By Jerome Tharaud
The singsong voice of Dan Goss is pouring out over a crowd of heads as he takes bids on a Holstein cow. He races back and forth over the numbers in eerie undulations, and the price steadily rises as he peers into the crowd and points at each bidder. The ringmen help him keep track.
It takes about 45 seconds. "Sold! Seven dollars and fifty cents. What's your number, ma'am?" The cow is handed over. No, it's not a reflection of Goss' skill or of hard times for agriculture: The cow is plastic. Goss stands at an antique auction in a gymnasium, selling everything from Civil War-era medals to novelty watches.
To many people an auction conjures up images of selling livestock and farm equipment, a lilting throwback to a rural heritage that flourished before the dawn of the silicon age. Farm auctions continue, but the last 40 years have brought both an increase in the number of auction companies in Montana and the kinds of property they sell. And the Internet, rather than sapping interest from live auctions as some feared, has actually increased it.
Goss, who was named the 2003 Montana-Wyoming Rookie Auctioneer of the Year by the Montana Auctioneers Association this January in Billings, has spent most of his life around auctions.
Growing up on a farm in Sidney, his dad and grandpa went to auctions to buy old tractors and engines to restore. "Ever since I was a little kid I was brought along to these auction sales, and it always kind of fascinated me how they talk so fast," said Goss, who studies diesel and welding at Montana State University-Northern but is a ringman at the Big Sky Auto Auction in Billings every Thursday.
"I practiced while I was driving the tractor," Goss recalled. "Pretty soon I got it down so that I had a pretty good chant going, and then I went to auctioneer school."
Simple as that.
Not quite, says association president Shane Ophus, who started Ophus Auction Service in Big Sandy 21 years ago.
An auctioneer, Ophus explained, has to have a lot of things. Some are easier to pin down - honesty, good people skills, eye contact, the ability to close a deal. But when it comes down to it, there is just something intangible about a good chant. "They get mesmerized," Ophus said. "What people like to hear about an auctioneer is the rhythm. You want it clear. If he's a good one and he's doing his job, you'll get caught up in the bid calling. If he's doing a good job, he's enticing you to pay more than you intended on paying."
Of course, if everyone lost money, there wouldn't be such a demand for auctioneers - currently there are 35,000 in the United States alone, according to the National Auctioneers Association. "Sometimes there's bargains. That's what entices them," Ophus explained. "And it's fun."
The auction, derived from the Latin word "auctus" - to increase - has been around in some form or another for thousands of years. Around 500 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus observed the Babylonian practice of auctioning women off as wives. It was illegal to sell one's daughter anywhere except at an auction.
Sellers no longer put their daughters on the block, but they keep coming back to sell at auctions. The sale is fast - it takes about 30 seconds per item, on average. But "if you're selling a big $50,000 tractor it may take four minutes," admitted Ophus.
Auctions are also attractive to sellers because the auctioneers do all the advertising, and there are no warranties to worry about. When buyers sign up for bidder's cards the morning of the auction, they accept the terms of the auction, said Ophus. "You're relying on your own inspection."
Auctioneers generally earn commissions on every item they sell, but benefit auctions are deeply rooted in the auctioneering culture. "They are one of the most willing groups to get out and help other people," said Bob Sivertsen, who has owned B&B Auction Sales and Service in Chinook since the mid-1960s and has participated in benefit auctions for groups like 4-H and the Boy Scouts. "It just goes along with the profession."
Goss started out early: In high school, he helped organize a benefit auction that raised $800 to help defray medical costs of a fourth-grader with cancer.
Auctions are continually evolving, said Jerry Ellis, owner of the Western College of Auctioneering in Billings. The college, one of about about 17 auctioneering schools in the United States, charges $1,625 for an 11-day course in clerking, cashiering, bid calling, and the different types of auctioneering.
The college has drawn students from places as far as Singapore, England and Australia. Ellis said an average class in the college has about 25 students, with typically one or two women.
Many auctioneers go to more than one auctioneering school because different schools specialize in different skills, said Goss, who attended his first one-week course at the Continental Auction School in Mankato, Minn., in the summer of 2000. "The chant that I first developed isn't anything like the one that I have now," Goss said. "I'm always learning new techniques."
Next summer he hopes to go to the Auctioneer's Training Center in Regina, Saskatchewan, that specializes in livestock auctioneering. The Montana Auctioneering Association requires its members to take continuing education classes to keep informed of the changes in the industry.
"Anybody that has gone to auctioneering school 20 years ago, a lot has changed since that time," Ophus said. "You're kind of living in the dark ages."
Ellis said the biggest change in auctions over the years is that they have become more specialized, in part because of the Internet. "It's made it a lot better for marketing the higher-end tickets" like real estate, he said. The expansion of auctions into the real estate and auto markets have created a boom.
In Seattle, whole city blocks have been sold for $7 million or $8 million at auction, Ophus said.
"The Internet has helped bring a better awareness of live auctions," he said, because auction owners can advertise their auctions worldwide. Some auctioneers even use telephones and the Internet simultaneously to allow interested customers around the world to bid on an item in a live auction, Ellis said.
These factors have led to an auction boom in Montana. In the early 1960s most of the auction business in the state went to a few major auction companies. Thanks to diversification of the industry, now it is shared by 15 or 20 companies, Ophus said.
But diversification and the Internet are not the only factors contributing to the trend. Behind Montana's auction success story is also the sobering reality of the decline of the agricultural West. "Auction sales are very important to the state of Montana because unfortunately there's a lot of farmers getting out of farming, and it's important that there's auctioneers around," Goss said.
Ophus agreed that trying to sell everything on a farm or ranch using conventional methods would be difficult because the best equipment would be sold first, while the rest would be left to sit. But for an auction, "I would come in and do all the advertising," said Ophus. "In one day you would sell everything to the highest bidder."
For auctioneers, at least, things are looking up. "Last year was our best year ever. Each year continues to get a little better," Ophus said. "I'm optimistic about the future."
Still, it's not easy to make it as a full-time auctioneer. "It's pretty difficult to make a living in this area just on auctioneering alone," Sivertsen said. The key, auctioneers agree, is to diversify.
"If you're diversified enough, you can find work in Havre," Goss said, but added, "I want to get a college degree as something to fall back on."