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Have I Got A Bridge To Sell You!

Cindy Scarr

In an economic climate forcing thousands of desperate families to auction off pretty much everything they own, including family heirlooms, just to pay their bills, it’s easy to forget that auctions are generally fun and exciting. What is it about an auction that so completely captures the imagination of everyone involved? Inside the booming auction business.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


No, it’s not a foreign language, though if you’re unaccustomed to it you might think you just fell through the looking glass. But even the White Rabbit didn’t speak this fast. What you’re hearing is the famous auction chant, that machine-gun, rapid-fire combination of numbers and words that keep buyers interested and on their toes, and keeps a live auction rolling along as smoothly as its auctioneer.

“Who’ll give me a hundred dollars? One hundred dollar bid, now two, now two, will ya give me two? Two hundred dollar bid, now three, now three hundred, will ya give me three? Two hundred, two and a half, two-fifty, How about two-fifty? Fifty? Fifty? Fifty? I got it! How about two-sixty? Sixty? Sixty? I’ve got two-sixty, now seventy? How about seventy? Two-seventy?”

Although the most widely recognized talent of auctioneers is undoubtedly their ability to talk rapidly in a nonstop wave of words, they have to be expert communicators too. If prospective buyers cannot understand what the auctioneer is saying, his chanting speed is moot.

“One dollar bid, now two, now two, now two, will you give me two? Two dollar bid, now three, now three, now three, will you give me three? Three dollar bid, now four, now four, now four, will you give me four?”

The auction chant (also known as “bid calling,” “the auction cry,” or “auctioneering”) evolved at North American livestock sales, whose auctioneers — with only a few hours in which to sell hundreds of animals — sought a way to speed things up. And they did. Today wholesale automobile auctioneers frequently sell between 125 and 175 cars per hour. Tobacco auctioneers can knock off 500 to 600 lots per hour, with buyers using a series of universal hand motions to bid, so non-English speakers can also take part.

The noise might sound intimidating, but that mysterious auction chant is really nothing more than two numbers, the current bid and the next bid being asked for, with fluff to keep things rolling. Here’s the “translation” of our opening example: Fowty-now-fowtyfibe-now-fibe-wiyagimme-fowtyfibe-now-fifty means the bid started at $40 and the asking bid was $45. Then $45 was bid, and the asking bid went up to $50. Sometimes only the last digit of a double-digit number is used — five instead of forty-five.

If it’s just two numbers, why does it sound so bewilderingly fast? Because those two numbers are conjoined to what comprises the bulk of an auctioneer’s speech — “filler words,” those combinations of meaningless jabber that include everything but the numbers. Every auctioneer develops his or her own personal repertoire of filler words, whose constant repetition along with the current and asking bid serves both to give buyers time to consider going higher, and keeps the number fresh in the auctioneer’s mind. Fillers are often cute rhyming phrases like “last chance to dance” or “you’ll grieve if you leave.”

Not all auctioneers use a chant. The auctioneers who sell high-end items at the world’s upscale auction houses, such as at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams & Butterfields, have absolutely no chant to speak of. It’s as different as a rodeo is from a library. The merchandise alone offered by these auction houses, much of it worth millions, provides the necessary excitement.

What about those intimidating images of scratching your nose in the middle of an auction and becoming the unwitting owner of a vintage automobile, used gym socks, or a potato chip that looks like the White House? In reality, every prospective buyer at an auction is issued a bid card, a sign with a number on it, which is held up to enter a bid. And if you bid by mistake, just stop the bidding and say so! Otherwise, that “Sold!” may indeed be referring to you.


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