Richard Ranft stands on a wooden table in the middle of Beloit Auction Service. He simultaneously chants numbers as he grabs boxes and calls out particular items, all while scanning for bids.
“Eighty-five, 90, 90 dollars ... sold!,” said Ranft to a customer 195.
Although this is a lot to manage, the real test is reading people. Ranft said sometimes people don’t want to outwardly show their bids — lifting a finger as opposed to raising their hand to indicate bids. In an auction environment, knowing a “tell” is key, otherwise a bid may be missed. He scans the room as he describes a box full of knives. He starts bids at $10 and raises or lowers the bid according to crowd response.
Even in a world of websites like Pinterest, which allow users to search and replicate do-it-yourself projects, the auction house is still crowded. Wednesday nights are full up with people shuffling from one end of the auction house to the other to look at items. Some are huddled together, sitting down, presumably waiting for their item of choice to go up. Others stand around Ranft, looking up at each item he calls out. The items come and go from a variety of places: some are from inheritances and estates, while others are donated from people cleaning their homes. The auction house sells real estate and does in-house or on-site auctions.
For 35 years, Ranft has co-owned Beloit Auction Service with his wife, whom he met at an auction. He doesn’t remember when he started — just that he avoided becoming an auctioneer for as long as he could. He wanted to shift away from the family business. Ranft grew up around auctions. His dad William Miedema and his wife Carol founded their original auction house in the early 1970s. It was named after Miedema but later changed to Beloit Auction Service in the 1980s.
Miedema, 89, said he is still active in auctions, despite retiring to take care of his sick wife in the early 2000s. He began when he was 9-years-old in South Dakota. Miedema said he was used to being around auctions because his father was a cattle buyer and he would attend auctions on a weekly basis.
“We were born and raised with it,” said Miedema.
Throughout the years, Miedema held auctions all over the county, including the open waters during his service aboard U.S.S. Saratoga during World War II.
No matter the change in environment, Miedema said it’s all intuition.
“You learn to read people real fast,” said Miedema. “You can almost point your finger at someone and know they’re going to bid.”
Miedema said Ranft’s first auction was by accident. An auctioneer canceled at the last minute due to wanting more money and Ranft stepped it.
“There was no start date,” said Ranft. “I didn’t like it at first. I went to college, I graduated, I went to work and that didn’t seem to fit me, but [auctioneering] did,” said Ranft.
Ranft said the well-known “country-style” chant is a very important part of doing an auction, and it’s used to build excitement.
These days, however, excitement is coming in new forms. In 1999, Ranft began holding online-only auctions. Online auctions create more exposure for items and can sometimes result in higher bids. After attending a national auctioneer’s conference, Ranft saw a live auction with bidders online and in the crowd. Since then, Ranft has done a live auction once a month, the most expensive item he’s sold online was a painting for $160,000.
“It’s really gotten to the point, if you’re selling guns or coins, then you’ll just sell them online,” said Ranft.
With do-it-yourself websites, many people are discovering auctions as a way to do inexpensive makeovers for their homes. Ranft said one woman redecorated her entire home using products she bought at the auction.
Auctions are also social events — Ranft said he witnesses “auction friends” who meet at the auction and sit together. For Ranft, this is the part he enjoys: the people, the energy on a crowded Wednesday night.
“It doesn’t feel like work,” he said.
For a video about Beloit Auction Service, click here.