The Influence of an Auctioneer

The people responsible for garnering and escalating bids at charity auctions can significantly impact the bottom line of Vineyard nonprofits, some of which are now hiring professionals.

If you wave to a friend, I’ll consider that a bid. If you scratch your nose, I’ll consider that a bid. If you get up and leave, I’ll consider that a bid.
– Art Buchwald, longtime auctioneer of the Possible Dreams Auction

Trip Barnes does the math. Three hundred people, he explains, means a potential hundred and fifty bidders. “This is easy. It’s a good crowd,” says the veteran auctioneer. “What time do we sit down to eat?”

The charity event for Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard has the early air of success. The auction items look solid: A sunset sail on the schooner Charlotte and a “romance basket” that includes a weekend at the Shiverick Inn in Edgartown are among the twenty offerings. The tent is filled to capacity with both longtime and newer supporters who have come to Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs for the annual “summer soirée.” Event organizers certainly covered their bases by offering tantalizing incentives to lure in an enthusiastic crowd: the picturesque setting, cocktails and raw bar, silent auction, elegant dinner, and of course, the silver-tongued auctioneer Clarence “Trip” Barnes III.

The weather is cooperating and Trip looks to be in fine form. And why not? Earlier in the summer, he made headlines and was the talk of the Island after auctioning off a Ray Ellis painting for a stunning $250,000.

Trip, a legendary Island personality who knows “everyone” through his furniture moving company, looks like a 1950s movie star. He swaggers up to the dais and takes the microphone. He has strategically placed spotters close to known bidders. This auction poses a particular challenge for any auctioneer; it is difficult to find the right tone. How do you talk about death without making people depressed? Can you expect people in soulful moods to muster the enthusiasm for a vigorous bidding war? Is it possible to dance around the dire topic of dying while raising money for end-of-life care?

Trip puts the microphone to his mouth, a familiar and usually inconsequential move. Yet this time, instead of his trademark baritone, what comes out is the cacophonous garble of microphone malfunction.

“This is the worst sound system I’ve ever had in my life, but I’m having a great time,” he tells the crowd and opens the auction. “I’ll stay here all night because this is for a good cause. Every time I get a cold I think of hospice. Do I hear $5,000?”

Successful auctions feel like great theater, and the lead actor, or auctioneer, must carry the show. When the auctioneer is able to dazzle, seduce, or hypnotize the audience, magic will happen. And as with live theater, no matter what happens, be it a malfunctioning microphone or a malfunctioning economy, the show must go on.

During four charity auctions last summer, auctioneers cajoled, joked, bellowed, begged, sang, and dallied with puppets. Through glitches and bidding wars, they showed their dedication to the art and science of extracting money from wallets in the name of good causes. At three of the four auctions, the
auctioneers had ties to the Island community and volunteered their services. One organization hired a professional.

Sail Martha’s Vineyard’s Nineteenth Annual Seafood Buffet and Auction
July 10, 2010, Beach Road, Vineyard Haven 
Kathleen Kingston, auctioneer

Kathy Kingston arrives at the auction site dressed casually in a purple tank top and capri-length khakis, four hours before the live auction is scheduled to begin. “I’m Kathy,” she says, her hand out, ready for shaking. She realigns a few tables, moves chairs, and takes in the view of Vineyard Haven harbor. “This is one of the most stunning settings [at which] I’ve ever done an auction.” It is Kathy’s first visit to Martha’s Vineyard. She will be on the Island for roughly twenty-four hours, and in that time, will help raise more than $75,000 for Sail MV, a nonprofit organization that advances maritime education for children and adults, both on the water and in the classroom. “If we raise more than you ever did before, you can throw me in the water,” Kathy says to Peggy Schwier, Sail MV board president.

A professional auctioneer, Kathy attended the Missouri Auction School, which Newsweek magazine dubbed the Harvard of auctioneering, and has competed in the International Auctioneer Championships. Her business, Kingston Auction Company, consults with organizations and stages fundraising events around the country. “Have gavel, will travel,” she intones.

The idea to use Kathy as the Sail MV auctioneer came from Peggy Schwier and Sail MV administrative director Hope Callen. During the winter of 2010, the two women had attended a fundraising seminar in Boston that Kathy was giving. “We met representatives from other organizations that had used Kathy, and the difference in their revenues when they started using Kathy Kingston was huge,” explains Hope, adding that it was also time for a change. “You get stale if you don’t have new ideas. And Kathy had some wonderful ideas.” In the past, Trip Barnes and media personality Barry Nolan had served as auctioneers for this auction.

Kathy’s approach is comprehensive. “My love is fundraising,” she admits. She belongs to a world of professional auctioneers that, until recently, has been little known on the Vineyard auction circuit. To represent their causes, Island charities have traditionally tapped celebrities with seasonal ties here and personalities who are passionate about the Vineyard.

Kathy began her work with Sail MV several months before the auction. Her strategy for success is so detail-oriented that it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that she had studied the tidal charts before committing to a date for the auction.

Once on site, she peruses the silent auction items and suggests adding more space between them, so two potential bidders could comfortably stand in front of each one. She discusses dispersal of cables and the placement of the speakers with Steve McCullough, the sound tech, so her voice will be evenly balanced throughout the tent. She makes sure the corporate sponsors’ banners are visible. “I treat every auction day like it’s game day,” says Kathy, a former volleyball coach.

Her coaching skills are put into play when Jesse Burton arrives. Jesse, a tall, lanky Sail MV alum who is currently enrolled in business school, has been asked to give a testimonial during the auction. Kathy wants him to rehearse. “Thank you for your generosity,” begins Jesse. “We’re here to raise as much money as we can.” Kathy prompts him to take a breath between sentences, to look to the left, and then look to the right. He starts again. “You’ve got a great smile,” she says. “Project more.” After a few run-throughs, Jesse has transformed from a nervous kid reading a personal statement into a young man issuing a heartfelt plea to help an organization that has altered his and so many others’ lives. “I love it!” exclaims Kathy, who then explains the art of the “gracious ask.” “You need to feel it,” she says, “not think it.”

By 5:30, Kathy has changed into an aquamarine dress. She wastes no time making connections with bidders. “I feel like I have two hundred new friends on Martha’s Vineyard,” she exclaims. She reminds the lively crowd, “This is not about how much you can get tonight; it’s about how much can you give to Sail MV.”

The live auction of fourteen items, both tangible and experiential, takes place during dinner, a seafood buffet. The first item, billed as the Director’s Reserve, is an impressive wine collection that sells for $1,600. A three-hour luncheon sail on the schooner Juno gets $4,000. Kathy uses a wireless microphone and walks around the tables. She pulls up a chair and sits next to a potential bidder. She is cheery, commanding, exuberant, and has a perfect auctioneer’s patter. Yet it is not a particularly forgiving crowd; you sense people may be holding her outsider status against her. After an adrenaline-infused bidding war over a week in St. Barts, a rash of chatter breaks out. The event starts to feel more like a festive dinner party, one where the guest of honor is being ignored. Kathy, a consummate professional, tries various techniques to reclaim the audience. She even makes use of a puppet monkey to sell a South African photo safari three separate times at a price of $4,400 each.

Success for a charity auction is measured in money raised, and this was the second-highest-grossing auction in Sail MV’s nineteen-year history. Perhaps Kathy planned to come in as number two, so as not to get tossed in the harbor. Organizers have enthusiastically invited her back this year. “The proof is in the pudding,” says Peggy Schwier. “She made us good money in a short time.” This year perhaps she’d be wise to wear a swimsuit.

Meals in the Meadow to benefit the FARM Institute
July 17, 2010, Katama, Edgartown 
Barry Tatelman, auctioneer

In a typically witty 2002 commercial for Jordan’s Furniture, Barry and Eliot Tatelman, brothers and former owners of the New England retail business, are seen reclining on beds that are not in a bedroom or showroom, but are in the outfield at Fenway Park. The Tatelman brothers, outfitted in baseball uniforms and lounging on heather green and beige bedding, chat:

“You know, they spend most of their time just waiting for the ball,” comments Barry.

“Yeah, you’re right; you might as well be comfortable,” replies Eliot.

Barry lifts up his hand and catches a baseball. “It’s just not that hard.”

And so it can be said with the role of auctioneer. It’s just not that hard, until, that is, you are the one up at bat.

Barry Tatelman, well-known to television watchers and bed buyers alike, is a Vineyard seasonal resident who, by his own admission, has tried to keep a low profile on the Island. Barry joined the board of the FARM Institute in the fall of 2009, and last summer he agreed to act as auctioneer at Meals in the Meadow, a fundraiser for the organization committed to educating children and adults in methods of sustainable agriculture. A familiar face behind the podium at auctions in the Boston area, Barry made his Vineyard auctioneering debut with this event.

People had already started sipping cocktails and bidding on silent auction items under the farm’s festooned tent when Barry makes a discreet entrance. He retreats to a corner with event coordinators and asks for details about each one of the nine live auction items. He suggests prices for starting bids and enthusiastically offers to throw in an extra item. He wants to know who is attending and where they are sitting.

Barry’s strategy is to utilize his nimble wit and facility with puns to inspire bidders. “Keep them comfortable,” he says. “Play with people, but don’t embarrass them till the point that they get angry. We’re all here for a cause.” After scanning the crowd of 340, he sounds a little apprehensive. “Most of these people don’t know who I am,” he says, the conceit being that he was brought in as a celebrity auctioneer but may not have that distinct home-field advantage. If people don’t have a connection to his persona, he’s just another fast-talking funny guy.

After cocktails, there’s a buffet dinner featuring – aside from the farm’s own meat and produce – statements and testimonials. The live auction doesn’t start until 8 p.m., two hours into the event. Barry takes the microphone, but the energy in the tent has flagged substantially. People seem snoozy; the pre-game show has left them in a lull.

The first item up for auction is billed as Rejuvenating Sailing Bliss. “I’m a retailer, a former retailer, and the first thing they give me is a sale,” cracks Barry. Ba-da-boom. He opens suggesting a high starting bid on some items and is forced to come down. One item, painfully, doesn’t attract any interest. Barry tries to inspire. “Come on, guys. This is for the farm. We’re not looking for bargains.” No amount of cajoling, joking, or beseeching turns the tone until the last item of the evening, a “rocking blues dance party with Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish,” which sets off the first significant bidding war of the evening. It is promptly followed by a dance party with the band itself.

The event netted $170,000. “I thought Barry did a great job,” says Cathy Verost, FARM Institute development manager. “We want to keep the auction brief, short, and that people can get to the dancing.” The FARM Institute has asked professional auctioneer Paul Traverse of Milton, a past president of the Massachusetts Auctioneers Association, to wield the gavel at this summer’s Meals in the Meadow event. Cathy says that Paul, with twenty-five years of experience, will make sure the live auction remains “fast and furious.”

The Possible Dreams Auction to benefit Martha’s Vineyard Community Services
August 2, 2010, Ocean Park, Oak Bluffs 
Paula Lyons and Arnie Reisman, auctioneers

The Possible Dreams Auction is often called the Vineyard’s largest charity auction. At its most successful, it has netted upwards of $700,000 in one afternoon for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the Island’s largest social services agency. The auction was arguably the first in the country to auction off experiences, often with celebrities. For twenty-six years, Pulitzer Prize–winning humorist Art Buchwald stepped onto the podium on the first Monday in August. He brought his significant wit, passion, empathy, star power, and friends with uptown résumés with him. The auction grew into a fundraising powerhouse and a who’s who of journalists, best-selling authors, musicians, movie stars, and media personalities, ready to engage in raucous bidding wars and stand up and entertain.

Over the years, legendary journalists Mike Wallace and Walter Cronkite competed mano-a-mano for the highest bid. Carly Simon often belted out a song or two as bidding on her item tipped into the tens of thousands. Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham’s item once set off a bidding frenzy that ended in cheers when she offered to triplicate her item and match the winning bids with a donation of $25,000. Art Buchwald served as maestro – balancing the bidding with revelry, yet never letting the audience forget the cause they were being asked to support.

After he suffered a stroke in 2000, Island raconteur Rick Lee and storyteller Susan Klein were recruited to assist, and after his death in 2007, they gallantly took over while organizers tried to envision the auction’s future. Last year, organizers decided to try something new. They approached longtime Chilmark seasonal residents and radio personalities Paula Lyons and Arnie Reisman.

Paula and Arnie agreed to give it a try and suggested bringing in the entire cast from their popular weekly radio game show, Says You. Auction organizers used to remark that it would take an army to replace Art Buchwald; Arnie and Paula came with a very clever army indeed, the ranks of which included Barry Nolan, Francine Achbar, Tony Kahn, Carolyn Faye Fox, and Richard Sher.

Wearing straw hats, Arnie and Paula take to the podium and begin the event with a word game – their fine comic form whispering of Art Buchwald. With about forty items to auction off, their challenge is to keep some eight hundred people, who are sitting in close proximity under a tent, in an adrenaline-infused bidding furor. They had been meeting with auction organizers for several months and had done a run-through the day before the auction. They are prepared with their wit and their shtick and their charm. When Vernon Jordan’s item comes up for bid, Paula tempts the crowd, “Don’t forget he was at the [Chelsea Clinton] wedding. He can tell you lots.”

Yet it’s when Barry Nolan takes the microphone that the audience rises to their feet. Probably best known as a television broadcaster, Barry ramps up the volume with a take-no-prisoners, sure-hope-he-doesn’t-have-a-heart-condition-because-at-the-rate-he’s-going-he-could-blow approach. He bellows to the audience while selling a car-racing dream with champion Al Unser Jr. that includes a racing suit: “For the rest of your life, if you win this, you will be fireproof.” And then, when auctioning off art-world-and-Vineyard-legend Olga Hirshhorn’s dream: “She’ll tell you the story of how she accidentally melted Picasso’s watch.”

By auction’s end, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services raises close to $470,000, with many thanks to the army of Says You, under the able leadership of Arnie and Paula. It’s not a bad showing but down from past years. “We gave it our all,” says Paula. “I wish we could have raised more money, but we had a great time.”

Due to scheduling conflicts, the Says You crew will not be able to return this year, which left auction organizers with a void once again. DiAnn Ray, longtime auction committee member and current co-chair, says they have asked Dan Flynn, a professional auctioneer off-Island and the founder of Flynn Auctions, to serve this year, the organization’s fiftieth anniversary year. “After thirty-two years, we decided to try something new and try to stay current,” says DiAnn. “We chose someone who we feel is a good match and a good fit with the Vineyard and our event.”

Summer Soirée Live and Silent Auction to benefit Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard
August 9, 2010, Farm Neck, Oak Bluffs 
Trip Barnes, auctioneer

Trip Barnes could be called the Vineyard’s in-house auctioneer. During the past four decades, he has been involved with hundreds of charity auctions. And boy, does he have stories to tell. (Like the time Ray Ellis promised to take off an item of clothing every time someone bid up his painting.)

“He is very invested in bringing us more money for our items. He encourages us to think creatively,” says Terre Young, executive director of Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard. “He motivates the guests in the tent to dig as deep as they can.”

Trip is a home-grown Vineyarder with an established persona. His moving trucks have become sointegrated into the Vineyard landscape that they’ve achieved a kind of cultural iconography, much like the giant Citgo sign in Boston’s Kenmore Square. Because of his business, Trip knows he has an advantage over the other auctioneers. “I can call people by name. I know almost everybody’s name because I moved them all here,” he says.

When he arrives at the hospice auction, he greets people and analyzes the crowd. “I’m looking for the high rollers, then I find out where they’re sitting.” He spends time checking the bidding on the silent auction items: “It’s a good indicator of how the live auction will go.” And he schmoozes.

The 2010 summer auction season got off to an exhilarating start, and expectations were high. In June, at the Taste of the Vineyard gala auction to benefit the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, a bidding war over a painting by Ray Ellis got so heated that bids started increasing by increments of $20,000. The painting sold for a quarter of a million dollars. “I was jumping up and down,” recalls Trip.

He has a good feeling about this night as well. Over dinner, he huddles with Emily Bramhall, a former hospice board member. They flip through a stack of yellow index cards about the live auction items and analyze them detail by detail. They strategize on the best way to spin each item. They have done this before, and it’s clear they have this thing down cold.

And then it’s time. Eyes follow him as he walks through the tent. He tries holding the microphone in different positions. Buzz, garble. They change the batteries. “We tried it earlier and it was fine,” says Terre Young later. While Trip looks thrown at first, he perseveres through the audio troubles with attempts at humorous quips and pleas for donations, quips and pleas that few in the back of the tent can hear.

In spite of the technical problems, the take for the evening is $73,000 – every penny to go toward expenses for Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard. And that, for any auctioneer, is success.

Trip will be back this year. “He’s our man,” says Terre Young. “He’s got hospice in his heart and that’s always a good place to start.”