Bryan Knox's bid to be the best auctioneer

The part-time preacher won an international auctioneers competition recently – the result of a strong voice, deft chant, and genteel sales style.

Bryan Knox looks more World Wrestling Federation than salesman. He's 6 feet tall, thick-necked, and weighs 275 pounds. His head is shaved bald. But make no mistake: He is a salesman. Right now he's standing behind a podium, alternately crouching and standing on his toes, holding his palm up like a traffic cop, then flicking his wrist to display numbers with his fingers. He might point and stare intently at a person in the crowd, Crazy Eddie-style.

"Eye contact builds communication," says Mr. Knox. "When that bidder says, 'No, I'm not going to bid again,' that's when my job truly begins."

Knox is an auctioneer. Not just any auctioneer. This summer he won an international championship held by the National Auctioneers Association (NAA). It drew participants from as far away as New Zealand and judged on chant, body language, voice quality, and other elements of the arcane craft. Not bad for a part-time minister who practices auctioneering in his car by taking bids from passing telephone poles.

"With some people, just their voice and their mannerisms get you on edge," says Tommy Williams, president of the NAA. With Knox, "you would enjoy listening to him for two or three hours. Those are God-given talents."

There's no question that auctioneers have to possess a certain P.T. Barnum quality. They have to straddle a fine line between being animated, even a bit flamboyant, without being grating or obnoxious. In working a crowd, Knox tries to be inviting but not stern. "You want to make them feel comfortable and to let them know that one more bid would be in their best interest," he says. Then there is his voice, strong and sonorous, conveying authority – part William Shatner, part Johnny Cash. "I have a very powerful voice by nature," he says.

• • •

Many of the people who showed up at the H.A. Alexander Rec Center in Moulton, a town in northern Alabama, on this Saturday were there out of curiosity. Knox was overseeing a land auction, and some of the 150 visitors wanted to know how much parcels would go for and who had the deepest pockets. Others hoped to capture a piece of paradise at a tag-sale price.

As bluegrass music played, Knox prepared for the auction by gulping water to soothe his vocal cords and doing some voice warm-ups. As befits a man of the cloth, he also said a little prayer, joined by a crowd of bowed heads.

Then he opened the bidding on a 245-acre parcel with an energetic, "All right, rock-n-roll. What's it worth?" Up came a hand for $250,000. The price rose quickly. Brad Sutton, a utility contractor, wanted to buy the plot for deer hunting. The bid hit $710,000. Knox looked at Mr. Sutton in the front row. Sutton lowered his head.

"Going twice," Knox announced. "Sir, you can jump back in right now." Sutton didn't bite. The parcel sold for $720,000.

"He's good at what he does, definitely," Sutton said afterward of Knox.

Part of the art of auctioneering is knowing how much to raise each bid. The auctioneer decides the increments spontaneously. "When he's calling a bid, his say is the last," says Jason Gantt, a colleague of Knox's at Amerisouth Auctions, a small Alabama firm. "That's what goes."

Knox is good at getting the most out of a sale – too much, in fact, for A.J. Coffee. He had hoped to walk away with a parcel, either as an investment or for hunting. "If somebody had been here besides him, I might have bought some property," says Mr. Coffee. "But he got the bid up so high, you know, I couldn't afford it." He settled for a barbecue plate after the auction.

Coffee's comment points up a common misperception about auctions: They don't necessarily yield Filene's Basement bargains. "A lot of people think that auction means ... you're going to buy something at a discount," says Mr. Gantt. Then he adds in sotto voce, "That's not the case." Indeed, on this day, in about one hour, Knox moved $1.3 million worth of land.

Everything at an auction is deliberate with Knox, including his sartorial choice. For the Moulton event, he wore the Amerisouth standard: khakis and a powder-blue oxford shirt. Down below, he donned hand-stitched camel-colored cowboy boots. At an earlier car auction in Moody, Ala., he opted for a white polo shirt.

The clothing, voice, and style are all important. At an auction this summer, Knox had to sell cars in a long garage over the din of almost 10 other bid callers. Each was in his own lane, an arrangement that made the place look part bowling alley, part flea market. Knox took a few minutes before the auction to make small talk with bidders. "Y'all ready to spend some money?" he asked one trio.

Once the event started, Knox kept the bidding brisk. Staffers blew whistles every few seconds, signifying a bid. Auctioneers don't work solo. They team up with ringmen, people who work the crowd fostering communication between the bidders and auctioneer. The good teams can send messages back and forth inconspicuously. Knox will sometimes insert a word into his chants that tells one of his ringmen, Donnie Marr, to nudge a bidder to go higher. Another word, "rice," lets Mr. Marr know he should energize the crowd. "I know it's strange," says Marr, laughing. "But that's what we do."

• • •

Knox discovered his two "callings" early in life. When he was 16, he attended his first auction, a sale of cars, in Cullman, Ala. "Just the sound of the auctioneer's chant to me was so intriguing that I knew instantly that that was something I wanted to do," he says.

He enrolled in auctioneer's school, beginning his quest to join an ancient business. (Auctions date back to 500 B.C., when the Babylonians sold brides to the highest bidders.) To this day, he works to perfect his craft, but not in a classroom. "I'll be going down the road calling bids, and every time I pass a telephone pole or something, I'll take that as a bid," he says. "Depending on how fast or slow you're going down the Interstate, the bidding can get pretty furious."

When he was 17, Knox responded to another voice – an inner one. "I just felt like God was, as we call, 'troubling my waters.' I couldn't get any rest," he says. "I just prayed and prayed and prayed, and God slowly gave me the peace like I was supposed to preach."

Knox is the first in his family to take up the pulpit. His mother was a homemaker, his father a pipe worker. For the past four years, Knox has been pastor at a small independent church in Mount Olive, a town just north of Birmingham.

There are parallels between his two loves. For one thing, he delivers his sermons with equal measure of frenzy and humor. "His biggest asset is the way he relates to people," says Chuck Crump, auction coordinator at Amerisouth.

The geniality he has perfected as a preacher definitely comes in handy behind the auctioneer's podium. "As soon as he says two words out there, you just like Bryan," says Gantt. "People enjoy coming to see him."

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