Hammer Time: Watch For The Eyes


If I am staring at you at an auction, it’s not cuz I like you.

I want you to get the hell off of what I’m biddin’ on. When two good friends have eyes on the same car, it’s up to one of them to say, “Hey! I want this one! Lay off! I’ll look out for you on the next one!” A quick stare with the moving of the eyes towards the vehicle in question does the trick quite well.

The same is true for the hidden language between the auctioneer and the ringman. What is a ringman? Well, a ringman kinda looks like this.


He hoots. He hollers. And he does whatever it takes to help the auctioneer create the urgency to buy.

Often times he will make a difference between a good auction and a bad auction, and it will be that hidden communication he has between himself and the auctioneer that makes it possible.

When the auctioneer wants to get people ‘off their heels’ and start bidding on the cars, he will give off a hidden symbol to the ringman.

Old school auctioneers often used a pinky off the microphone. While more contemporary bid callers will use small words in their chant such as “Bid” or “Do” to get the word out to the ringman. The two of them will then start to pretend that a live bidder is out there.

Once the ringman hears that word, the bumping of the bid will begin.

“10-grand!, 10-1-2! Habadgive! 10-2! 10-3! Bidagive 10-3!”

“Yeeeahhh!!! Yep!…Yep!!!”, the ringman will exclaim with his arm outward towards a phantom bidder as the bid will quickly get bumped about $300 to $500 bid over a few seconds. When the ringman does this, he will want to keep close attention to the rhythm of the bump and his eyes from ‘sticking’ to a potential bidder.

You want to give off the vibe that there is “real money” among the crowd. If the ringman or auctioneer bump the bid too quickly when folks are ‘sitting on their heels’, or make sticky eye contact while bumping the bid, those potential bidders will know that neither one of them have money and will continue to not bid on the vehicle.

I’ll give you a personal example. One time when I was green in this business, I was working the floor as a ringman at a wholesale auction. And to be blunt with you, I couldn’t bump a dealer into bidding on a car to save my ass from first base.

I would be in the middle of the opposite side of where the car was – a good ten feet or so away from the potential buyers – and I worked with an auctioneer who always pointed with his outstretched hand towards where the bid was supposed to be.

The only problem was that I was also a ‘pointer’ at the time. My styles would in time change with the auctioneer, as I did these sales five to seven times a week. But for now, I was hopeless…

When he would give off the bump word of ‘Money’, I would point one way and he would point the exact opposite way. It looked ridiculous. We were like two guys doing a disco dance with a hand sticking out instead of a finger. It got so laughable that a few of our veteran consignors would hide their laughs while watching the spectacle that was two guys failing miserably at the bumping process.

What saved our skins back then was that public auctions were as common as kudzu here in Georgia.Many of the public bidders who were immigrants didn’t speak a lick of English. I was conversational in Spanish, which I still think is all that kept me from experiencing a shortened career in this business at the beginning. My ability to speak to Mexicans and Guatemalans, and help them understand where the bid was at, easily yielded five to seven extra sales an auction.

“Mil-quinientos!” – $1500 “Mil-seiscientos!” $1600. “No pesos por favor!”  These bidders would often be among their wives, cousins, and other acquaintances. They would all look at vehicles together before the sale and then go right up to the auction block. Even kids in strollers would be a mere few feet from the vehicles, and I would at times have to herd them back more towards the center of the sale so that the muchachos and muchachas would stay safe.

Once I got them to a safer area, I usually asked them in Spanish what vehicles interested them. Once those vehicles came to the block, I would stay with these folks and give them a reserved soft sell while the auctioneer would bump the vehicle into a sellable range.

The Latinos would bid, get outbid, and then converse with each other for a good ten to fifteen seconds before offering another bid.

Typically the bidding would be in hundred dollar increments. Once they shook their heads to an increase in a hundred dollar bid, you would go down to a $50 bid for the very last one. 99 times out of 100 this would yield a final bid and the dealer would sell the vehicle with a healthy extra few hundred dollars of return on that vehicle.

A lot of those extra bids from those Spanish speakers would also enable me to get anywhere from a $20 to $100 tip for my efforts. Some of the larger dealerships would plug in a $200 bonus into my check which would make life interesting. Since once a month, I would get a larger check than the auctioneer along with a healthy supplement in tips. It wasn’t too long later that I started to teach my partner the Spanish names for all those numbers he had to mumble around.

The need to get the bid into a sellable range depends entirely on the seller and the inventory he brings to the sale. On a sale when the seller has a very low reserve, bumping the bid doesn’t matter so much. The auction staff needs to get the deal done and come hell or lowballers who want to offer two grand on an eight grand car, you are still going to be able to make the sale work; especially when the seller has a realistic price on this vehicle.

Contrary to popular lore, the goal of an auctioneer and ringman is not to become a ‘hero’. If the bid gets to a point where we can sell that car, our work is done. We don’t want to get 10 grand for a car that has only a 9 grand reserve. We want to get as close to that 9 grand as possible and have a  ‘meeting of the minds’. Once we put the deal together, our job is done.


Now having said that, high reserves are a harder nut in this business. You have to deal with the reality of having only one bidder on that car. So your bumping skills have to be sharp. There will also likely be only one chance to make that deal work. Once a dealer isn’t interested in bidding (a.k.a. off the money), it is usually very hard to bring them back in.

For example, you can’t bump one guy two grand while he’s biddin’ against a Coke machine. Even the freshest of rookie dealers (with a few exceptions) have their limits as to how easily they can be bumped and stay in the game.

Your best bet is usually to start $1000 to $1500 under the money (money = the selling price) bump it up about $500 to $700, and see whether you can make good eye contact with any potential bidders in the audience on the late end side of the bumping.

On that evening at the public auction, we had some real hard nuts. I had my talents, but I needed a little coachin’.

“Steve, look. What you do here is don’t point. Wait for my bump and then take an off-half second or so and then you bump. Keep it off rhythm and see if you can get eyes out there. Once you meet eyes, show me where that bidder is and I’ll go on ahead and get him in the money.”

‘Eyes’ meant an interested delaler. If a guy has eyes on a vehicle, he will inevitably look at you instead of staring off into space. He wants to be part of the action, but he doesn’t want to be ripped off and… of course… he wants to buy that car as cheaply as possible.

In due time I learned how to ‘find money’. It became such a strong point of mine that at certain sales, I would match up with another ringman (who was far more experienced) and we would ‘two-man’ the operation so that even the sharpest of dealers would have trouble detecting that we were just running the bid.

I would travel to glorified hellholes such as Centerpoint, Alabama… Loganville, Georgia… Acworth, Georgia… which were given the colorful names of Centerhole, The Red Light District, and Crackworth. Every auction barn was a shithole with toilets that barely worked, drivers who were occasionally senile or on drugs (sometimes both), and locals who would pull up in beach chairs and watch the auctioneer and ringman do their magic.

The pay was insanely strong for work that seemingly didn’t require a third grade education. But to do it well, you had to be smart, and you had to know people in a way that no textbook or Dale Carnegie course could teach you.