Rural Heritage Sale Barn

Going, Going... Sold!
by Tammy Honnell

The word "auction" is derived from the Latin word "auctio," meaning a gradual increase. Nothing increases the old heart rate like the adrenaline rush produced by the auctioneer's chant combined with stiff bidding competition, ever increasing prices, and the final drop of the hammer as the auctioneer shouts "sold it!" You succeeded in outbidding the competition, and now it's yours. Nothing, but nothing, gives you that same satisfied glow.

The profession of auctioneer dates back to at least 450 B.C., when Greek historian Herodotus referred to a Babylonian custom by which maidens were married off to the highest bidder in an annual assembly. In Roman times auctions were held to dispose of the booty and captives of war. Since those early days, auctions have been held in all parts of the world in basically the same way.

People have come to think of the auction as the fairest and fastest method of selling property, and the best means to collect more money than at private treaty. Nearly everything is sold at auction, from mini mules to giant Shires and from walking plows to road coaches, with prices ranging from $2 to $200,000.

I was a professional bidder long before I became an auctioneer, buying for customers as well as for myself. I offer the following tips to help you survive your first auction, and maybe take home the buy of the century:

HorseShoe Call before you go and learn the terms. Will they take your personal check with proper ID? What do they consider proper ID? Is a bank letter of guarantee required with your check? Do they take credit cards? What kind of credit cards? Do they allow pets? (Most auctions do not allow pets, except seeing eye dogs.) What are the auction hours? Do they have storage space/rental for merchandise you can't carry home right away? How much do they charge for storage? Don't be afraid to ask questions.
HorseShoe Never bring someone to an auction who doesn't like what you're buying. Take along someone who shares your interests. Not only will you have a better time, but you'll make much better decisions on your purchases.
HorseShoe Use the restroom before the auction begins. Auctions move at a rapid pace; if you have to leave your seat once the action starts, you might miss an item you wanted to bid on.
HorseShoe Don't ever give in to the temptation to talk to the clerk (the person who stands close to the auctioneer, following him/her from item to item and intensely listening to what the item is, what it sells for, and who bought it). The clerk has one shot at getting the information right and has no time to answer your questions. Other employees are always available to help you.
HorseShoe Don't heckle the auctioneer, even in fun. He/she is doing a serious job and has a lot of responsibility. Heckling is a sure way to be shown to your vehicle and asked to leave.
HorseShoe Contrary to popular belief, you can't accidentally bid by scratching your nose. But you can accidentally bid by waving to a friend. Most auctioneers try to make good eye contact with each bidder, but they don't depend solely on eye contact. Some seasoned buyers won't even look at the auctioneer for fear of being discovered by other bidders. They prefer to work with the ringman—the animated character who yells "yep" when he sees a bid. Other bidders use signals understood only between them and the auctioneer. A good auctioneer may gesture in your direction, but will never give you away by pointing you out to other bidders. I have often stood right next to my husband when the hammer fell, not knowing that he had bought the item until he nodded to the auctioneer or held up his bidder card.
HorseShoe Obtain a catalog and use it to follow the auction's progress. As each item sells, write down the price it brings. Since the auction business tends to set the market for certain items, the information you gather will be of good use to you at future auctions.
HorseShoe Be aware that a "lot" of similar items—often tack, such as a bin of buckles, a wad of whips, a box of brushes, a hamper of halters, a load of lead ropes, or a bucket of bits—can be bought in one of three ways:
  1. One money for the lot, meaning the bidder pays one price (his last bid) for all the items.
  2. Choice with the privilege, meaning the bidder may pick which and as many items as he wishes, but he will pay the bid price for each item.
  3. Times the money, meaning the last bid represents the price for each item and the buyer has to take them all.
HorseShoe Pay close attention to all announcements made by the auctioneer. The terms of the auction are subject to change, so the auctioneer's announcements may be crucial and can come at any time during the auction. The trick is to listen and not talk. I learned to pay attention early in my career, when I was talking to my husband during an auction and he said, "There are your lamps." I threw up my hand and blew my budget on what I thought was "one money for the lot." It was "times the money" and I had buyer's regret in the worst way.
HorseShoe Unless otherwise stated in writing, or announced by the auctioneer, all items are sold as is, where is, with no warranties, expressed or implied. In other words, inspect carefully before you bid.
HorseShoe If you're bidding and the bid exceeds what you feel the item is worth, drop out. Avoid getting caught up in the "fighting frenzies" (fighting too long for the item). You'll only end up making an expensive point to the other bidder. You took the price, but he won. Don't let the Bidding Bully make you have buyer's regrets.
HorseShoe At most auctions the merchandise becomes yours as soon as the auctioneer says "sold." From then on, the item is your responsibility. Don't walk away from small items you have bought. Carry them, put them in your vehicle, or otherwise secure them. If someone carries them off, the auction company is not responsible.
HorseShoe Never lend anyone your bidder number. Like lending money, lending a bidder number has ended many a friendship.
HorseShoe Always destroy your bidder number card when you're through buying. If you carelessly dispose of it, your card may be picked up by someone and used without your knowledge.

Although it isn't common to clap or show extreme emotion when an item sells, sometimes all that built-up adrenaline needs release. I once attended an auction where an original Brewster C-spring Victoria in mint condition came up for bid. The bidders were professionals, and the bidding was hard and fast, so I never got to see who was bidding or who won the final bid. When the hammer fell at $32,000, everyone stood and clapped. I didn't know the gentleman at my left, but in the emotion of the moment we turned to each other, hugged, and exclaimed, "Wow." How we both wished we were taking that Victoria home! Auctions are exciting.


Tammy Honnell of Eatonton, Georgia, is a licensed auctioneer. This article appeared in The Evener 1998 issue of Rural Heritage.

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29 April 2012 last revision