Report from a Country Auction

Writer Joel Bourne visits the Volunteer Fire Department Auction in Trenton, North Carolina, to get the insider scoop on getting a great deal at a country auction.

| April/May 1992

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    The chances of getting taken at an auction are about 50-50. But there are secrets that will improve those odds.
    PHOTO: JOEL BOURNE
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    About 4,000 people came to the sale—one person reckoned about half came just for the barbecue.
    JOEL BOURNE
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    Unlike absolute auctions where everything goes at the top bid, the owners at the Trenton sale have the right to reject any and all offers. 
    JOEL BOURNE
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    It is interesting to note the difference between the advice of an auctioneer and that of a trader: whether to stand where you can be seen clearly; whether to put up your hands clearly or make a more subtle gesture.
    JOEL BOURNE
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    The auctioneer and the trader agree on one thing: Let somebody else make the opening bid. 
    JOEL BOURNE
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    The 907 items at the Trenton auction ranged from a child's rocking horse to a 150-horsepower, four-wheel-drive John Deere tractor.  
    JOEL BOURNE
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    When it comes down to the bidding, everybody has their own technique and style. 
    JOEL BOURNE

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Two men, dressed respectively in camouflage and dirty denim, stood on opposite sides of an aging plow, oblivious to the crowd around them. Folks milled and spoke with growing expectation until the silken voice of auctioneer Robert Earl Lee floated over them. In one breath, it went something like this: "All right ladies and gentlemen, here we have a four-bottom Allis-Chalmers plow good as new, looks a little rusty but with some W-D 40 and a little elbow grease she'll be ready to go in the spring, now who'll start me off with fifty dollars, fiftydollarbidfiftyfiftyfiftywho'llgivemefifty…"

The bids started coming in as Lee worked the crowd from a perch on the back of his pickup truck. One man bid with his hand, another bid with a nod of his head. It went back and forth between them in $10 increments—a test of wills and pocket depth. At $150, it went no further.

After 20 years of calling auctions, Robert Earl Lee was quick to read the signs. The hesitation, the look to the ground, the turn away. He had 900 more things to sell. He was ready to move along. "I got one-fifty, one-fifty who'll give me sixty, one-fifty, who'll give me sixty, sixty,sixty-dollar bid, one-fifty once, one-fifty twice, sold for a hundred-fifty dollars. Get his number fellows and let's move on."

"That was a good price," said my cousin Henry Long, a farmer from Northampton County, North Carolina, just south of the Virginia line. We got up at 5:30 that morning to get to the sale in Trenton on time because Henry was looking for a good disk, cheap.



Henry loves an auction. Some people like to buy things new and shiny, wear the newness off them themselves—they deem used equipment as just another person's problem ready-made to land in your lap. Not Henry. He's a practical man who sees opportunity knocking, a chance to pick up a needed or presumably needed item at a deal, or even a steal.

But it's a risky business. The chances of getting taken are, I'd venture, 50-50. But there are secrets to the art of the auction that will improve those odds. A sharp eye and a steady heart don't hurt—but I thought I'd hang around with Henry and a few others, observe, be quiet, and learn a few things about a cherished American tradition.



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