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."

Until then, Miller's only auctioneering will be volunteer work for charities--and there's plenty. "Well, you know, the Alzheimer's Association, we do that," Miller offers. "And Opera Colorado, and Habitat for Humanity. Local ones here, and the big ones in Denver. But why don't you ask John about that? He claims to be the national representative of our charity operation, and has been since he started with me. He's got the gift of gab, and besides, he's full of shit, so I figured I had better just as well hire him."

"I had known Chucky all my life, though he's quite a bit younger than me," Clatworthy picks up the story. "And now, you bet, I am the international representative of his charity operation, or do I mean interscholastic? Or maybe intergalactic? Chucky is incredibly hardworking, a perfectionist, busy, very busy. He asked, 'How many auctions you wanna work?' I said sixty a year, whatever, I don't care. And that's what I did. I was just terrible, but not as terrible as everyone thought I'd be."

With Miller coaching, Clatworthy began work as an auction ringman--a floorwalker who reports bidding action back to the head auctioneer. It is because of unscrupulous ringmen, Clatworthy says, that auction-goers grew to fear for their checkbooks if they so much as scratched an ear or cleared a throat during spirited bidding.

"The reality is we ringmen know the difference," he says. "Walking around the audience, you can look in their eyes, for God's sake, and see them ready to go, ready to bid. You get to know it. When you hear it, you say, 'Yip!'"

Which is really a cross between Yip and Yup, but if you haven't been to auctioneering school, you shouldn't even try to make the noise. "Yep," Clatworthy agrees. "A good auctioneer like Chucky knows all our different yips and yups. It must flow continuously. Momentum carries an auction. You'll go eight, ten hours straight, no eating, no potty break, nothing but adrenaline to keep you going. And you never sell stuff, junk or things. Everything has a name. This Rolodex is not a thing filled with phone numbers. That piece of china is not some damn cup, it's a fancy Spode something or other. Everything has a name."

At charity events, an auctioneer can afford to be more...interpretive. "We do lots and lots," Clatworthy says proudly. "Cystic Fibrosis, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever...They like us. We can't make too many mistakes. You leave here, rent a tuxedo, go down to Denver and be loud and aggressive. You can feel the enthusiasm going through the room, and you can feel when it doesn't, too. Without getting too metaphysical about it, with the Alzheimer's group, for instance, you'll have a lot of brothers, sisters, patients in the audience. People who are survivors one way or the other. You have to be mindful of that."

While he is being mindful, Clatworthy will sometimes sit down on a female's lap, getting up only after she bids. He will haul people up on stage--"people always say no, they don't want to get up on stage, which just means yes, they do," he says--or pick on the relatively famous faces in the crowd. "Chucky and I told Bill Hanzlik he should come and work with us," Clatworthy recalls. "After all, he seemed to need work."

All this does very well in the carnival atmosphere of a charity auction, but it doesn't work back home in Fort Morgan. Here, where every family farm that goes out of business belongs to a family everyone knows, Chuck Miller treats the proceedings very respectfully. There's show business and there's real business, he told Clatworthy when he signed on the new auction-school graduate. This is serious.

"I knew it," Clatworthy says. "My family had hired Chucky to liquidate our farm implement business in 1990. And this was not something we did for fun--we had real money problems. When you are liquidating years of livelihood, you're beyond just money. You're selling futures, hopes, dreams, people's lives. There are times when you get a lump in your throat because, woof, there is a person's life, gone, in the space of a few hours."

Woof. Clatworthy's old life was gone, but his new one was about to begin.
"To be honest, the auctioneering exposure has been very good for me," he says. "I'm in the automobile business, after all. After all, as I like to say, God made neon for a reason: People want their names up in it.

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