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Hagerty Summer 2009

Auctioneer Dennis Wisbey is one fast-talking used-car salesman you can trust.

The lights are bright, the PA system blares and the audience sits high in bleachers. If not for the sparkling collector cars, it would be easy to mistake Russo and Steele’s Scottsdale, Arizona, auction for a professional boxing match or wrestling bout.

Company principal Drew Alcazar works the arena floor, but the pace and emotion come from a catwalk above, where freelance auctioneer Dennis Wisbey calls the sale in rapid fire. “I’m bid $40,000,” he says. “Will you give me 41? I’ve got 41, now two, now three, now four. I’ve got $44,000.” It’s fast, it’s fun and, surprisingly, you can understand every word that comes out of his mouth.

From the tips of his blue suede shoes to the diamond stud in one ear, Wisbey virtually crackles with energy. His positive demeanor and ever-present good humor entice people to buy collector automobiles, motorcycles, antiques and commercial real estate. Those same qualities have propelled him to the top of his profession and allow him to live in Hawaii, travel extensively and enjoy a six-figure income.

FINDING HIS CALLING

After high school, Wisbey worked for a used-car dealer, a job that exposed him to the world of auctions. “I was fascinated at my first one,” he says. “I watched the auctioneers and thought to myself, ‘I could do this.’”

Wisbey’s first step toward a career came from listening to auction recordings and practicing the calls. He then enrolled in formal training at the Missouri Auction School in Kansas City, which offers a two-week diploma program.

Today, Wisbey uses the American calling style derived from livestock auctions. But no matter how fast he rattles off the sales patter, every word is clear. “I find the slower pace of English auctions less engaging,” says Wisbey, who currently is licensed in 14 states. “Conversely, if an auctioneer talks too fast and rushes along, bidders won’t be able to follow the auction.”

He adds that Scottsdale is the toughest place for licensing since it requires fingerprints and an FBI background check annually.

But even with the right credentials, it’s tough to get started, something Wisbey experienced when he approached a new auction in Atlanta. “The promoter wanted experience, but I said I’d call the auction for free if he’d pay my expenses,” he says. “But I told him if he liked me enough to use me again, he’d have to pay me for both events.” The brash approach worked, and Wisbey called the company’s next auction, too.

WORKING THE CROWD

The job looks glamorous, but it can be grueling, even for someone as energetic as Wisbey. He generally makes 40 to 45 work trips a year and has called auctions on five continents. With only about 10 days a month at home in Honolulu, he has little time to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

At most auctions, Wisbey works solo, easily logging four to eight hours straight. However, at Russo and Steele’s home sale in Scottsdale, each of three auctioneers is on for just 30 minutes at a stretch.

Wisbey insists that the key to any successful auction is to put the correct product in front of the right people. “It’s also important to have the right frame of mind and always keep my energy up,” he says. “I’ve worked with a sore throat and a 104-degree temperature, but it is just mind over matter.”

If Wisbey’s energy falters, so will the sale. To keep the momentum going, he’ll give each lot two to four minutes before moving on. “The technique is to get bidding going and build excitement,” Wisbey says. “If I can get two people bidding, I can play them against each other.”

What’s Wisbey’s advice for aspiring auctioneers? “If you’re interested in becoming an auctioneer, get in front of a mirror and see if you can do it,” he says. “It’s essential to attend an accredited auction school. It also doesn’t hurt to emulate a particular auctioneer.”

Despite the growing popularity of online auctions, Wisbey isn’t worried about his future. He believes so strongly in his craft and business that he’s adamant when he says, “Nothing has the excitement or can take the place of a live auction.”

See exclusive video of Dennis Wisbey in action at hagerty.com/wisbey.
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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Summer 2009 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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Going, Going, Gone– A Ten Step Auction Guide

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Going to a classic car auction can be rewarding – or a disaster. The best protection for a potential buyer is having a plan. The auction buyer should know what kind of car he wants, how big his budget is and what goals he has in mind for his hobby activities. Here are 10 tips to guide you through an auction purchase:

  1. Buy brand-name cars. You can’t go wrong with a Chevy or a Ford, but even a well-known “orphan” model like a Hudson is a better investment than a Hoppenstand. When a car is popular with many people, you’ll have more people interested in it when it comes time to sell.
  2. Rare cars can be more valuable than common models. Collectors like Duesenbergs because less than 500 were built. But some cars are rare because they were ugly or unreliable. So do your homework. Look for rare cars that have a following in their market niche.
  3. Beauty counts. Car collectors will pay a premium for a beautifully-styled automobile. Cars styled by famous designers are usually great investments. Studying the appearance and proportions of the Classics reveals why they became collectible automobiles. Many have been described as “rolling sculpture.”
  4. Ragtops rake it in. Convertibles and roadsters will generally have the greatest appeal in the collector market. As many professional auctioneers say, “When the top goes down, the price goes up!” Convertibles are sportier, fancier and rarer than most other body styles and these factors count in the collectibles marketplace.
  5. Owner’s pedigree. Who previously owned a car may play into its value. If a 50-year-old car has had only one or two owners, it’s a good sign it was cherished and taken care of rather than traded off like a commodity. If the original owner was Steve McQueen or Princess Diana, it’s a “celebrity car” and may be worth more than the same model without such status. (If you’re buying a celebrity car, make sure the ownership is well documented.)
  6. Clean machine. Buy cars that are in good condition, both cosmetically and mechanically. Originality generally has a positive effect on value, but a high-quality restoration can also add greatly to a classic car’s appeal.
  7. Love, love relationship. Buy collector cars that you love driving. In general, car values don’t zoom up overnight, but tend to hold steady over a long period of time with slow growth. So you should be able to enjoy the machine while it “ages to perfection.” By the same token, don’t wear the car out. Low mileage is a selling point when you decide to sell or trade up.
  8. Dream machines. Most collectible cars start appreciating in value when they are about 20 years old. Hobby professionals say that this is because the people who dreamed of owning these models as teenagers can afford to buy them in their mid-30s to 50s. That is when their income starts growing, their expenses fall (kids out of school, mortgage period, etc.) and they reach a stage in life when their old dreams can become realities.
  9. Group therapy. Collectors are often said to have “old car disease” and they are not alone. The hundreds of clubs that support the hobby also support the collector-car market by allowing hobbyists to “network.” A large club can turn a certain model into a valuable “cult car.” But well-established clubs also help insure against wide fluctuations in value by providing a stable marketplace.
  10. Quick classics. Generally speaking, a car that’s known for going faster than other cars will have a higher value. They may be sports cars like a Jaguar or Ferrari or muscle cars like a GTO or a Road Runner. Of course, you shouldn’t drive such cars as fast as they will go or you’ll wear them out and hurt their value.

This article is by John “Gunner” Gunnell, automotive books editor at Krause Publications, Iola, Wis., and former editor of OLD CARS WEEKLY and OLD CARS PRICE GUIDE.

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