Phil Weiss, 54, auctioned this Gorham silver platter for $2,712....

Phil Weiss, 54, auctioned this Gorham silver platter for $2,712. He estimated its value at $3,000 to $5,000. (April 13, 2011) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Champ auctioneer Jill Doherty is ready for her first bid of the night.

"OK, we're going to start with lot No. 1, an acrylic painting," says Doherty, 57, of Bay Shore. Clad in a black cocktail dress, appropriate for this charity fundraising auction, Doherty stands at the front of a large room at Land's End catering hall in Sayville. Members of the well-dressed crowd hold bid "paddles" (actually, numbered sheets of paper) for the brief bidding war that's about to begin.

The crowd shows interest in the landscape painting, when Doherty says, "I've got 300, but looking for 400." She's following bidders with help from her daughter, Erin Doherty, 27, of Islip, her bid assistant for the event. Almost as quickly as it starts, it's over. "Sold at $300," Doherty says, definitively. By night's end, 23 works of art will be auctioned, benefiting a Huntington-based charity.

Ancient historyAuctioneering is among the world's oldest professions, experts say, dating to the selling of brides in ancient Babylon, and it's an older person's game. "By and large, the majority of professional auctioneers are older men who have been in the business 20 years or more," says Chris Longly, spokesman for the National Auctioneers Association in Overland Park, Kan., which has roughly 4,000 professional members.

Auctioneers handle a wide variety of items, anything from stamps and coins to Internet URLs and huge tracts of real estate. They are in a profession that anyone can learn but only a relative few master enough to make a good living. Their business is an enduring, multibillion-dollar part of the U.S. economy. If you've bought a used car, for instance, it was probably sold at a wholesale auction, Longly says. And once you learn the trade, you never have to retire, even as a younger generation steps up to the podium -- often to fill the shoes of a parent.

Doherty, who's been coaxing higher prices from bidders for more than 25 years, is one of the nation's recognized masters. In 2002, she won the National Auctioneers Association International Auctioneer Champion Women's Division title. Competitors are judged on poise, hand motions, eye contact, even the way you say the word "sold," Doherty said.

She doesn't wield a gavel, but she does specialize in the repetitive rapid-fire patter -- known in auctioneer parlance as "the chant" -- associated with the trade.

 

Entertainment value"The chant is the entertainment of it," says Doherty, who learned the trade in a 10-day class in Missouri. "If it's not a pleasing chant, they [bidders] might leave." She's sold everything from a new bidet to a pair of Shaquille O'Neal's sneakers (also probably new).

The auctioneer's style varies from laid back to fast and furious, to the stiffer British approach seen at Sotheby's.

Phil Weiss, 54, of Oceanside, is nationally known as an appraiser on the PBS series "Antiques Road Show." He also runs auctions behind a desk at his Oceanside warehouse. On a recent Sunday morning, keeping track of bids from the Internet, call-ins and an audience of mostly men clad in flannel shirts and jeans, Weiss calmly sold thousands of dollars in stamps and coins, including scarce Morgan silver dollars.

Weiss got into the business because his father ran a rare book shop in Manhattan, and he was intrigued by the idea of collecting unusual things. "I took a hobby of stamp collecting and rare books and turned it into an avocation," he says. Over the years, he's auctioned off "some weird stuff."

"I always laugh when we auction off human hair," says Weiss, who's handled clippings from George Washington and Abe Lincoln. "You are getting 100 or 200 dollars for a piece of hair the size of your thumbnail."

Auctioneering can be lucrative for those who master the craft. "We are commission sales people, and we can sell an awful lot really fast," says Doherty, who made her name in storage facility and house auctions. Commissions typically hover around 10 percent of the sale price, sometimes less if the asset is more valuable.

And you can keep the money coming in for decades, with retirement neither mandatory nor necessary. Some auctioneers continue into their 90s.

"You can do it for as long as your voice lasts," says David R. Maltz, 56, who lives in Plainview and owns an auction house in the same community. His specialty is auto auctions.

 

Versatility neededBut pumping an audience for the highest bids isn't the easiest way to make a living, and the chant is only part of the job. Longly says a good deal of the work takes place behind the scenes, and auctioneers have to know marketing and advertising.

Maltz says that a day spent on his auction pedestal, which can involve selling as many as 250 cars, can be grueling, so he doesn't smoke or drink, and he tries to stay in shape. He's auctioned off some pretty unusual items over the years -- including the entire contents of a funeral parlor, caskets and all -- often grossing millions of dollars.

Recently, the bankrupt Woodcrest Club in Syosset [now the Woodside Acres Country Club] went for $19 million at a public auction gaveled by Maltz. Lately, he has been shifting some of the workload to his son, Richard B. Maltz, 28, of Jericho.

Doherty, whose father was a commercial auctioneer selling restaurant equipment in New York City, is passing the gavel to her daughter, who specializes in charity benefits. She and Erin are the nation's "only mother-and-daughter auction team," according to Doherty.

Sometimes, when Erin runs a benefit auction, she hires her mother to help track bidders. Doherty says: "You get to this age, and you are on the other side of the hill, and you say, 'This is a good thing when the kids step up.' "