This article was first written by Evan Williams and published in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly on April 22, 2015.
It takes Aubrey Bailey about 15 seconds to sell a calf at the Okeechobee Livestock Market, his easy tumbling cadence or what auctioneer’s call “the chant” rolling from his mouth, which is often kept in good working order with a piece of peppermint candy. He sells calf after calf, 225 or so per hour, 2,400 head one recent week at different markets, mostly to professional buyers, before they’re shipped to ranches in the west or northern states. His voice has rarely failed him in more than three decades calling bids.
“I just kind of say my numbers, say my numbers in a song,” explained Mr. Bailey, who is 53 and lives in Lake City with his wife Kelly and family, where they own a U-pick vegetable farm. “The good Lord just blessed me with a tongue that rolls, that’s all I can say.”
That auctioneer’s chant is one of the profession’s mostly widely recognizable features, although it might be slowed down or dispensed with altogether depending on the occasion. Valuable art or the belongings of the recently deceased carry a certain gravitas, for instance, that cattle generally don’t. Auctioneers or auction businesses must be licensed in Florida in most cases, and the property owner normally pays them with a percentage of the selling price. The sales are loaded with anything from priceless art to prizes sold for charity.
“Last week at our auction I sold a 6-foot elephant husk from the ’30s that was engraved on both sides and it was just a gorgeous piece of art,” said Mike Joyce, owner of Gulfcoast Coin & Jewelry, which holds live auctions that take place at one of two 10,000-squarefoot galleries, in Fort Myers or Bonita Springs, as well as live on the Internet.
Punta Gorda-based auctioneer Jack Robillard has sold old mortuary equipment, grandfather clocks, jewelry, a soot-covered painting by Edward Willis Redfield (it had been hung above a fireplace but after being cleaned went for $327,000), and an entire farm in Pennsylvania, near where he has a second home. The owner had hoped to get $2.3 million but fierce competition between two men pushed the winning bid to $3 million.
“One was calling the other a little pissant,” Mr. Robillard recalls.
Auctions for a cause
If Mr. Bailey’s chant is more about speed and efficiency, moving a high volume of product, Scott Robertson’s style as a benefit auctioneer, raising money for nonprofits, is “part entertainer, part comedian, part minister, part actor.” Whereas Mr. Bailey might sell hundreds of items per hour to pros used to fast talk, Mr. Robertson sells 20 to those with average ears and deep pockets; and instead of peppermints he swears by Throat Coat tea and lukewarm water to keep his vocal chords buzzing. In 2014, he presided over 80 auctions, raising more than $28 million.
Where’s the story?
He and his staff organize some of the top fundraising events of the year for many local nonprofits such as the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest, which raises money for the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. During high season, roughly September through April, he works constantly as an auctioneer for events such as the Community School of Naples Angel Ball, Magic Under the Mangroves in Naples, and the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction in Sonoma County, Calif.
“For me to inspire an audience first of all I have to be inspired by the charity,” Mr. Robertson said. “So I’m going to do my homework ahead of time. Once I understand that information and internalize it, now I’m suddenly a passionate ambassador for the cause. And I won’t work for an organization if I don’t believe in the mission.”
Mr. Robertson, who is 54, lives with his wife, Mary, in Matlacha. Sometime in May, he trades in the tuxedos and colorful vests he wears for a wetsuit and lifejacket: he and his wife are long-time whitewater rafting guides for Adventures On the Gorge in West Virginia over the summer. Shooting the rapids and benefit auctioneering have their similarities, he points out:
“Both of ’em you’re living in the moment. When you drop into the top of a rapid you better be focused on the job at hand. You’ve gotta have presence and you’ve gotta have confidence.”
Third generation auctioneer
Mr. Bailey has been auctioneering professionally since the 1980s primarily at livestock markets. Mr. Robillard was a commercial airline captain before he started an auctioneering business in Punta Gorda and Michigan. Mr. Robertson was a high school teacher and sold commercial real estate before starting his company as a benefit auctioneer. One of Mr. Robertson’s staff members, Sara Rose Bytnar, is unique in that she is a third generation auctioneer, as well as one of five women in a family of auctioneers that includes her grandfather, mother and three aunts.
“I think generally speaking it is a male dominated industry,” Ms. Bytnar said. “For me growing up in my family I didn’t know anything differently. Where I grew up in Ohio people knew to expect the Rose girls. That’s just how it was. We are very strong confident personalities so it was never an issue of that.”
At 29, she has shown a gift for the job, as a state champion in the 2014-15 Florida Auctioneers Association bid calling competition and — a major honor in the industry — the first runner-up at the 2014 International Auctioneer Championship. Contestants are judged by some of the world’s best auctioneers on their appearance, confidence, stage presence, describing an item, and overall salesmanship.
She is from Whitehouse, Ohio, a small town near Toledo, where her late grandfather was a real estate broker who became an auctioneer in the 1980s. In 2009, Ms. Bytnar and her husband, Brandon, moved to Southwest Florida where their families had vacationed. While her mom and aunts have separate businesses (and are also competitors) in Ohio, auctioning real estate, cars and other items, Ms. Bytnar has found her niche in benefit auctions here, an area rich in philanthropic giving.
As an ambassador for a nonprofit, “you’re not just selling items you’re selling the emotion of the cause,” she said. “And that comes down to a professional auctioneer that knows how to leverage the stories and emotions that are tied to a great group.”