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Leading Lady

Cheri Boots-Sutton is an unlikely superstar. But in the competitive, male-driven world of Texas auto auctions, this middle-aged grandmother of seven has established herself as a force to be reckoned with. Jennifer Miller visits the auction house to find out why.

Author Jennifer Miller Photography Misty Keasler

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THE AMERICAN AUCTION (not to be confused with the staid, British-style version conducted by Sotheby’s and Christie’s) dates back to the Colonial era. Called “sales by public outcry,” auctions were seen as a democratic form of commerce, allowing the people to decide what constituted a fair price. Auctions also provided a social venue, and had an element of communal support: If the local sheriff put a family’s house and goods up for sale, their neighbors sometimes bought it all back on the family’s behalf.

But auctions carried a stigma, too. “There was a belief that people went a little crazy at auctions and were dangerous when bidding,” says Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, a history professor at UC Davis. This was the time when the auctioneer-as-showman model began to take shape, something that aroused further suspicion among skeptics. “The best auctioneers were prized for their ability to coax the crowd and cast a spell,” Hartigan-O’Connor says. “They had to prove that they weren’t just shady middlemen who would do anything for a good price.”

Distrust peaked in the years after the Civil War, when auctioneers got into the habit of speaking rapidly and using coded language. Suddenly, no one could understand a thing they were saying. This style of mixing numbers with rhythmic, nonsense filler words—a.k.a. “the chant”—is now a staple of professional auctioneering. Boots-Sutton, one of the fastest in the trade, admits to sometimes losing track of her own monologue. “I try to figure out what I’m saying,” she says. “But I don’t really know.”

BOOTS-SUTTON’S FIRST exposure to auctions came when her father and grandfather took her, as a small girl, to farm sales in rural Missouri. On cold, damp days, her grandmother would fix them hot chocolate and egg sandwiches. “I didn’t think too much about the auctioneers,” she recalls. “I just knew they talked fast, and I remember that one of the ring men was crazy—hooting and hollering.”

Although she’d enjoyed these events as a kid, Boots-Sutton didn’t consider auctioneering as a profession until she, about to become an 18-year-old single mother, happened across a pamphlet for a correspondence course that her brother had ordered. “I realized that I could be an auctioneer on weekends,” she says, “and a mother during the week.”

While Boots-Sutton is now considered to be one of the industry’s superstars, the early years weren’t quite so auspicious. During the time it took her to master the trade, she managed a Hardee’s and worked at the local cement plant to make ends meet. Eventually, she took a job at a consignment house, where she spent most of her time hauling junk out of people’s basements, pulling in as little as 10 bucks for a day’s work.

But Boots-Sutton caught the attention of a veteran auctioneer, who helped her with her chant. In 1999 she won her first auctioneering competition, and was promoted from ring man (the person who takes bids from dealers on the floor) to auctioneer, up in the booth. She started making better money—though with four kids to raise, she kept her job at the cement plant. Many mornings, she’d go to the plant and then hurry home to change into an evening gown for a celebrity auction gig.

Today, Boots-Sutton is so good—her chant is so fast and tight—that she can sell a car nearly every minute. She’s even managed to make the best of a bad lot with the rise of Internet auctioneering, having learned how to play dealers in the audience off against the bidders online. There may be only a handful of people watching her on the floor, but with subtle manipulation of her voice and eyes, she can make their bids climb.  
“Truly, I have the skill,” she says.

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