Some of Duke Domingue’s fondest childhood memories are of family outings to the auction at the Cooper Antiques warehouse in Corpus Christi, Texas. “That’s where I first heard the auctioneer’s chant,” says Duke. “The auctioneer generated so much enthusiasm from a huge audience over some old stuff — I was mesmerized.”
Most people in WNC know Duke from almost two decades with the Flat Rock Playhouse as an actor and resident creative. As the Playhouse has struggled with financial challenges and management changes over the past few years, a steady flow of Playhouse veterans have departed. Duke left in December last year while former Playhouse General Manager Dale “Bird” Bartlett left a few months earlier. The two former colleagues have partnered on a new venture — Duke Says Sold — an auction concern specializing in benefits and fundraisers for nonprofits.
Wisely realizing that the fields of acting and auctioneering were really just similar forms of performing, they retooled themselves with Duke as auctioneer and Bird as ringman (the extended arms, legs, and ears of the auctioneer).
But they needed a little help.
Both Duke and Bird attended Professional Ringman’s Institute in October of 2012 and Duke attended World Wide College of Auctioneering, based in Mason City, Iowa at its September 2012 session in Denver.
“The training was a challenge,” Duke recalls. “Fourteen-hour-long days began and ended with countless drills and exercises. Tongue-twisters, and counting — forwards and backwards in every imaginable increment — served as warm-up and building blocks for developing the chant. Much of the schooling focused on developing your auction chant — that’s the signature of the auctioneer. But the class also covered ethics, auction law, licensing, bookkeeping, marketing and management.”
The balance, he explains, is made up of instruction geared toward an auction specialization. The range of things sold at auction is remarkable. A partial list would include commercial and residential real estate, farm sales, heavy equipment, machinery, cars, livestock, general merchandise, antiques, consignment, bankruptcy, liquidation and tobacco.
Even more overwhelming is that each of them traditionally employs specific styles and psychology. “So many different things are sold at auction it’s natural that there’s a different approach for different bidding audiences,” says Duke. “For an audience of professional bidders — say car sales — it’s all about speed; about three vehicles a minute isn’t unusual. On the other hand, for higher-priced, emotionally connectable things like real estate, or fine art, you’ve got to let the bidders breathe. You’re selling them their dream.”
Bird explains the ringman’s role. “The auctioneer sets the pace and leads the show. But the ringman’s ability to follow and understand the auctioneer is paramount. Many auctioneers have a regular partner but it’s not uncommon for the ringman to also be assigned to an auction where there is not an established relationship with the auctioneer. It can be tough but that’s the heart of the ringman — quickly responding to the auctioneer.”
After two full weeks, Duke says, he had made new connections from all walks of life, scattered across the continent and beyond; a cattle rancher from Alberta, an art appraiser from Hawaii, the math grad student from Washington or the farrier from Oklahoma are all friendships he made through Auctioneer College. “We ranged in age from 17 to 70,” he says, “and in my class of 35, at least a third of my classmates were second, third, or fourth generation auctioneers.”
Duke and Bird’s first time working together (as auctioneer and bid spotter) pre-dated formal schooling — it was at the Playhouse’s 2012 Dark Night Revue. “Following training we teamed up professionally for the For the Rock Benefit staged by the Playhouse staff this past December,” says Bird. “And before the New Year our friends David Voorhees and Molly Sharpe asked us to manage the auction to celebrate their 16 years of operating Hand in Hand Gallery.”
“The live auction stole the show,” Molly recalls. “The highlight of the evening was the throng of party-goers who were bidding on handmade items, including jewelry, pottery, paintings and stained glass. It was a huge success.”
Mark Warwick, the General Manager of WTZQ Radio, was among the crowd. “The auction was fun,” he says. “I was impressed with Duke and Bird…they kept the energy high; they conducted the auction like a dance, being sensitive and responsive. I guess it comes from their acting careers — they combined drama, suspense, information, and courteous endings.”
Duke says his transformation from actor to auctioneer — from the boards to the block — couldn’t feel more natural. “Being in front of an audience, using my voice and its expressiveness, surveying a crowd in order to coerce and convince…these are all things actors do every moment that they’re on stage. And to think that our efforts could help raise money for important causes: health and human services, youth, environment, social, the arts…is all the more inspiring.”
Looking forward but harkening to an old tradition, the duo cite lyrics to Leroy Van Dyke’s 1956 song “The Auctioneer,” the official anthem of the auctioneering world: He said, “Oh my, it’s do or die. I’ve got to learn that auction cry. Gotta make my mark and be an auctioneer.