Under the Hammer or the Auctioneer’s Trade by Trevor Plumbly
The Auctioneer’s Attributes
He climbs to his perch, gavel in hand, as powerful as any high court judge. But no-one’s going to lose their liberty here; the odd dream maybe, but that’s auctions for you. The professionals greet their rivals with a sort of false bonhomie and a studied indifference to anything on offer which they can see a profit in, while the amateurs fidget nervously and study their catalogues for the umpteenth time. Just like any good ringmaster, the auctioneer knows the value of tension, the pros might not be affected by it but the greenhorns could be and the last thing he needs is an entire roomful of clear-headed punters. He needs a bit of drama to earn his crust, he’s got to satisfy the vendors’ expectations, while sending the buyers away feeling they got a fair deal or even a bargain. Be it real estate, fine art and antiques, livestock or just plain junk, it’s his job to sell it to its best advantage whilst not risking offence by seeming extortionate. To do this he needs a game plan textured to his audience’s social or financial circumstances.
High Class Auctioneering with Educated Cajolery
Bear in mind the auctioneer has no friends in the room, they all want to get an absolute bargain and he’s the only obstacle in their path. But to balance that, he’s in total control and rarely questioned publicly; auctioneers, like judges, make bad enemies. To simplify matters, we can safely assume that there are only three basic styles of auctioneering: educated cajolery, avuncular matey, and machine gun verbal. The first group are mainly restricted to high end real estate, art and antiques; low key is compulsory in this school, dark suits, white shirts and discreet ties make up the battledress and a well-modulated voice coupled with dry humour takes care of the vocals. It’s all very British and very restrained; I suppose when you’re paddling around in the millions it doesn’t do to flip your lid with emotion. These auctions have a sort of unworldly feel to them; the crowd keep such a low profile it’s almost as if the auctioneer is the only participant. Bids are reported quietly and there’s no loud ‘going, going gone!’ Usually, just a brief glance round the room, a quiet ‘selling then’ and a refined tap of the gavel ends the matter.
Middle Market Avuncular Matey
Down the market you’ll find the real characters of the game, the ‘general auctioneers’. These guys don’t need a varsity education or an old school tie to fill a room with punters; the good ones all seem to be direct descendants of Barnum and Bailey. They never stoop to gentle reproof in order to coerce. Hesitant bidders are regarded as an essential sales tool, there to provide an opportunity for some well-rehearsed ad-libs. Our general auctioneer is usually supported by a couple of ‘spotters’, who interject his flow with cries of ‘bid!’ or ‘new blood’ in an effort to pump up the excitement level. But while he shares the stage, he hogs the limelight shamelessly, flirting with the ladies, matey with the dealers and playing the kindly mentor to the nervous greenhorns. Contrary to legend, there’s no chance of buying a lemon by scratching your head, but this guy can send you home with stuff you didn’t intend to buy and make you feel quite good about it, at least for a while.
Bottom of the Pile Machine Gunners
Finally the machine gunners, mainly an American influenced style that totally escapes my logic and perception. It lends truth to the quote from Lewis Carroll: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”. And it seems to work, lots get sold, but God knows how! Bids are called at a frenetic pace in an indiscernible tongue that only the auctioneer and staff can decipher. Amidst all this, the cognoscenti converse quietly, breaking off occasionally to nod a bid at the gibbering ringmaster, who, amazingly enough, can distinguish an imperceptible bid from an involuntary twitch from several yards away. Not a place for the unseasoned to try to sneak a cheap lot, but then neither was Mentmore Towers in the 1970s. The estate trustees rejected an offer of £2 million from the British Government for the house and contents and decided to go to auction. The sale of the contents raised £6 million and lasted several days. Five separate catalogues were needed to cover the various categories offered. It is not known if anybody got a bargain.