When he was a boy, Alfred Finocchiaro would help his father hawk truckloads of tomatoes — fat and juicy "ripes, pinks" and the economical "unripes or off-grade" — at a farmers' auction in Swedesboro, N.J.
Years later, Finocchiaro followed his father into the business, honing his tongue-wagging skills and becoming a fast-talking auctioneer who would occasionally toss an apple or some vegetable into the crowd to stoke oohs and aahs.
But those old-fashioned farm auctions have all but vanished from New Jersey, along with oh, so many farms, said Finocchiaro. The once-bustling Swedesboro produce auction closed and the land it occupied was preserved as open space in 2013 by the Gloucester County freeholders. There's also new competition — from eBay, Craigslist, and other internet marketplaces.
But even as they adapt to the new challenges, auctioneers say fears that the net will kill live bid calling might be misplaced.
"People still like to come to auctions to see the item, to feel it, to touch it, to be close to it. … People like the excitement and the rhythm and beat of it," says Robert Babington, president of the New Jersey State Society of Auctioneers,
"Things are changing, but I'm transitioning," he said. Now Finocchiaro, 59, sells a wide assortment of "stuff from A to Z" at charity auctions and estate sales.
Once a week, he also takes the stage at an auction in Bordentown where thousands of used cars are sold. And on the side, he organizes online bidding for the Burlington County prosecutor's office to unload vehicles and other goods confiscated from criminal suspects. Last month, he sold off autographed footballs and other sports memorabilia seized from a convicted Cherry Hill con artist, raising more than $20,000 that will be used for law-enforcement training and equipment.
Another option for government entities, one used by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, is GovDeals.com, a website to sell off surplus or seized items.
"My business model in an estate sale is to go in and sell everything in a house. It might be stuffed with all kinds of doodads, tools, furniture," said Finocchiaro, who owns Alfred's Auctions in Monroe Township, Mercer County. While people may use eBay to buy collectibles, eBay sellers come to his auctions to purchase items to resell, he said.
Popular TV shows such as Storage Wars, American Pickers, and Pawn Brokers also have stirred interest in buying and selling old goods, said Finocchiaro, who has competed three times in the national Bid Calling Contest, a competition for auctioneers.
"You have to be fast, clear, present yourself very well, and be knowledgeable about the product," he said.
Every other Sunday, Babington said he sells off about 4,000 items – about one every four minutes – at his South Jersey Auction warehouse in Swedesboro.
"I do not think the business is ever going away, it's a multibillion-dollar business and it's how you achieve the fair market value of goods, no matter what you're selling, whether its produce or stocks," he said. "Wall Street is the largest auction there is."
Babington, 51, has been in the business more than 30 years. "We sell everything from coffee cups to museum pieces," he said.
The New Jersey State Society of Auctioneers has about 90 members, he said, and sets standards and ethics for the profession. Though New Jersey does not require auctioneers to obtain a license, they must abide by state rules and regulations.
For example, he said, they are prohibited from selling certain taxidermy, such as a mounted deer head, if the animal lived in New Jersey. Pianos with keys made from ivory also cannot be resold without special certification that proves the ivory wasn't illegally poached or collected after ivory sales were banned, he said.
It's an occupation with the potential to surprise.
Nearly 20 years ago, Babington said, he auctioned off a bedroom set that "was rumored to belong to one of Al Capone's hit men." It went for a whopping $17,500, he said. He had expected it to fetch about $7,000.
"The nightstand had hidden compartments that we were told were used to hide guns and money, and it was custom-made," Babington said.
Finocchiaro once was faced with dueling bidders who kept their hands up, matching each price Finocchiaro suggested as he auctioned a 40-foot shipping container of spice confiscated by the U.S. Treasury Department for being illegally imported.
"I asked $500 to start, then $1,000, but they weren't budging," he said.
The container went for $60,000.
"The description simply said a container of spice. That's all I knew about it," he said. But the competing buyers apparently knew what was in that truck, he said. Perhaps they had ties to people whose goods were seized, or they went to the preview and could identify the spice, Finocchiaro said.
Later, Finocchiaro learned the container contained saffron, a treasured commodity that commands high prices and sells by the gram.
"They take tweezers into the field and pull the pistils out of flowers," he said, explaining that the sale had piqued his interest and he had looked into it. The container actually might have been worth $200,000, he said.
"It's an interesting business," Finocchiaro said. "There's nothing like it."