MEADVILLE, Pa. — There’s a lot more to auctioneering than a gavel, talented patter and a crowded room. To survive and thrive in the auction world, an auctioneer needs to be familiar with the inventory, read the crowd and recognize a trend as it grows.
After more than a quarter of a century as an auctioneer, Sherman Allen also knows the value of being flexible.
Besides his regular performances as an auctioneer in Crawford and surrounding counties, Allen, 53, runs his own business, trains apprentices, is a partner in a 600-acre farm near his home in Conneaut Lake, Pa., and recently joined the political realm as a Crawford County commissioner.
January was quite a month for Allen, who was inducted Jan. 11 into the Pennsylvania Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame four days after being sworn in as commissioner. While the two honors may seem unrelated, Allen’s disparate activities over the years have culminated in this double-barreled recognition of his popularity.
With his courthouse office still in the box-emptying stage last week, Allen couldn’t walk down the hall without well-wishers and constituents stopping him for a chat.
It’s clear Allen isn’t jut a fast-talking salesman — he listens and he cares about what people want. That kind of sensitivity, along with a budding business drive, affected Allen at a fairly young age.
His grandfather, J. Everett Allen, sold farm equipment and took him along to farm sales. The boy ate it up.
“It was just interesting to watch the auctioneers at work,” Allen said.
He particularly remembers an auction at the Porter farm where he took the opportunity to auction off a litter of mixed-breed puppies. He was 8.
He worked his way through the 4-H program, showing and selling swine. When he was 12, he went to live with his grandfather and his great-aunt and by the time he was 16, he was transporting stock for area farmers.
Allen never lost his interest in auctioneering, so his grandfather arranged with Earl Nicolls, who owned Auction Hat Services, to take the young man on as an apprentice. He graduated from Reppart School of Auctioneering in 1976, and although his grandfather had died in 1974, Allen stayed on track.
“Most people think an auction is the last resort. That’s a shame.”
auctioneer, county commissioner
“Earl lived up to his end of the bargain,” he said, and taught him the trade.
Allen and Nicolls’ nephew, Bruce Nicolls, went into business together and their green and orange signs became well-known around the area. In 1989, he broke away and started C. Sherman Allen, Auctioneer and Associates in Conneaut Lake.
That was when he established his signature orange signs and appurtenances.
At auctions, he stands out because of his neon-orange cap and jacket. Even at the courthouse, he favors bright-orange suspenders and tie.
Visibility, in either the auction or political world, is vital.
“Bruce liked the green — I kept the orange. It’s kind of a trademark,” Allen said.
Having been raised on the 600-acre family farm, he was well-versed in agriculture parlance and he made the most of that connection. He also expanded to auctioning for businesses, real estate, households and antiques with a number of charity spots and fair sales.
“There’s all kinds of reasons people sell,” Allen said, and an auction can be the best choice they make.
“Most people think an auction is the last resort. That’s a shame.”
He has seen markets rise and fall and the experience has given him insight into the economy and the community.
For instance, large antiques aren’t selling well now. Several years ago, old, well-kept beds, dressers, tables and desks were bringing high prices in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Today, it is hard to get a decent bid for them, and Allen attributes it to demographics.
The baby boomers in their 60s and 70s are downsizing and the generation that is starting to furnish homes — those in their late 20s and early 30s — aren’t as interested in antiques. Also, the population is contracting.
“There are fewer people to buy what we used to collect,” Allen said.
It is a cycle he’d like to see change direction. Counteracting the languishing antique market, real estate has taken on new life and he attributes some of that to the fuel crisis and the trend toward renewable energies, such as ethanol and new uses for soy bean oil.
“The general farming community looks the best I can ever remember,” Allen said.
Prices for crops have gone up and land is following suit.
“Land values are better because of renewable fuels.”
The trend bodes well for the area economy because farmers don’t usually invest in mutual funds. A farmer with ready cash wants a new truck or tractor, better stock and even more land.
“If the ag community is prospering, the domino effect is tremendous,” he said.
It is a trend that could have the benefit of bettering the economy for farmers and decreasing our dependency on foreign oil, Allen predicted.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be completely independent of (foreign oil),” Allen said, but he is a proponent of wind power and thermal heating as well as the biodiesel created by adding soy, sunflower and canola oil to petroleum products.
On the horizon, he hopes the federal government continues to fund experimental cellulose ethanol from any green waste, such as brush and cornstalks.
“We need a cellulose plant in Pennsylvania,” Allen said.
If more land goes to fuel crops, prices at the grocery store are likely to increase.
“The American consumer has gotten a very good bargain for its food dollar,” he said.
“They’ve had a good supply at a very good price.”
That cycle may shift if demand for fuel grains gives farmers a second, more generous market. It is all food for thought.
Allen has a talent for threading agriculture through his auctioneering and his political duties. One trend that he is resigned to enduring is the introduction of the Internet to the auction hall.
Ebay has made it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to sell nearly anything online and a lot of antiques are changing hands without the benefit of an auctioneer’s gavel or knowledge. Auctioneers have taken a hit since eBay was born.
More insidious is the video camera in some auction halls that broadcasts the sale in progress. Anyone with DSL at home can bid via a computer connection. The process slows the auction and breaks the rhythm.
“The auctioneer has to learn to pause on the bid,” Allen said.
While online, real-time bidding potentially opens the auction to thousands of arm-chair bidders all over the world, Allen isn’t sure about the future of this technical new-comer.
“I utilize the Internet for people to look at pictures and I can put video clips online,” he said, adding that customers expect auctioneers to be able to offer the service.
“If you don’t, it’s going to pass you by,” Allen said.