I’ve recently expanded my television viewing horizons, dedicating screen time to late night reruns of Barrett-Jackson Collectible Car Auctions. The combination of chrome, horsepower, and the hypnotic chants of the auctioneer hold my attention for hours on end. That said, it’s the auction chant that keeps me glued.
The auction chant – also known as “bid calling” – is a rhythmic, repetition of numbers and filler words chanted by an auctioneer during the course of an auction. The inflection and cadence of a skilled auctioneer’s voice will hypnotize bidders into a pattern of call and response. And the faster the bid caller rattles off numbers and words, the stronger the bidding urgency becomes.
Anatomy of the Auction Chant
In simplest form, an auction chant consists of two basic numbers: the current bid price (known as “the have”), and the higher bid the auctioneer is asking for (known as “the want”). Interspersed between the have and the want are sounds and filler words that an auctioneer will use to make his or her chant more cadenced and entertaining to the crowd. For example, if the current bid is $20 (the have) and the auctioneer is asking for $30 (the want), the bid calling might sound something like: “I’m at $20, now $20, I need $30, $30, somebody give me $30, $30…”
In addition to the rhythmic qualities of filler words, they serve more important purposes. Filler words provide a natural pause between the have and the want, giving bidders a fraction of a second to make decisions. They are also used to ask bidders questions or to make statements. Used to pose a question, an auctioneer might say “will ya’ give me?” to ask bidders for a higher bid. Used in a chant, it might sound something like: “20 dollar bid, now 30, now 30, will ya’ give me 30? 30 dollar bid, now 40, now 40, will ya’ give me 50?” This pattern would continue until the bids stop and the item is sold.
To create the illusion that the auction is moving quickly, an auctioneer will turn a three or four word phrase into a sound. By slurring filler words, an auctioneer gives the appearance that they are talking fast. For example, the phrase “somebody give me” could be slurred to sound like “sbody-gi-me”, making the time between the have and the want move more quickly, producing more excitement and anxiety among bidders.
So now that we’ve covered the have and the want, there’s a third number the bid caller must always have in mind as they’re calling an auction. Once the auctioneer’s want becomes the have, a new want is created. The new want (known as “the next”) is the ever-changing third number. Therefore, while auctioneering, the bid caller has three numbers in mind: the have, the want, and the next. Simple enough, right?
The next is typically the same amount more than the want is more than the have. In our example above, the auctioneer has $20 and is asking for $30, so the next would most likely be $40 ($10 more than the want). Are you getting this? No? Okay, why don’t we just let a professional auctioneer explain!
Origins of the Auction Chant
There’s strong speculation that the auction chant was developed and perfected by the tobacco auctioneers of Virginia shortly after the Civil War. After watching and listening to this old timer’s story, I believe it.