Could Lynne Zink sell a curling iron to a bald man? Maybe.
Since becoming an auctioneer more than a decade ago, the Joppa resident and former high school teacher has handled tens of thousands of items at property sales and nonprofit fundraisers such as the Washington Humane Society's annual Bark Ball.
Last month, the self-employed Zink won the women's division of the International Auctioneer Championship in Spokane, Wash., where 79 male and female competitors were judged by the National Auctioneers Association on their presentation, voice quality, body language and knowledge of their business.
Zink, 50, graduated in 1996 from what is now Towson University. In her new role as champion, she will train auctioneers around the country and act as a goodwill ambassador.
What does it take to be a good auctioneer?
It's a whole package. It's not just being a fast talker. You need to know how to run a business. You need to understand sales and marketing. … And having passion for your work really pays off. I thought that auctioneers got up there and ran their mouths all the time. That's 5 percent of my job. Most of my work is done behind the scenes, all the planning, all the setup, the marketing.
Do you warm up beforehand to limber up the vocal cords?
We loosen up the tongue by doing tongue twisters such as "rubber baby buggy bumpers," or I'll do "Betty Botter bought some butter." It's just getting used to letting your tongue roll.
Are there brain cramps, like singers of the national anthem forgetting the words?
The only kind of lapse I've had is forgetting what the bid is because of distractions in the crowd. Benefit auctions are totally, totally different from, say, when I'm selling in a gallery. When I'm in a gallery, we're flying fast and I'm thinking about the next item coming up, knowing what I'm selling, looking for the people making the next bid. I'm reading the crowd and a lot is going on and I'm going through my chat, I'm whipping through. But at a benefit auction, you have buyers who aren't used to going to an auction. They're going to a fundraising event. You slow down the chant a bit and you're playing with the crowd; it's more theatrics. So I know I have to get extra focused so I don't forget where I am. If you're at $10,000, you don't want to slip and think you're at $8,000.
Do you practice while you're in your car, or have you been doing it so long that you can drop into business mode any time you have to?
You never stop learning, and you never stop practicing.
So how did you go from being a high school teacher to being an auctioneer?
When I was going back to college to get my degree, my husband kept saying, "No, no, go to auction school." But I wanted to be a teacher. So I was teaching at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, working with at-risk youth, [and] we learned there was a possibility we were going to lose state funding for our program. My husband said, "This is it, Lynne." I came into the business, I knew absolutely nothing about auctions. I went to auction school and joined the Auctioneers Association of Maryland, and that's where I received the education and mentoring that allowed me to thrive. Now I'm the president of the association, and it's my turn to start giving back.
Can you tell how the economy is doing based on auctions?
I don't know if it's fads or the economy. Let me give you an example. Five years ago, Depression glassware — I could sell that in an auction gallery piece by piece, and you'd get decent money for each piece. But I'm finding we're selling more things in lots for one price when it comes to household goods [including Depression glassware]. Certain things are holding their price — high-end items, such as bronzes. And I don't know if it's a generational change, but the sale of china is way down. I don't think people are putting fine china out for Thanksgiving anymore. There's this stuff called Chinet and it's easier for cleanup. [Laughs.] But I don't know, is it generational or is it the economy?
Can you look at an item and tell what the enthusiasm level among bidders is going to be?
I picked up this lamp one time. To me it just looked like a basic lamp, but I knew it was going to go high. And it did. Auctioneers, we're used to reading crowds. We can tell when people are going to bid. Sometimes they get this curious look like, "How did you know I was going to bid?" because I'll look right at them to take a bid or before they even raise their bidder card. Can I tell if something is going to go well? I can because I see a shift in facial expression and body language. When people really want something at an auction, it's hard for them to hide that emotion.
Can you generate excitement?
I absolutely can. I can crank it up. But if it's junk, it's junk. I'll get them all wound up, but that doesn't mean they want to buy it. They know how much money they have and they know what they want to spend it on, and I can't get them to spend it there.
Can you sell ugly ducklings?
I'm telling you, ugly sells. We've had some really strange figurines and statues. The more contorted they are, the stranger they are, the higher they sell. There was one, a man figurine — headless — with his hand out and he was holding a head. The uglier the better.
Do you take it personally when an auction doesn't live up to expectations, or can you shake it off like a ballplayer?
You shake it off. I know that each and every time, I've gone in there and given my best. If the money's not in the pocket, I can't pull it out. Our big line is, "We don't want to leave money in the room."