We've got 50 years -- How about 60 years, 70 years?
How about 80 years ... 90 .... 100?
What's 120 years worth? What'll ya give me for 140 years?
140 years of experience auctioneering? Not even the best auctioneer in the world can put a price on that much experience.
Why, that's priceless. But that's exactly what Johnny Walker and the auctioneer crew of Nebraska Auction Service bring to Johnny's new office at 205 W. First in McCook.
Johnny moved his Nebraska Auction Service office to McCook from his home near the Trenton Lake in early 2009, to better serve customers throughout Southwest and Central Nebraska and Northwestern Kansas.
Johnny Walker's auctions are staffed by experienced auctioneers with not only professional expertise and salesmanship, but a sense of humor and lots of good memories about their many years in the business.
Johnny Walker started auctioneering "oh, many years ago," he says, with former McCook auctioneer Don Egle.
His time associated with Egle was invaluable. "As a young guy starting out, who's going to trust you?," he asked. After a couple years, Johnny felt comfortable enough to strike out on his own. His goal that first year, he said, was one auction a month. "I had 16," he said. "My second year, I had 26 auctions. And the third year, 35."
"Now, we're doing probably 50 a year," he said. The highest has been 70. From the Colorado-Nebraska state line to Arapahoe, Alma and Kearney, north to about Maywood, south into Kansas, he's conducted household, estate and consignment sales, farm sales. He's sold real estate, and is licensed with Gateway Realty of McCook Inc.
Johnny Walker is proud of the auctioneers and the support staff associated with Nebraska Auction Service. Really good help is priceless, Walker said. "A clerk who can write and a ringman who can catch bids and sort things will make an auctioneer look really good," he said.
Lost marbles ... a dancin' monkey ... Colt 45's and an unpredictable Palomino ... yellow slickers in a gentle rain ... $10,000 toy machinery .... selling a "johnny walker," and a barn door. Nothing is 'junk'; make "stacks," not piles. These are among the wildest memories of Johnny Walker's auctioneers, who are Dave Horton of Alma, Greg Eskew of Imperial, Denny Messersmith of Cambridge, Randy Helms of Holbrook and Clay Jordan of McCook. Johnny's premier ringman is Ron Schoenberger of Enders.
Dave is a self-taught auctioneer who learned a rapid-fire auctioneer's chant after he bought the Oxford sale barn in 1982 and, he said, he had to fill in for an auctioneer who had the habit of arriving late for the sale.
With a mischievous grin, Dave describes how he became an auctioneer: "You fill your mouth full of marbles, and start selling. Spit out one marble every time you can understand a word. When you've lost all your marbles, you're an auctioneer."
Randy started his auction career as a ringman, in the 1970's. He started selling in 1994, and with Johnny Walker, "probably at a farm sale," in 1999 or 2000.
Among his memories of auctions with Johnny Walker is the small camping port-a-potty that wouldn't sell. "We couldn't get a bid on it," Randy said, so he added a health-assist walker, and told buyers, with a playful grin, "We're selling a 'johnny walker'." They sold.
Randy has sold vacuum cleaners as "little suckers." Ash trays (definitely out-of-fashion) are "candy dishes." Ironing boards are "Nebraska surf boards."
"Nothing is 'junk,'" Ron said. "It's 'miscellaneous,' or 'gently-used items'."
"We don't sell 'piles' of items," Greg said, explaining that he was taught at auction school that piles "belong in the doctor's office." "We sell 'stacks'," Greg said.
Dave said he won't forget the time that Johnny and Greg forgot to wait for their clerk. Dave said, "We were selling at a big ol' house in Benkelman -- there was stuff everywhere and we split into two rings. But Johnny and Greg sold for 10 minutes without a clerk," he laughed. They decided, Dave said, "This is just a test," trusted buyers to tell the now-present clerk what they bought and for how much, and the auctioneers -- with sheepish grins and their clerk -- continued their sale.
Greg blames Ron and Ron blames Greg for another snafu that they still laugh about. "You did it," Greg said, pointing a finger at Ron. "Uh, huh. You did it," Ron said, pointing a finger at Greg.
Johnny had told the guys he wanted to buy "that nice, used briefcase," so, each auctioneer bid on the briefcase. They didn't realize until too late that they were bidding against each other for the same briefcase.
Johnny said, with a grin, that he won't forget the incident either, because he got a "$40 briefcase" out of the deal.
It's important to stay active, alive, awake, at a sale -- whether selling or buying -- especially as the sale progresses through the day. Ron said, "We always try to have fun." Greg added, "Or else you lose your crowd."
Randy's most memorable sale is Frank Stute's farm sale way north of Wauneta, a sale that he described as "taking a step back in time." Wistfully, he described the setting, "It was all grass .. big ol' trees ... up on the Stinking Water (creek)." And on the sale bill: "Teams of horses ... old pull-type farm equipment ... "
It started to rain. "It had been so dry for so long, nobody minded. Nobody went for cover. We sold in the rain ... a light, soft rain," Randy said.
Johnny added, with a smile, "I've never seen so many yellow (rain) slickers in my life."
Setting up at another farm auction, Denny said, the crew was to sell from trailers, one of which had a big ol' hole in the floor. "I got an old door out of the barn and threw it over the hole," and the crew stacked sale items over the door just so they wouldn't fall through, he said. "We sold all the items, and then the barn door -- for $200," he laughed.
Greg remembers, "We sold a peacock pheasant for $500. Now, I'm just a farm boy. I sure didn't expect a $500 bird."
Johnny said he knew that the small collection of Vindex Toy Company farm machinery was going to bring some money. "We knew they'd be worth something," he said. "A combine, a tractor ... a baler ... and a swather."
But when the gavel fell, the toys had sold high -- all four pieces brought $10,000, Johnny said.
Denny quit farming to become an auctioneer, and went to the Kansas City auction school in 1976. He started his sale career working for another auctioneer, selling at forced foreclosures of farms and ranches. Because of the economic atmosphere at such sales during the farm crises in the late '70s, and because threats were sometimes made against the auctioneers hired to conduct the sales, the auctioneers were often accompanied by sheriffs, deputies, a U.S. marshal or two.
At one sale in particular, Denny remembers, the farmer approached the auctioneers at the sale podium -- he was wearing a 45 pistol on each hip. "You're not going to sell my farm," the man said, before he was forcibly disarmed by the marshals, and the sale continued. "I wasn't too long out of Vietnam," Denny said, quietly. Gun fire and dodging bullets were the last things he wanted.
Denny remembers -- with a grin this time -- the big Palomino he was trying to sell at a horse sale near Maxwell. "The owner said he was broke, well-broke, so I got on. Boy, did we have a rodeo. I did pretty well for an ol' boy," he laughed. "But we got 'im sold."
Greg chuckled over the time he was selling rabbits ... watching the crowd ... when a bidder's dog -- no, no, a monkey -- started bobbing its head to the rhythm of Greg's chant. Then his little backside ... then his whole body ... Greg laughed, "This monkey's dancing to the rhythm of my sale," and Greg's mesmerized, losing his concentration.
Dave jumps in, with a sympathetic laugh. "Oh dear, I've lost track of my sale ... "
Greg said he finally realized that the "monkey" was a string puppet, and he had to explain to the crowd why he'd become distracted. "Man, that lady'd practiced with that thing," he laughed.
At a sale of "bolts and bolts and bolts" of fabrics, silk lampshades, upholstery materials and mannequins in Alma, Dave remembers, he handed a piece of very fine, very fancy vintage needlework to Johnny for his closer inspection as he sold it. "Johnny 'blew his nose' in it," Horton said, "and the ladies just went crazy!"
The auctioneers say the auction crew tries to have fun, to keep the crowd involved, to keep the bidding lively. But they're also mindful, Johnny said, that sales are not always fun for the sellers.
Some times, family members utilize an auction to determine who gets what in the estate. Sometimes it goes too far. During one "family feud," a chair sold for $10,000. During another, a china cabinet sold for 95-hundred dollars.
"There's sometimes heartbreak" surrounding a sale, Johnny said, so, while the crew is entertaining, they're also respectful of sellers' feelings.
However, Randy said, with a laugh, "You can't do anything but have fun at the Holbrook Lions Club sale." That's an annual consignment sale in Holbrook, to which people bring all manner and quality and quantity of items -- true treasures, hidden treasures, fading gems, as well as some honest-to-goodness junk -- no, no, "miscellaneous" and "well-used items" -- and it all sells from trailer after trailer from early, early morning to way, way past sundown.
Johnny is known for some of those late sales himself, his crew agrees. Dave said that Johnny is "notorious" for saying, "We'll be done by 3," or "We'll be done by 5," or "It'll be only three or four hours."
Dave said, "We sold 'til all hours of the night at that store in Benkelman." Greg said he thinks the latest they've sold was about 1:30 in the morning, at a sale on J Street in McCook. "And we still had buyers," he chuckled.
Ron remembers leaving a sale early to play with his band at a dance. "I stopped by after the dance, and they were just loading up the tables at 2:30 in the morning," he laughed.
Even those tables have inadvertently provided entertainment for this crew. Greg said Johnny sent him to start another ring at a sale, with orders to "sell everything" inside the barn. "So, we sold everything, including the tables ... Johnny's tables," Greg chuckled. When Johnny realized they'd sold his tables, Greg said, "I had to give 'em back."
While humor has been a staple among auctioneers throughout time, many things in the auction world have changed, or are changing. "I remember buying our first speakers," Johnny said. "There have been lots of improvements in the equipment." Some auction companies are completely computerized now, and Nebraska Auction Service uses a computerized cashier system that speeds up check-out and reduces mistakes, Johnny said.
Over the years, the professionalism of sale bills has been enhanced, Johnny said, and he has increased the sheer number of sale bills he distributes from 200 to 1,000 for many sales.
Clay creates all the sale bills on the computer, Johnny said. "Clay's our computer guru, the genius in the bunch," he said, with a grin.
Many, many auction companies have their own Web sites to advertise their services and sales. Johnny and his wife, Nell, say the number of "hits" on the Nebraska Auction Service Web page is "unbelievable." In one day, 4,170 people checked out a machinery sale, Johnny said.
And today, sellers seem to shop around for the best deal on auction services. It used to be, Johnny said, that each auctioneer had his own "area," but that's not true anymore. "Some sellers take bids on auction services and commission rates," he said.
Antiques and collectibles run in cycles and fads, Ron said, and what was popular years ago is going to be popular again.
... used to be, everyone had to have a round oak table, a Hoosier cupboard, insulators, green canning jars, Fiestaware dinnerware. "Fiestaware is hot again," Ron said. "We're selling Fiestaware pieces for $200."
Ron said that 33 RPM record albums are seldom really valuable, except when "Hank Williams Sr. sang under an alias. Now, those are worth some money." (P.S. Check out "Luke the Drifter.")
Dave said that buyers at household and estate auctions are more focused, more selective, now -- they're not buying just anything and everything. They know what they want, and very often that's all they bid on, he said. "They don't seem to want the 'treasure boxes'," he said, boxes of miscellaneous that "may" have one or two surprise valuable items. "We don't have those people anymore who'll take any box for a buck," Dave said.
The "treasures" that no one seems to want sometimes, somehow, mysteriously end up in the back of his pickup, Greg laughed, because he's notorious for very seldom buying anything at auctions. "They've joked about giving me a gift certificate at Christmas for $10 just so I'd spend some money at an auction," he chuckled.
Internet auction sales offer buyers and collectors an alternative or supplement to auctions, and can impact the auction industry, the men feel. They explained that there is little or no identifiable pattern in the purchases of a bidder who is buying for resale on an Internet auction site, while a collector appears to buy one type of item, or one color, or one type of wood, or one era.
Downturns in the economy affect auctions as much as any segment of buying and selling, although the economy can also provide impetus an opportunity for people to buy used rather than to shop for new.
In today's economy, Johnny said, an auction is possibly the best way to liquidate something -- a household, an estate, a business, a farm ... a ranch. "It's hard to know the market value of things right now," he said. "A public auction is the least disputable way" to determine current market value.
Johnny Walker said that when he started auctioneering after attending auction school in 1982, an older generation of auctioneers was retiring, leaving room for a new generation. Now, that cycles continues, with young auctioneers like Clay Jordan getting started.
Dave Horton is a self-taught auctioneer, learning to sell out of necessity when he bought the Oxford sale barn. Greg Eskew believes in the value of auction school.
Greg says he's wanted to be auctioneer since he was 10 years old, despite not being able to speak in front of a crowd. "School was worth every penny," he said. The teachers told him to "talk to just one person ... just one person in the crowd, and you'll be fine," Greg said. The teachers told him too, he said, that he would find "something" that would calm his nerves, explaining that you'll sometimes see him rubbing his fingers together at auctions.
Greg would tell a newcomer, "Don't give up. Find somebody who will stand behind you and trust you."
Randy Helms said that it's hard, if not impossible, for new auctioneers to get started on their own. "A newcomer can't start out on his own. He needs a mentor like Johnny," Randy said.
Greg said, "Without Johnny Walker, I would have given up years ago."
Greg's been auctioneering now for 26 years; Dave Horton for 27; Johnny Walker for 29; Randy Helms for 16; Clay Jordan for 9.
Denny Messersmith, with 33 years, has been in the business the longest of Johnny's crew. He said, "Oh, the people I've met, and the friends I've made ..."