace.” Tomorrow some of them will host a church service before the ceremony. Power lines cross the sky.
Sunday, June 19
I meet my parents for the Best Western’s complimentary breakfast of eggs, biscuits, and gravy. They say they enjoyed meeting my classmates. They make me feel whole again. I think about the new friends I’ve made these past nine days.
One week from today I will stand in front of eight hundred people under a gigantic tent in the Hamptons, at a gala to benefit a hospice. Only a few people in the crowd will know that I’ve been to auctioneer school. Maybe they will hear something in my cadence, a breeze in the sweet-scented grass of Iowa. A rhythm that will remind them of something they can’t quite place.
“Who will give ten thousand dollars, now ten, now ten, now ten, would you give ten? Thank you, madam. And now you, sir, would you give fifteen thousand?”