Pennsylvania auctioneer explains mysteries of an old trade
PHILADELPHIA (AP) – The auctioneer sat by a chainsaw and a painting of a raccoon, scanning the crowd for familiar faces, buyers he knew couldn't pass up old postcards or dusty books about long-forgotten places.
At 5 p.m. — sharp — he opened his mouth and began to chant, the sound bursting from his throat like a fingerpicking banjo player blazing through "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." The blur of words and numbers came far too fast for any newcomer to make out, but the auctioneer's song is really a subtle lullaby, meant to lull, some say hypnotize, those buyers into a slight nod or thumb raise, to spend a few dollars more on a roll of chicken wire or a box of nails.
"Here's an example of what I'm saying — '$5 now, $10, will you give me $10'— just much faster," Brian Oberholtzer said after Monday's afternoon's antique auction. "It's all about repetition and rhythm. They call it your cadence, or a chant."
And there's no better auctioneer in Pennsylvania than Oberholtzer.
In May, after several past top-10 finishes, Oberholtzer, 36, won the Pennsylvania Auctioneers Association's (PAA) statewide bid-calling competition in Harrisburg. He's one of nearly 2,000 licensed auctioneers and apprentices in the state, and the judging, said PAA president Matthew Hostetter, looks at a wide range of skills, from poise to voice clarity, to connection with the crowd.
"You really have to be the total package," Hostetter said.
Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana have the most auctioneers in the United States, on account of deep agricultural traditions there. Auctioneers in Pennsylvania sell everything from cars, to hogs, to whole farms. There's a "handful" of women who are members of the PAA, and Kylee Hostetter, Matt's sister, finished in third place in this year's competition.
Though there are auctioneer schools in Pennsylvania, Oberholtzer said he's self-taught, getting into the business full time in 2015, after having worked in the cement business.
He's often paid by the hour or commission and averages about four auctions per week, and on Monday, before arriving at an old warehouse by some railroad tracks in this Lancaster County town for the antique auction, he auctioned off hay.
Once the auction begins, Oberholtzer doesn't stop for three hours, clearing a whole room of antiques, lot by lot. He doesn't take a bathroom break, barely sips his water, and needed just a second or two to clear his throat.
Oberholtzer, who lives with his wife and two children in Reinholds, Lancaster County, said he's an allergy sufferer, so spring auctions can test his voice at times. He carries lozenges and drinks tea with lemon at home if he's feeling hoarse. In the same way opera singers might warm up their voice before a performance, Oberholtzer said some auctioneers recite tongue twisters to get their mouths moving.
"There's 'Betty Botter bought a batch of butter and made her batter bitter, so she bought a better batch of butter and made her batter better," Oberholtzer said. "There's guys who can just roll that out. They say a lot of auctioneers can rap. I cannot rap."
Though auctions can be traced to the Roman Empire, the fast-paced chanting style is uniquely American.
Oberholtzer said the style is both practical, in that there's a lot of items to sell in a short amount of time, but there's also a psychological component to the chant that awakens people's innate competitiveness.
"A lot of it is the excitement of 'I want that and I have to bid now or I'm going to lose out,'" he said. "When you keep it moving, that excitement is there and the adrenaline is pumping."
Oberholtzer said there's one big misconception about being an auctioneer.
"I can talk fast, but I can't read fast," he said.
Bob Diem, owner of H & R Auctions in New Holland, said one of Oberholtzer's skills is "seeing" the customers, knowing who is going to bid and, more importantly, who will bid a bit more. Like a skilled poker player, Oberholtzer looks for the tells, the man pulling his beard, the woman whose eyes light up when a set of doll clothes takes center stage, and the other woman who notices her.
"A bad auctioneer misses bids," Diem said. "They leave money on the floor."
The customers at H & R are seasoned, coming every Monday to sort through the lots. They often come for one thing, whether it's old fishing lures or Jadeite dishes, to resell in their booths at antique stores.
Oberholtzer knows that.
"He doesn't mumble. He's clear and precise. A good guy," said buyer Don Rittenhouse.
Ed Cradduck, of Elverson, Berks County, was coy about whether he'd buy more military memorabilia. He has more than he needs. Still, he was there, eyeballing everything up close and praising Oberholtzer's skills as a high art.
"He has a beat, like Shakespeare," Cradduck said.
Other customers said Oberholtzer's "melodic voice" is a rarity in the auction world.
"Only the best can do that," said Charlie Hershberger, who bought a wasp trap, chicken wire, and a rug.
There were few pauses in the action, and as storm clouds gathered outside, the auction house's "runners" carried every last item to the front of the room. With every sale, Oberholtzer smacked a ruler against the podium, and the runner carried the next lot forward. One was an anchor and bilge pump.
"So you can stay in one place while you drown," Oberholtzer joked before rolling into his chant.
Oberholtzer had another hay auction scheduled for later in the week, another antique auction, too. But if someone needs something else sold, anything, he can do it, quickly.
"I've sold ponies, horses, hay, straw, real estate. The most expensive real estate I've sold thus far — a $2.5 million farm — uh, tractors, farm equipment, vehicles," he said.
"That's what's really cool. Auctioneers can sell anything."