Where the Auction Is

There are no farm implements left at the Clatworthy Company, the Fort Morgan business that was once the oldest International Harvester distributor in the United States. They've all been auctioned off.

In 1990 Clatworthy decided to concentrate on automobiles instead of farm machinery. But because of the GM strike, there are precious few of those, either. Today, the car dealership has a suspended-animation feel; it's as if the handful of salesmen--cowboy hats, pointy boots, prosperous bellies--looking out the plate-glass windows are all waiting for something. A customer? Please. The ice cream man? Don't make them laugh. A little hint of showbiz?

How did you guess?
From behind the closed door of John Clatworthy's office comes a lot of laughing, snorting, phone-slamming, Rolodex-riffling and even back-slapping. After a while, the various noises build up so much combustionary energy that the door bursts open. Out flies John Clatworthy, who looks you in the eye and announces, "John Clatworthy!"--on the off chance you might think he was anyone else.

"Go right in an' siddown," he says. "I'm gonna put you in the exact mood. The auctioneer mood! Here he is! The auction doll!"

The auction doll sits in his own niche behind Clatworthy's desk, a niche Clatworthy had built after his wife refused to allow the doll in the house. Why, he's still not sure.

"It is the image of the universal auction doll!" Clatworthy proclaims. "None other than Ralphie Wade of Chicoshay, Oklahoma, and he's the best auctioneer in the world! Ralphie made one thousand or so of these dolls, and I knew I had to have one. And here it is. Can you believe it? Can you believe it?"

Now watch as Clatworthy's unbelievable talent for running up one side of a subject and down the other comes into play. "On the other hand," he says, "a thousand of these? I call that optimistic. I mean, who the hell would want one? I had to have one, yes, but why?"

Perhaps Ralphie Wade was aware of the existence of a thousand auction groupies around the world, each of whom would want an auction doll. Certainly, Clatworthy qualifies. But although he's been an auction groupie for over two-thirds of his fifty years, it was only three years ago that he graduated from auction school, and that, in itself, was a complex process. It didn't happen overnight! In fact--

But, no. Let's start at the beginning.
Now, beginning. Who'll give me beginning? Beginning plus an anecdote? Do I hear two?

Although he grew up in Massachusetts with his Harvard-educated physician father, John Clatworthy always felt tied to Fort Morgan, where his grandfather's Clatworthy Company had been going strong since 1884. When it came time to go away to school, John picked Colorado College--and he began buying into the family business before he even graduated.

Meanwhile, his father, Dr. H. William "Bill" Clatworthy, occasionally called in a Western-type favor.

"Like many other dads, he owned a registered-cattle operation on the side," Clatworthy recalls. "One day he asked me to go over to a sale in the Springs and buy some cattle. The weather was bad, and the cattle auctioneers couldn't get out to the airport when the sale was over. I had the right sort of car, so I loaded them up and took them to the airport. By the time they flew off, I wanted to be one."

And why?
"Oh, boy. I wanted to be an entertainer and a motivator and a salesman. That's just my nature. It appeals to me because it's quick and loud and aggressive."

On the other hand, Clatworthy was also fascinated "with how people make deals." Unwilling to give up his stake in the family business, he moved to Fort Morgan after getting his business degree and began climbing the local ladder of success (with a few setbacks, of course, such as the farm-implement auction).

It wasn't until early 1995 that he finally managed to break away for a ten-day stint at the Missouri School of Auctioneering. "They call it the Harvard of auction schools," he says, "and it's a fine school, but they don't actually teach you to be an auctioneer any more than medical school teaches you to be a doctor. Somebody has to have confidence in you, and that's what Chucky Miller did for me. He allowed me to make a lot of mistakes and cost him a lot of money. It's as if you were a wonderful quarterback, but if no coach were willing to..."

Although Clatworthy has yet to finish his tortured football analogy, you don't have to listen. Instead, leave Clatworthy in his office mid-play and travel seven miles east to the town of Brush, sometimes thought of as Fort Morgan's somewhat more flea-bitten sister city--except when it comes to auctions. Continue through town and on out to where the Limon road turns south. Now you're on the playing field of Miller and Associates, where, nine or ten times a year, the prairie west's biggest consignment sales take place.

Miller is Chuck Miller, who dove into the auction business right out of high school some twenty years ago and has since cornered the market in farm and equipment, estate and real estate sales. Miller is as taciturn as Clatworthy, his buddy and sometime Associate, is verbose. But then there's not much going on right now that you can talk about. Auction season won't be up and running until, "Oh, what would it be?" Miller asks himself. "August 22, we got the RV Green sale. September 30, consignment, antiques and collectibles. Farm sales on the 14th and 21st. Come back then."

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