SAN DIEGO — "Doyouwannabid? Doyouwannabid? Doyouwannabid? Allinandalldone. SOLD. At $60."
If Greg Rice's tongue moved any faster, he'd have to gargle with engine coolant to keep his head from overheating.
Rice, of Coshocton, Ohio, is one of more than 1,100 auctioneers and their relatives attending the annual convention of the National Auctioneers Assn. here this week.
But Rice, 34, isn't just anyone.
In a spirited daylong contest among more than five dozen top-flight bid callers--some of whom sounded like deranged disc jockeys and some who propounded as if they had studied under Porky Pig--the houndstooth-suited Rice was crowned the International Men's Auctioneer of 1996.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, I guess I've kind of been on the [auction] block 250 to 300 times a year and it's the first time I might have been speechless," the veteran auto auctioneer proclaimed jubilantly to a standing ovation from more than 400 respectful peers.
In his final-round performance late Wednesday night, rapid-fire Rice sold off a set of drill bits for $45 and a die-cast, one-sixteenth scale model farm tractor for $60 with a rhythmic cadence so brisk, thunderous and inviting that it could have awakened Jack Benny from the grave and turned him into a blubbering spendthrift.
"I guess I'm a little faster than some, and have a broad spectrum of octaves," Rice said afterward. "I've sold 345 cars in 110 minutes. So this was a slow pace."
These days, auctioneers across the nation are basking in the warm glow of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate sale, which took in a remarkable $34 million for the Kennedy family.
"There's a lot of good publicity," drawled Renee Jones, 25, of Houston, who won the smaller women's division auctioneer championship Wednesday night. "People now see auctions as almost a form of entertainment. And you can sell anything at auction."
The jewel of the convention, which runs through Saturday, is the annual auctioneers championship. More than 80 men and women fought for the chance to take home a two-foot-high trophy, enhance their resumes and become a yearlong goodwill ambassador for the burgeoning profession.
The two-round contest, held in the ballroom of the Town & Country Hotel, was scored by seven judges, in modified Olympic Games style, as entrants sold off a slew of lower-end retail items, ranging from fishing rods to porcelain figurines, to an eager crowd of fellow auctioneers, family members and friends.
The judges--craggy veteran bid callers themselves--gave each contestant up to 25 points based on qualities including poise, body language, eye contact, appearance and that most hallowed and mystical of auction qualities: the chant.
"You can tell auto, livestock and real estate auctioneers from each other," said finalist Marty Rogers of Beamon, Iowa. "The livestock auctioneer has a lot of roll and bumpity-bump to his voice. The auto auctioneer sells so many cars so quickly, and only to wholesalers, that he has a rat-a-tat-a-tat type chant. In real estate, you have to be able to slow down a bit."
For some contestants--second-and third-generation auctioneers--the chant was developed almost innately. Others attended auctioneering schools, mostly in the Midwest, to learn their trade. And nearly all, in the hours before the final round, psyched themselves by repeating stock phrases ("WhatamIbid? WhatamIbid? WhatamIbid?") or classic tongue-twisters.
" 'Betty Botter bought some butter. But she said this butter is bitter,' is one," burbled 1995 auctioneer champ Scott Steffes. "There's a billion of them."
Having pared down the crowded field in an afternoon preliminary round, the judges asked 20 finalists a series of questions including, "Why do you like being an auctioneer?" "Why is it important for auctioneers to belong to the National Auctioneers Assn.?" and "What would you tell someone who has a negative image of auctions?"
"I'd ask the person if he'd ever attended an auction, and if he hadn't, I'd probably drive him to one," women's champion Jones, who specializes in heavy machinery auctions, said after the closed Q & A session.
Finally, at 8 p.m., it was showtime.
First up for the championship was Rogers, who took a Shure SM-58 microphone in his left hand and declared to the well-scrubbed, overflow crowd, "Ladies and gentlemen, let's have an auction."
"Twenty-five dollars. What do I get, $15? $20?" Rogers queried, seeking to sell the first lot, a die-cast model John Deere tractor. Accepting a winning bid of $42.50, he went on to other items, which he euphemistically referred to as a "Jacques Cousteau snorkel and mask" and "kind of a unique handcrafted guardian angel wall-hanging."
The bouncy-voiced, Fullerton-born Jones, who began her career as an auctioneer at 14, was next, earning high marks for clarity, speed, rhythm and timing as she sold off a crystal bell for $85 and a die-cast Chevy for $35.