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    En-'Chant'-Ment On The Auction Block | Spring 2014 Out Here Magazine

    Auctioneer Max Olvera has been perfecting his craft all his life

    Max Olvera
    Max Olvera’s auctioneer chant is refined through constant practice.
    Out Here

    By David Frey

    Photography by Devin Bruce

    There's magic in an auction.

    There's no rabbit in a hat, just livestock in pens, to be sold to the highest bidder. But there is a magician. Standing at the front, microphone in hand, the auctioneer rattles off his chant. The chant casts its spell. The bidders place their bids.

    To the uninitiated, the auctioneer's chant can sound like an endless prattle of numbers and gibberish glued together into one long word broken by an occasional breath.

    To experienced livestock traders, the bid caller's syncopated rattle is the music of business. There's no cash register's ca-ching, just a quick "Sold!" shouted after buyers and sellers come to an agreement amid a stream of mile-a-minute prodding.

    "People walk up afterward and say, 'How do you do that?' They're amazed by how somebody can get up there and talk so fast," says Max Olvera. One of the country's top auctioneers, Olvera has been at it since he was a child.

    He still remembers that sense of amazement himself, although he's been auctioneering almost as long as his memory stretches. He was just 7 years old when his grandfather, a California cattle and hog buyer, took him to his first auction at the Turlock auction yard in Bakersfield. It was a moment that would shape his life.

    "I can't remember what I did yesterday, but I remember sitting there with him and the sights and sounds and all of the action of the auction taking place. It just hit me. I told my grandpa, 'I want to know how to do that.' He kind of smiled at me."

    Olvera was as serious as a 7-year-old could be. He came back the following week and ended up working in the pens for the auction yard. He was back again the next week, and every week after that.

    When summer came and school was out, he came every day, tending to the calves and lambs — the small animals a young boy could handle. As he worked, he listened to the loudspeaker nailed up outside that carried the banter of the auctioneers chanting inside. He listened to how they did what they did. And he repeated it.

    "My parents bought me a little speaker with a microphone and I would go home and practice the chant every night, like homework, darn near," he says.

    By the time Olvera was 9, he was on the stage selling his first animals. At 11, he was featured on the national television show "Real People" as the youngest auctioneer in the country. He's been at it ever since.

    "I always thought, when I wake up in the morning and I can't think about anything else but auctioneering, then I'm supposed to be an auctioneer," Olvera says.

    Talking fast is what everybody first notices, Olvera says, but there's more to auctioneering than speed. "You gotta be clear, rhythmic, and have an enthusiastic chant that keeps the attention of the crowd," he says. "Keep the auction snappy. Keep the momentum going. It all has to come together."

    MORE THAN JUST SPEED

    Olvera is now the lead auctioneer and co-owner of the Turlock Auction Livestock Market, the same market he first attended as a child. He also teaches the art of bid calling at the World Champion College of Auctioneering, a training program he established in Bakersfield with two other auctioneers.

    Talking fast is what everybody first notices, Olvera says, but there's more to auctioneering than speed.

    "You gotta be clear, rhythmic, and have an enthusiastic chant that keeps the attention of the crowd," he says. "Keep the auction snappy. Keep the momentum going. It all has to come together."

    Olvera's own chant made him the World Champion Auctioneer in 2000. It had been a long time coming. He attended his first championship in 1980, when he was just 12.

    "It was like a sports fan going to see the World Series or the Super Bowl," he says. "I was sitting there watching all my heroes."

    After the contest was over, organizers let him on stage to sell a few cows. The next year, he entered the contest himself.

    "I had the time of my life," he says. "I wasn't expecting to win anything, but what an opportunity for a kid my age to be part of something like that."

    Then came a sort of backhanded compliment. A new championship rule barred anyone under 18 from entering. Olvera laughs when he remembers it. "They called it the 'Max rule,'" he says. So he waited. And practiced. He still does.

    "Athletes have to get up and practice and do what they have to do to be ready for game day," he says. "In my opinion, being an auctioneer is somewhat similar. If you don't keep yourself in good shape and always trying to be better, how can you be ready for sale day? I find myself practicing just going down the road. Practicing the chant. Practicing the numbers."

    The chant and the numbers add up to the magic. Through a singsong string of syllables, the auctioneer conjures an energy in the room that inspires even seasoned livestock buyers to up their bids.

    "It's me against them, to a certain extent," he says. "You know what the cattle are worth. They know what they're worth. Now you gotta go get it."

    That's where Olvera casts his spell, with a microphone, a rancher's drawl, and a rat-a-tat sales pitch that makes whatever's on the auction block disappear.

    "I call it," Olvera says, "the magic of the auction."

    David Frey writes in Gaithersburg, MD.

     

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