The singsong sounds of auctions
I was standing aside from the auction not paying much attention when the sounds of the auctioneers’ voices struck me.
I’m so familiar with their chants that they’re like white noise to me. But on this day, I listened without focusing on what the auctioneers were selling and I heard the music in their voices. I realized that although the chants sounded discordant, there was a rhythm to the way they cajoled you into paying more than you should for an item.
Even though there was some commonality in the auctioneers’ urgings, their voices and speech patterns distinctively separated one from the other. Anyone who’s ever been to an auction or seen one on TV has wondered why they talk like that. Most of what we hear is taught, because auctioneers go to school to learn to speak the technique, and each one mixes in his or her own unique take. (Musical scale in photo above by photosteve101.)
Some tell jokes – which sometimes can be funny but oftentimes not – others try to make auction-goers feel guilty for not bidding higher and others try to make them feel like they have just gotten the best bargain in the house.
Each auction house also has its own rhythm. A lot of that is demonstrated by the auctioneers themselves, the tone of the auctions, the trustworthiness of the staff and auction-buyers (some people do steal from the tables) and the auction-goers’ freedom to move around the auction house to examine items (even after the bidding has started).
The auctioneers at the auction houses I go to speak very clearly, so you know what you’re bidding on. There’s none of that “What did he/she say?” dumbfoundedness sparked by an auctioneer who garbles his or her words. I’ve been to one auction house where I could barely understand the auctioneer and had to keep my ears keen on the bid he was offering. It’s painful when you have one of those types.
The sounds lend a flavor to the auctions, so I decided to record a few to share. Some will be auctioneers selling items for less than $100 and others for thousands of dollars – prices they get at their quality or decorative arts sales. In many cases, the audience applauds when an item fetches a very high price.
Shang Dynasty Bronze Dagger, 1600-1100 BC. It had been sold at Christie’s auction house in New York in 2006. The bidding was relentless and went on for almost 4 minutes. The dagger sold for $3,200. The auction house recorded the bid number for the next highest bidder in case the winner reneged.
Sligh mahogany beehive mantle clock and 19th-century walnut gingerbread shelf clock. The Sligh sold for $90, and the gingerbread, $100.
Real photo postcards of African American women, including 75 with hats. One of the bidders was the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in 2015. The museum lost out to a phone bidder, which got the collection of 275 photos for $4,000.
Black Panthers posters, the highest of which was Huey P. Newton in a wicker chair that sold for $16,000 and the lowest, a Huey bumper sticker for $225.
Small items sold by the piece or in groupings. The prices are much lower because this was a regular biweekly auction.