You name it and it’s been sold at auction.
As long as humans have traded with one another, they have staged auctions. About 500 B.C. in Babylon, women were being auctioned off as wives. Ancient Greece and ancient Rome held auctions not just to sell people but to sell all kinds of assets, including war plunder and family estates. In seventh-century China, the personal items of deceased Buddhist monks were being sold at auction.
Auctions in the United States date all the way back to colonial times. Crops, livestock, tools, slaves, and sometimes entire farms were sold at auction. The National Auctioneers Association informs us that during the American Civil War only colonels could auction war plunder, which is why in honor of this history many auctioneers in America today carry the title “Colonel.”
In the early 1900s the first auctioneering schools opened in the United States. The Great Depression created great opportunity for auctioneers, whose services were needed to liquidate assets. Collectibles, antiques, used cars, heavy equipment, livestock, real estate, and all kinds of commodities are sold at auction in the US either by private parties or by government agencies.
No one knows exactly when rapid-paced “bid calling” became a feature of auctions in the US, but it is now the norm. Many of you are familiar with American-style auction calls, where an auctioneer delivers a rapid, almost hypnotic repetition of numbers and words to present items up for bid. Newcomers to auctions might find it indecipherable, but nothing could be farther from the truth!
An auctioneer’s entire job is to communicate clearly and effectively, and if you can’t understand him (or her), then he isn’t doing his job.
An auctioneer uses his chant to hold the audience’s attention and keep the auction moving along at a steady clip while he’s soliciting bids. He’s going fast because he’s responsible for selling all of the items within a relatively short time, and he’s got to create a sense of urgency among bidders. He must at the same time be very clear and specific with his language.
What the auctioneer is really doing is reciting numbers.
An auction chant consists basically of two numbers – the have (the current bid price) and the want (the higher bid being requested by the auctioneer). Between these two numbers are a variety of sounds and filler words to add rhythm to the chant and make the bidding more entertaining. To make it seem that he’s talking faster than he really is, the auctioneer will slur his words to shorten them.
An auctioneering student starts out learning a very basic auction chant, something like this:
One dollar bid, now 2,
now 2, will ya give me 2?
2 dollar bid, now 3,
now 3, will ya give me 3?
3 dollar bid, now 4,
now 4, will ya give me 4?
This hypothetical bidding would proceed in this fashion until the crowd stops bidding and the item is sold to the high bidder.
Filler words are rhythmic but they serve an important purpose: they provide a natural pause between the have and the want, giving the bidders a fraction of a second to make a decision.
Once the auctioneer’s want becomes the have, a new want is created. This number is called the next. A bid caller always has three numbers in mind – the have, the want, and the next.
Suppose you’re at an auction where a vehicle is up for bid. The auction chant might be something like this:
All right, folks, I have up for auction a 1994 Ford Mustang, cherry, lots of new parts, who’ll give me four large?
Four thousand, four, now who gimme four fiddy? Got four fiddy, got four fiddy from the man in the back, now who gonna go five?
Fi fiddy, fi fiddy bid, man in the back, now who gimme six? Fi fiddy bid, who gimme six?
Six thousand! Now who gimme seven? Seven on the board now, who gimme seven fiddy?
And on it goes.
Each auctioneer has his own style – his own favorite filler words, his own preferred speed, and his own cadence. Some auction chants are positively musical. The filler words are just carriers for the most important part of the chant: the numbers.
Keep in mind, though, that the auctioneer can only chant as fast as the bidders bid. So he designs his chant to create excitement and keep the auction moving along at a good pace. It truly is an art form.
There’s no telling where you might hear an auction call. Listen to Congressman Billy Long (R-MO) breaking into an auction chant to foil a protester during a hearing in Congress.