This story is a condensed version from Connect Business Magazine.
Some say there’s a sad and final note to the bang of anauctioneer’s gavel.
It signals the end of an antique collection, the breakup of a farm or the dispersal of family heirlooms. “Sold!” cries an auctioneer, and someone walks away with your father’s favorite chair.
But expect more laughter than tears when Duane and Karen Bergemann stand on hayracks and cajole bids from an assembly of bargain-hunting buyers, which might be a mingling of friends, neighbors, relatives, auction buffs, antique dealers or flea-market operators. Although the Bergemanns also operate an aerial spraying service, sell ag chemicals and help farm 900 acres, it is auctioneering that evokes their synergistic gusto. In five short years their Baroda Auction Realty has blossomed into one of the busiest auctioneering companies in Southern Minnesota, perhaps because they feel that auctions ought to be more like parties than wakes.
“We have a lot of fun at auctions. We laugh and clown around,” Karen said. “We want to make it a happy experience for you to come, so you have a good time.” Sometimes relatives of a deceased person favor an auction with a somber tone, “but we tell them we’re having a party here and we spent a lot of money inviting people.” Even reluctant family members usually abandon their serious demeanor, get into the mood of the crowd and join the laughter. The point is obvious: Prices will be better if people are in a happy, buying mood.
It’s not that the Bergemanns are insensitive to people who’ve spent a lifetime filling shelves and curio cabinets with spoons, figurines or souvenirs from around the world. “I’d like to give a seminar on how adult kids should treat their parents because sometimes we have to pick up the pieces,” Karen said. “When mom and dad have lived wherever they’ve lived for 50 years, and possibly one has lost a spouse, and they decide it’s time to down-size to an apartment or an assisted living facility, that’s tough enough. It’s a very traumatic time for the parents. Many times we’ve seen them cry. More often than not, either the kids show up with a U-haul and rip them off or they don’t have the courtesy to show up at all and just let their parents deal with all this.”
Karen has some standing advice for elderly people on the verge of breaking up housekeeping. “If your kids want something, make sure they get it” before an auctioneer’s crew shows up to catalogue your household contents. However, not all parents are disposed to hand over everything or, if it’s an estate sale, maybe there wasn’t an opportunity. “A lot of people require that their kids buy it at the auction and we make sure the family has lots of auction bills to mail to relatives,” Karen said. Duane sees an advantage in that. “They can buy whatever they want and since the money will be divided among them, they’re going to get their money back anyway,” he said.
They describe the auction business as “a total people game” and stress the sensitivity that must be employed, no matter what the merchandise. “Our crew is real sensitive (when cataloguing items before a sale) and we make sure we don’t sell personal things like letters, Christmas cards or family pictures,” Karen said.
Sometimes items can be overlooked, or value not perceived, until it’s almost too late, according to Karen. She told of a woman selling her father’s estate, who expressed no interest in a particular picture hanging on his wall before the auction began. But when an auctioneer helping the Bergemanns held it up for bids, he read the inscription written on the back to give the bidders an idea of the picture’s age. It had been presented to her father on the day of his baptism, but the daughter never knew that. “I saw this horrified look on her face. All of a sudden, she wanted it,” Karen said. Karen quickly entered a winning bid and scooped up the picture. “I handed it to her and the crowd cheered,” Karen said. “If the auctioneer helping us had been more experienced, he would have recognized the look on her face and handed it to her instantly.”
That ability to “read” people is essential in auctioneering, according to the Bergemanns, especially when it comes to sorting out the serious buyers from the merely curious. “You know whether a person is going to bid by the look in their eye,” Duane said. “That earnest look….it’s written all over their face.”
But how do you coax someone into bidding, especially if they’re not telegraphing a strong interest? “Karen’s powerful,” Duane said. “She’ll come right up to you, tap you on the chest, and say ‘you really want to bid on this, don’t you?’ The buyer has to trust you so he knows you’re not going to pull his leg.”
You get a sense of the lighthearted fun that reigns at a Baroda auction by listening to the incessant repartee flowing between the Bergemanns as they talk about their business. When Duane mentioned becoming so nervous on the verge of buying his first spray plane that he turned “instantly un-hungry” at lunch, Karen shoots back that being “un-hungry is kind of unusual for him.” When she says they met at an auction, he replies “she sold me a bill of goods.”
Speed is as much part of the Baroda style as fun. Rather than sell from one hayrack, they pull two together, tongue-to-tongue, so buyers don’t trip over the tongues. Duane cries from one wagon and the instant he shouts “sold,” Karen starts brandishing another item from her wagon. “You don’t give people time to let their minds wander,” she said.
When sellers hire them for a household auction, they send an experienced crew of helpers to the home to “wash the dishes, wash the bedding and box things up. The nicer it looks, the more apt you are to buy,” Karen said. On sale day, they furnish all the help and bring a lunch wagon if no church group or service club wants that job as a fund-raiser. “We have two experienced ‘ring men’ who help us look for bids. When we’re selling real estate, their job is to hand out fact sheets and try to determine who’s really interested in the property,” Karen said.
Once, for the fun of it, Duane let an inexperienced bidder keep bidding against himself until he’d run a coffee pot up to $35. “When I said ‘sold,’ I told the clerk to mark it down for $2.50 because that really was where he won the bid,” Duane said. “We realize if you’re a rookie. If you’re green as grass, we aren’t going to take advantage of you and let you pay $10 more. What’s fair is fair. We don’t pull bids out of trees.”
Karen, who’s been an auctioneer since 1984, eight years longer than Duane, speaks of the ethics involved. “If you buy a set of dishes and I spot a matching plate in another box, you get the plate. We try to run a very clean auction. We won’t let you raise your own bid,” Karen said, even though that can easily happen in spirited bidding. “If we can at all avoid it, we don’t let a husband and a wife bid against each other.”
Although people are accustomed to paying the marked prices in supermarkets and retail outlets, the Bergemanns say the value of many commodities is determined by the auction process. “There are coin auctions, car auctions, gold auctions, livestock auctions. It’s a constant auction,” Duane said. “The grain exchange is an auction, the stock market is an auction. The world establishes value through auctions.”
When people contemplating an auction ask what they might receive, the Bergemanns offer only an estimate. “We don’t set a value, we give them a range. That’s why you sell at auction….to set the value on that day,” Duane said. “I can sell a coffee pot today but maybe the next day I can’t get a nickel for it.” The Bergemanns have a built-in motivation for bringing the best price, however. Baroda Auction charges sale commissions ranging from 5 to 20 percent, depending on whether it’s real estate, farm machinery or household goods.
Can people be guaranteed a bargain if they buy at an auction? “Sometimes it’s a bargain, sometimes it’s not. It depends on what you’re looking for,” Duane said. But they say buyers can save at least 20 to 30 percent from prices charged by antique dealers or secondhand shops. “Those people come to auctions to buy goods to resell, so they mark up what they buy.”
Karen and Duane did indeed meet at a real estate auction, when he showed up to buy a cabin on Bass Lake near Winnebago. That was about 1989. Three years later, they were married, on May 8, 1992. By then, they’d already called one auction together.
This fall the Bergemanns finished an 8,400-square foot auction house with a restaurant right at the end of the runway Minnesota’s only fly-in auction house. It has a 52-foot wide door at one end and can double as a hangar. “We could auction airplanes inside,” Duane said. They plan to rent the facility for wedding receptions of up to 400 people.
“I still keep asking myself why at age 57 I stuck my neck into something like this. I could have put the money into an accelerated retirement plan,” Duane said. “But Karen gave me the challenge of the auction business and I accepted that challenge. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m trying not to just do it, but to do it with excellence. I had a typing teacher once who said if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” That advice apparently applies equally to the sideline restaurant, which Duane envisions as a “short-order shop” open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. As the Bergemanns fine-tuned the restaurant this fall, Duane said “it’s got to shine. The food has to come up fast, no soggy French fries. The pies are going to be fresh. We want you to be in and out in 15 minutes if you want to, and it’s not going to cost you $6 or $7.”
Having the new building means the Bergemanns won’t have to rent space in St. James, Wells and Garden City for some indoor sales. Most auctions are held at the seller’s home or farm, but weather can be a limiting factor. “In the winter, when it’s 22 below, you know the people there are serious buyers,” Karen said. “They’re not there for their health.” Weather doesn’t have to be frigid to be a problem, however, because summer’s heat and strong sun can be hard on household goods. “We try to put the candles in the first lot, before they melt,” Karen laughed.
They have consignment auctions twice a month in the structure, which they began using last July. They believe the building will attract the kind of auctions which would draw buyers from several states. “We’ve got something that nobody else has now and to succeed you have to do something that nobody else does or do it better than they do,” he said. Karen believes speciality auctions requiring a large indoor facility “will come to us. And we have the runway.” Half a dozen planes landed for sales during the first couple of months the building was open.
Baroda Auction already pulls regular buyers from several states, including Montana and California, because “this area is rich in antiques.” Out-of-state dealers come to buy old furniture, Red Wing pottery, early washing machines, butter churns, bundle scythes, and pedal-operated grinding wheels, all part of the Midwest’s early agricultural heritage.
Whether they’re selling antiques and collectibles or ordinary household goods, Karen believes the fun of it “is being with people, motivating them to buy.” Because of repeat business, they’ve sold and resold the same household goods several times. “We’re professional recyclers,” Duane laughed.
“Every auction is different,” Duane said. “They’re all fun to a degree, but I suppose some of the ‘freebies’ we do are the most enjoyable.” These charity auctions and fund-raisers put people in a buying mood “and things go for ridiculous prices. We did a benefit this spring for a little girl and sold an ice cream pail full of mushrooms for $20. People open up their hearts at things like that.”
The Bergemanns are sometimes asked to critique students at auction schools. “We strongly urge new auctioneers to get into a field that they know,” Duane said. “If I was going to do a tobacco auction, I wouldn’t have a clue, but I could sell livestock because I know the differences in cattle.”
Auctioneers must possess a sense of the relative value of the goods they’re selling. “If you don’t know the value, you better tune into it,” Duane said. “If I’m going to auction expensive jewelry, and don’t know whether a piece should sell for $200 or $2,000, I’ll gladly pay a jeweler or another auctioneer who knows to help me set the value. There will be dealers out there in the crowd who’ll recognize I don’t know.”
In addition to their fast-and-fun style of auctioneering and their new fly-in auction house, the Bergemanns have another potential future asset. Karen’s 18-year-old daughter, Kristina, is a licensed auctioneer. She joined the Navy after graduating from high school this year, but received a medical discharge because of a broken elbow she suffered as a child. Now she’s managing a shop at a ski resort in Jackson Hole, WY., but the Bergemanns believe someday she’ll be back. Karen knows Kristina has the “people skills” to become a successful auctioneer. “She’s had all this background and she knows how to set up an auction.” Most important for the Baroda style of auctioneering, Karen said “Kris can talk to 10-year-olds just as well as to 88-year-olds.
©1997 Connect Business Magazine