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Economy & Business

Missouri Auction School: teaching the auctioneering chant for more than 100 years

(Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)
Paul Dewees, president of the Missouri Auction School, leads students in the daily warm-up, taking them through tongue-twisters and dollar drills.

More than 100 people chant the tongue twister “Betty Botter bought some butter.”

Then they move on to dollar drills.

This is the Missouri Auction School, the world’s biggest and oldest school for would-be auctioneers. It was founded in 1905.

Twice a year students convene at a Route 66-themed Holiday Inn in Sunset Hills for the week-long class, where they start the day with the 30-minute warm-up. President Paul Dewees says students come from all over the U.S. and even travel from other countries to learn how to become auctioneers.

He says the success of the school lies in teaching an entertaining and engaging American chant. It’s that sing-song, rhythmic call auctioneers do to sell anything from livestock to fine art.

"It’s the mix of showmanship and the business aspect," he said. "We may need to sell 60 to 100 items in an hour, so the chant tries to draw that bidder out, try to get that bid, to give a sense of urgency. It’s now or never."

Now is a good time to get into auctioneering, Dewees says, as baby boomers begin to transfer their wealth to the next generation.

The students range in age from teenagers to retirees. Some are planning a mid-career change and hope to open their own business. Others, like St. Louis resident Peggy Ladd, just want to do charity auctions.

The recent retiree describes herself as outgoing, but she admits getting in front of a roomful of people that first time was pretty scary.

"That first chant was trying to do my ABCs in Russian," she laughs. "I just couldn’t get it together. Luckily 95 of us in the same boat and we worked through it."

Credit (Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)
Jeff Jeffers, CEO and principal auctioneer at Selkirk Auctioneers and Appraisers House, and Paul Dewees.

Back in 1997, Jeff Jeffers was a student at the Missouri Auction School.

Now the CEO and principal auctioneer of the Selkirk Auctioneers and Appraisers House in St. Louis’ Central West End, he is also an instructor at the school.

He said he enjoys watching the transformation students make in just a day or two.

"This is not difficult. It’s uncomfortable, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s not difficult if you understand that repetition is the mother of all skill," he said.

Credit (Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)
Levi Krumme prepares to start the bidding in a mock auction at Selkirk Auctioneers and Appraisers House.

On this day he leads a group of about 20 students through Selkirk’s to get a sense of what it’s like to sell fine art, furniture and even cars. Each student will get behind a big wooden podium and choose an item to “sell” to their classmates.

Levi Krumme goes first. He chooses a gold platter and starts the bidding. Within minutes he’s brought the gavel down.

“Sold $95, number 101,” he announces.

Krumme is used to farm sales. He works for an auctioneer in northwest Missouri and decided to come to the class to show how serious he is about taking over the business someday.

"You’ve got to take baby steps," he said "You can’t just jump up there and think you know it all. I have learned a lot and I’m glad that I came."

A few days later Krumme joined thousands of other graduates of the Missouri Auction School. This summer he plans to take the Missouri exam to become a licensed auctioneer. 

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

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