In booms or busts, business is always going, going, gone for fast-talking auctioneers.
"When things are good, we do less auctions and get more money at them," explains Carlisle Millard of Bridgeport, executive director of the West Virginia Auctioneers Assn. "When things are bad, we do more auctions but we make less at them."
"My firm has been continuously growing over the last 12 years. Hard times haven't slowed our growth," adds Millard, who runs Diversified Marketing Inc.
Robert Steffes of Fargo, N.D., president of the National Auctioneers Assn., says, "When times are tough, auctioneers offer hope where there doesn't seem to be hope."
Typically, the auctioneer's cut is 10%, but it can range from 3% to 25%, depending on the size and number of the items. Big-ticket items such as heavy equipment, mining equipment and real estate have lower percentages. Smaller, less expensive items get a higher percentage.
Al Thompson, 59, a veteran auctioneer who runs Resource Marketing Inc. in West Hamlin, has sold everything from hair implants to condominiums in his 20 years on the block.
Once, he recalls, a vasectomy was donated by a doctor to a charity auction. The big surprise came when the doctor's wife won with a $300 bid.
"I don't know what ended up happening with it," Thompson says.
Auctioneers say it isn't often that they mistake someone scratching a head or waving to a friend for a bidder. But it happens.
Millard, who has sold livestock at auction, said one of the occupational hazards for bidders is flies.
"They'd swat a fly with their bid card. When a bid card goes in the air, that's a bid," he says.
Facial tics are another trouble spot.
"I remember one time when I first started," Millard says. "This bicycle we were selling got up to a big price. After I sold it, I found the guy had had a stroke recently and always nodded his head up and down.
"He was looking right at me the whole time. But we had to resell the item."
In West Virginia, the aspiring bid-caller's road to the auction block begins at a two-story brick building outside Charleston. There, the state Department of Agriculture administers a two-part exam to those seeking licenses.
After taking a 150-question, 1 1/2-hour written test on the Uniform Commercial Code, state auctioneering law, ethics and math, students go before a roomful of veteran auctioneers posing as bidders.
"Your profession is at the core of our value-setting mechanism," state Agriculture Commissioner Cleve Benedict told 10 recent applicants about to undergo the practical test. "It's how resources go from where they're no longer needed to back into the economy."
In West Virginia, commercial auctioneers must have licenses. But lawyers can auction goods without one, and anyone can sell his or her personal property at auction once a year without having a license.
The novices quickly learn about their weaknesses while auctioning off imaginary items before the pros.
Lance Blankley, 20, of Hedgesville, opened his auction with an impressive, rapid-fire chant. He took bids on a Southern States riding lawn mower with a 10-inch cut, eventually settling for $130. The winning bidder asked if the mower is guaranteed.
"No, everything's as is," Blankley said.
"You can just have that mower back. You didn't say anything about 'as is' to me. You sell that again," the bidder said.
Next time, he got a bid of $225, but the criticism didn't stop.
"You're losing control of your sale," Thompson said. "You let me get away with things. Don't let these two turkeys over here talk out loud. We could hear them over you.
"When someone does that, don't be intimidated by it. Just stop, don't say anything. You'd be surprised at how quickly things get quiet."
Then he added free advice.
"Always tape your sales with a tape recorder. I've saved thousands of dollars with them." That tape recorder always tells who bid what, Thompson said.
All 10 would-be auctioneers passed the test. The novices, in addition to demonstrating their skills, got valuable tips and criticism from their would-be peers. But some lessons come only with experience.
"There's more to auctioneering than bid-calling," says H. C. Staats, 74, of Clendenin, a 45-year veteran of the trade. "You have to price merchandise, arrange it, know how to sell it. Some guys have the chant down, but that's it."
At schools around the nation, aspiring auctioneers learn the trade in a classroom atmosphere.
At the Worldwide College of Auctioneering in Mason City, Iowa, Gordon Taylor graduates up to 75 students each 10-day term. He says the interest never dies.
"It's a very popular business. Enrollment is steady," he says.
Passing a test or graduating from a school is one thing. Breaking into the business is another, says Joe Keefhaver, executive director of the 5,300-member national group, based in Overland Park, Kan.
"It's a hard business to get started in. You're dealing with people whose life's accumulations of possessions are at stake. They're naturally concerned with your abilities," Keefhaver said.