Abrahams chants at breakneck speed, familiar words rolling
off his lips: "Five dollars, give 10—$10. Now $15—now
$20. I’ve got $20—now $25. Give $30—SOLD for $30 to number 100, for $30!"
Norman is an auctioneer in West Point,
Nebraska. His fast-paced oratory builds excitement,
encourages bids, and lets him sell a large number of items
in a short amount of time.
How did he learn to speak, and sell, so
quickly? Auctioneering school, says Norman, is what taught
him the tongue-twisting tricks of the trade. Chanting—the
method of speaking auctioneers use—requires clarity,
speed, and rhythm. It’s something most auctioneers learn
through formal training.
A small number of schools throughout the
country offer auctioneering programs. These programs
typically last a few weeks to a few months. Students learn
breathing and voice techniques and perform practice drills
to increase their speed and precision. They might also
study subjects such as ethics, public speaking,
advertising, and auction law.
Apprenticeships are another way for
auctioneers to hone their skills. By working with an
experienced auctioneer, apprentices learn firsthand how
the job is done.
Formal education or experience isn’t
just helpful; in many cases, it’s required. Auctioneers
in more than half the States need to be licensed, which
usually requires completing a State-approved training
program or apprenticeship, having a high school diploma or
GED, and passing a written exam and criminal background
check. Auctioneers who sell land, houses, or other
buildings anywhere in the country must also have a valid
real estate license.
After they’re qualified for the job,
some auctioneers take the title of colonel. This practice
dates back to the Civil War, when only military colonels
were allowed to auction off the spoils of war.
Now, as then, almost anything can be sold
at auction. Art, machinery and equipment, and livestock
are just a few of the items traded in this way. Some
auctioneers specialize in one or more types of products;
Norman’s specialty is antiques and consignments.
Norman has been an auctioneer for 20
years, and he’s learned a lot in the process. But he
didn’t always know he wanted auctioneering as a career.
"I started off in farming," he says. "I
went to local livestock auctions, and I became interested
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does
not collect earnings or employment data specifically on
auctioneers. But according to the National Auctioneers
Association, auctioneers’ earnings vary considerably.
Most are paid on commission. For example, they might take
home 10 or 15 percent of the total proceeds from an
The association also reports that many
auctioneers work part time. Norman works full time,
although his hours are fewer on days when there isn’t an
auction. "I work mostly Monday through Friday," he says.
But like many auctioneers, he also works weekends—and
evenings, when necessary.
A lot of what Norman and his colleagues do
happens before the auction begins. "In our
case," says Norman, "we go to people’s houses
and haul stuff in. We also set up the auction."
Moving large items means that Norman sometimes needs
physical strength, but not all auctioneers do heavy
Auctioneers are versatile in the work that
they do. Some, like Norman, help to set up and pick up
after the auction. Others might appraise or repair items,
organize pieces by type or price and put them into lots to
be sold together, or create a catalog of what’s for
sale. Still others might do paperwork or process sales,
but Norman says that many auction houses have office staff
to perform those clerical tasks.
Advertising and marketing are usually a
big part of an auctioneer’s job. Identifying and
attracting prospective buyers—and sellers—is critical
for generating business.
During an auction, Norman stands on a
podium or raised platform, called an auction block, in
front of a crowd of people. He rapidly describes the item
or items for sale, and the bidding begins.
As higher and higher bids come in from the
crowd, Norman acknowledges each in turn, chanting all the
while. Down bangs the gavel—indicating a winning bid—and
up comes the next item for sale.
When not on the auction block, Norman acts
as a bid spotter, or ringman. "When we work as
ringmen, we’re ‘catching’ the bids," he says. "If someone’s interested in buying an item, we
watch for them to give a signal." A signal might be a raised paddle or some other sign of
acceptance, like a nod. Then Norman brings the bid to the attention of the
auctioneer working as the bid caller on the podium. Norman
and a colleague take turns spotting or calling bids
throughout the auction.
But to truly understand what it’s like
to be an auctioneer, Norman says there’s nothing like
firsthand experience. "Go to an auction," he
says. "See how it’s handled and what goes on."
Doing this, he says, will help people decide if it’s the
career for them.
"It’s a fun job," says Norman,
adding that for him, meeting people is the most
But dealing with so many people also means
being able to control a crowd. In the excitement, noise
levels can escalate and distract from the bidding.
"People come to the auction and get to
visiting," says Norman. It’s his job to curb
conversation, while at the same time creating a fun and
energetic atmosphere that draws people into the bidding.
Besides, when Norman’s on the block,
auction goers need to pay attention. If they don’t, what
they want might be going, going…gone!