Chapter 15: Ladies and Gentlemen - the Auctioneer

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The voice rings out loudly, penetrating and slowly silencing the hum of the many voices of the growing crowd. Other voices echo the call until the message reaches the last of the prospective buyers at the far end of the many rows of farm tools and equipment.

The three men in their matching 'uniform' of shirts, blue jeans, leather work boots and those essentially wide-brimmed Akubra hats, had already caused the crowd to part as they carved a path through to the long tray-top of a truck laden with 'sundries'. Now they stood high above the bidders and potential buyers. Time for the Clearing Sale to begin.

"GOOD MORNING Ladies and Gentlemen - and welcome to John Brown's Clearing Sale. He has recently sold his property to retire to the Gold Coast and live a life of luxury - and naturally enough, he won't be needing his tractor and plough and all that fencing and veterinary material up there!" A laugh ripples through the crowd, and a heap of good-natured badgering is heard. The Auctioneer grins cheerfully and continues to wish all buyers success and the hope they will get their desired purchases at the right price.

Next he details the terms of the sale, (e.g. payment to be made in full prior to removal of goods - except in the case of alternative financial arrangements having been made prior to the sale, usually for larger items). He stresses the need for all potential bidders to have a registered number - obtained from the temporary 'office' usually set up in one of the farm sheds - and explains how only bids from registered buyers with their card displaying a large number will be recognised and accepted.

This preamble ends with a brief run-through of the order of the sale, indicated by enthusiastic arm waving and pointing to the rows of goods. At last the auctioneer declares the sale open and begins his chant, describing the item (or box of items) one by one and suggesting -

"Well, this one must be worth - hmmm, what would we say? $100? Do I hear 100?" (waits, looks around in all directions... no response, so he continues) $75 maybe? Come on fellows - there MUST be a 50 out there somewhere... surely? This is a top quality (whatever) - worth every bit of $100. Come on! Don't be shy." (waits briefly again) "OK, 20 then. $20 only...YES! THANK YOU SIR. I have a bid of $20 to get us started ladies and gentlemen. Do I hear $25?"

And so it progresses. The auctioneer and his assistants' heads swivel constantly, scanning the crowd for the anticipated bids, shouting loudly as they lunge forward, pointing in the general direction of the current bid, "YES!... new blood on the right", or "Ha! Here's a third (or fourth) punter joined us".

The auctioneer continues his spiel, repeating the increasing amount interspersed with cajoling or challenging statements to the participants. "It's back to you sir... yes, you over there at the back. Surely you won't let this one slip through your fingers... just for a paltry $5 more? And what about you Charlie? Surely you're needing a new one by now. Christ, yours must be... what? 20 years old? 30? C'mon... "

This cheerful rant continues until suddenly, no more bids are apparent. Now the auctioneer says, "OK $23 - no more bids? Are you sure? This is THE bargain of this sale! Sure? Going once... " he pauses, looking in every direction. "Going twice... " Another pause and then he claps his hands loudly. "All done at the bargain price of only $23... to Number 49. Well bought, Joe!" He moves on to the next item as an assistant records the number on one of the many pages of a typed list on his clipboard. Periodically, as a sheet is filled a 'runner' delivers it to the makeshift office so the assistants can begin preparation of the individual dockets, ready for totalling when each buyer is finished.

Most auctioneers are such entertaining characters on top of all the practical demands of the job. It's a mystery how so much humour prevails considering the scope of knowledge required. Firstly the goods themselves, and the ability to recognise weird and wonderful and quite obscure 'parts' of tools or machinery, sometimes dating from decades ago. Next comes guessing a reasonable price to start the bidding. Amazing how often the final price ends up SO close to the first opener offered by the auctioneer, despite dipping to alarmingly low levels and lifting to the heights once again. It happens more often than you would believe.

And in between his machine gun' 'rat-a-tat' delivery, he'll acknowledge people he knows - MANY of them - and by name as well. "Aww... come on George. Let the moths out...they need some air" - or, "Hey Fred... thought you were looking for one of these the other week. Here's a beauty for you...", and on and on he goes, entertaining and cajoling and convincing his audience to lift those bidding cards.

The auctioneer and his assistants must also be able to recognise the many secretive and varied ways buyers bid. The average farmer just lifts his numbered card, or maybe lifts a finger skywards, whilst others may flatten a hand against their face and lift a finger, or shake their head to show they've stopped bidding. Some will turn their back to the proceedings to indicate their withdrawal.

Amongst the buyers however, will be many who for one reason or another don't want to be identified as an interested party. Maybe it's a scrap-metal buyer looking for ultimate bargains to melt down. It could be an entrepreneur-type who will purchase something, 'do it up' and resell for a healthy profit. He would rather not be identified with a 'bargain basement' purchase price. Sometimes it's a wealthy local farmer who has the price artificially boosted by other 'mock' buyers, just to see him pay more because - "he can afford it, the old moneybags!" Another time, other agents could be buying on behalf of individual farmers from their own distant area.

Now we see the wink; the hand holding the chin, or a solid stare that means the bidder is still bidding; the eyebrow lift; the mouth or nose twitch - here a scratch, there a rub - the choices are endless. When these bizarre tweaks and tics abruptly cease, it means that individual has quit bidding - OR has been secretly successful.

Fascinating aspects of human nature are demonstrated at a Farm Clearing Sale. One in particular is a phenomenon that may involve a strange type of 'wannabe' status that the excitement of all this buying can engender. It happens that the usually sage and sensible men of the land suddenly throw caution to the wind in their sudden, overwhelming desire to 'own' a particular item and the bidding goes higher... and higher. Ordinary people are suddenly paying extraordinary prices - obviously far above their plans (or budget) - and sometimes even more than brand-new prices! It must be some type of adrenalin rush to win the contest, no matter the expense.

No warranties or guarantees and too often, not even an Operating Manual. Must prove tricky when they get it home. At such times the seller first scratches his head in disbelief at his sudden windfall, and then rubs his hands with glee. Those 'in the know' of the appropriate price raise their eyebrows, exchange dubious glances and sometimes share a snigger. "What was he thinking of?" they mutter. "More money than bloody sense!"

The sale continues for maybe another four or more hours. The auctioneer cheerfully shouts his way through sundries and tools and fencing; stock feed and water troughs and crop seed; farm implements and machinery and vehicles. And somewhere in between, pens of stock - maybe cattle or sheep, or both. He never misses a beat and he almost always knows the going price of the day. If not, it's a modest, "OK fellers - set me right on these, will you? What do you reckon they're worth?" as he glances questioningly around the crowd.

That lack of knowledge is a rare occurrence if it's stock or fodder or the farm 'gear'. He almost always seems to know these prices. No, this is most often heard towards the end of the sale as he tackles a multitude of household goods - furniture, bedding, crockery and cutlery, ornaments, etc. His requests for help on pricing - and his voice (finally starting to get just a little hoarse), clearly show the end of the sale is near. It's obvious he couldn't be happier.

All that's left is to thank the buyers for attending and then take care of the minor detail of somehow getting his voice and his enthusiasm back in gear - ready to do it all again next week.

What a man! What a show!

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