In November, a long-lost Leonardo da Vinci painting sold at auction for a record $450.3 million, the most ever paid for a piece of art. The bidding war was overseen by Christie’s, the venerable British auction house that also handled the record-shattering sales of Audrey Hepburn’s dress from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and George Washington’s personal annotated copy of the U.S. Constitution.
Wild Bill is different from Christie’s.
Customers at Wild Bill’s auction house in Vass are more likely to leave with offbeat curios than coveted artifacts. Some of the items sold during Saturday’s auction included a Dale Earnhardt bobblehead, zip-locked bags of Mardi Gras beads, a gold-plated Elvis Presley coin and multiple copies of the 2011 video game “Skylanders.”
Common household goods are also auctioned off at Wild Bill’s, making the business popular with bargain hunters who go to bid on everything from cleaning products to office supplies at prices sometimes significantly lower than retail.
Bill South, aka “Wild Bill,” bears little resemblance to the shotgun-wielding cowboy on his business card. A large-bellied man with a long ponytail, South conducts auctions through a wireless headset connected to a PA system.
Like any good auctioneer, South can launch seamlessly into a rapid-fire chant: Two and a half, I need five twenty-five. Five twenty-five, give me seven fifty. Seven fifty, I need ten. Give me ten. Can I get ten?
The escalating rhythm of South’s well-honed auctioneer’s chant can make small acts of one-upmanship between bidders seem like dramatic salvos in a high-stakes showdown. The stakes at Wild Bill’s, however, tend to run small.
During a recent auction, a competitive back-and-forth broke out over a steam iron. Bidding began at $20 and dropped to $7 before climbing past the starting price.
But packs of diabetic socks and protective cases for obsolete smartphones don’t always sell themselves. South is tasked with drumming up excitement for the items, and the seasoned salesman has a pitch for seemingly everything.
“All you Chevy owners need these for when your car breaks down,” he said of a set of roadside flares.
“You can use this to hypnotize your friends,” he said while listing the many uses for a handheld fan with light-up blades.
Judy South, Bill’s wife, is also a licensed auctioneer. The couple ran an auction house in Sanford for several years before setting up at their current location on Thurlow Lake Road.
They moved into the building, a former concert hall with exposed trusses covered in Christmas lights, in December. Since then, the auction house has gained a following through Facebook posts and word-of-mouth from patrons like Michael Taylor.
“You can get pretty good deals on stuff, sometimes half to 75 percent off,” said Taylor, who ranked a Daisy BB gun, still in the box, as the most interesting item he’s won. “Everybody’s friendly here and it’s somewhere to go to get out of the house.”
Taylor and his wife Teressa are among the more than 40 regular bidders at Wild Bill’s weekly auctions. Like the chummy caricature of an old-school salesman, Bill South addresses his customers as “folks” — as in, “folks, where else are you going to get a brand new, king-size sheet set for $10? Wild Bill’s, that’s where.”
The showmanship, auction-goers said, is part of the appeal. While they could find cheap household items at yard sales, the experience wouldn’t be as entertaining.
Beyond the cut-rate goods — a large can of Lysol, won for $2 — and kitschy castaways — a light-up “applause” sign, won for $15 — the business offers the same heirlooms and antiques that customers might expect from a traditional auction service. Saturday’s inventory included an assortment of vintage coins, some dating as far back as 1865.
Judy South said the items come from various sellers she and her husband have built relationships with over the years.
“In auction circles, everybody knows everybody else,” she said. “We sell anything that comes in, and you never know what’s going to come in.”
Nearly every aspect of the operation is handled by a member of the South family. The couple’s son, Wes South, helps introduce the items up for bid. Nieces and nephews carry merchandise to potential buyers for inspection. Judy’s mother is in charge of the snack bar.
When Bill South needed a quick break from conducting the three-hour auction, his daughter Maryanne Aucompaugh took over. Like her parents, Aucompaugh is a licensed auctioneer.
She shares her father’s ability to slip effortlessly into the auctioneer’s chant. She also shares his knack for creative sales pitches.
“You ladies can use these to chase your husbands around the house,” Aucompaugh said before opening bids on a bundle of hand axes.