On a recent weekday morning in Jebel Ali, a roomful of people sat before a billboard-sized window, watching impassively as a parade of industrial equipment rolled by. Over the course of a few hours, 21 steam rollers, 52 forklifts, 63 excavators, 10 agricultural tractors and a whole bunch of diggers, pokers and scrapers trundled past the window in quick succession. It was day two of a three-day sale at the Ritchie Bros auction house, and you sensed that a touch of equipment fatigue had already set in.
The arrival of Lot 792, though, caused a bit of a stir. This was a Liebherr 90-ton all-terrain crane, and the selling price was expected to reach six figures. "OK boys, let's get serious here," said the auctioneer, a lifelong veteran of the game, named Wayne "Digger" Yoos. There were maybe 150 men scattered about the room, representing dozens of nationalities. They didn't look like people who needed to be told to get serious.
"Thirty-thirty-thirty," Digger hollered over the Tannoy, loud enough that the cigarette smoke hanging in the air seemed to shudder. "Thirty-five, forty-forty-forty-forty." There was a sing-song, incantatory quality to his patter, interspersed with the occasional down-home exhortation: "Forty-five - that's a lot of crane for the money, boys! - Forty-five-five-five - come on! - Fifty-fifty-fifty."
RB, as it is commonly known, is the largest auction house of its kind in the world. It has 110 offices across the globe, and last year sold items worth a combined US$3.5 billion (Dh12.9b). Its Dubai location, which opened in 1997, has gone through a relatively lean couple of years, but things appear to be on the up. At its last auction, in early May, nearly $30m changed hands, including a record-breaking $1.7m for a single lot, a Manitowoc lattice boom crawler crane.
This was a happy turn of events for the people at RB - the company receives commission of between 15 and 25 per cent on the items it sells. You imagine, though, that taking in this sort of money would have also caused a little anxiety - transactions at RB are mostly cash-in-hand, meaning there would have been stacks of the stuff sitting in the site's appropriately titled (but not very discreet) Cash Room.
"Yeah, well," said Steve Barritt, RB's regional manager, "we have good security." Spend long enough at the RB auction house, and you get used to this sort of attitude. To a man, the bidders adopt expressions of studied indifference, spending vast amounts of cash via the merest of gestures: a wink, a nod, a scratched ear lobe. It would seem, however, that there may be something more dramatic going on here. Given the relationship between Dubai's construction industry and its economic health - when the cranes are twirling, the money's moving - an arched eyebrow in this room might say something a little more far-reaching than "I'll take it".
The mood at the July auction didn't seem especially buoyant. "Gentleman, there's something wrong here," Digger cried as the 90-ton crane crept towards the $300,000 mark. "There's something drastically wrong." There wasn't, as it happened, anything wrong at all - this was all part of the schtick. "Digger creates urgency and excitement," said Barritt. "He's a performer - all auctioneers are. It's a kind of theatre."
A bespectacled, sardonic Canadian of indeterminate age, Digger is widely regarded to be the top industrial auctioneer in the world. "There's no close second," Barritt said. "We call him Digger because he digs every last cent out of everything he does." Nearby, Digger was still working on the crane. "Four-four-four-four," he sang. "Four-fifty, four-fifty, five-five-five - come on, boys! - Five-five-five-five-five." His tone undulated wildly. He shouted and crooned. He stretched syllables to breaking point, then accelerated to a rat-a-tat roll of the tongue. He sounded like a hyperactive shaman, or a mad barn dance leader. But it worked: the bidders followed him all the way to a respectable $550,000.
"Best in the business," Barritt said, shaking his head. When asked what made him such a good auctioneer, Digger shrugged. "I guess you'd have to ask someone else that," he said. "You need to know the market. You need to be able to read a crowd." And then he shrugged again. Earlier, Barritt had talked of a "magical quality" to the work Digger does, but the old man was having none of this. The single most important thing an auctioneer needs to know, he said, is: "Never beg."
If auctioneers are the "superstars" of the business - as Barritt put it - then the supporting cast are the bid catchers. Their job is to interpret the gestures of audience members and relay these to the auctioneer, a task that requires equally high reserves of vigilance and nerve. Even for old hands, there is a fear that they might mistake a genuinely itchy ear for a $20,000 bid. To be too cautious, though, is to risk selling an item short. "It can be tense," said Mark Grennell, a bid catcher at RB. "Not everybody wants to do this."
To complicate matters, the bid catcher also has to serve as a kind of cheerleader, goading bidders into spending more money, keeping the energy up. At RB, there were four bid catchers, standing on a narrow platform at the front of the room, jiggling their fingers, waggling their eyebrows, flapping their arms and extending their palms, shimmying in time to the auctioneer's song. Behind them, the giant machines rolled by, kicking up clouds of yellow dust, roaring with the exertion of moving their own weight.
Above the hubbub of the main room, meanwhile, stood the relatively peaceful Platinum Lounge. Here, a handful of VIP customers reclined in leather seating and ate salmon wellington, watching the proceedings through a wall-length tinted window. Among them was a guy named James, a Bahrain-based Scotsman who said he was selling today, rather than buying. "I have 103 lots up," he said. "I'm a little apprehensive." He paused and nodded at the nearby buffet table. "The free food helps."
James seemed reluctant to say much more than this, but at least he said something. The people seated beside him responded to questions by studying their fingernails or their shoes, or scowling into the middle distance. A similar reticence was apparent in other attendees. When asked what he'd purchased at the sale, a Dubai-based "construction professional" named Amjad replied, "Many things, I can't remember." Toros, a Lebanese dealer also based in Dubai, said he was looking into buying "stuff".
There seemed to be something quite revealing about these evasions. Despite the madcap theatricals, the shoulder-thumping familiarity and the wry banter at an RB auction, the prevailing emotion at these events is tension, even fear. For the bidders, there are snap, big-money decisions to be made. For sellers, there's the drawn-out anxiety of totting up wins and losses. For Barritt, there's a potential disaster around every turn. "I lie awake at night for three days before every sale," he said. "I sleep in a chair."
Even Digger, who is always the most unflappable man in the room, and who has called thousands of these things, is given to bouts of fraught introspection in the days leading up to an auction. "I prepare for it like a sportsman," he said. "I have a pre-sale dinner. I don't go out. I need to have my space." Only Trevor Moravec, a junior auctioneer, claimed to be free of pre-sale jitters. "I don't know," he said. "I guess I look forward to it." A 22 year old from Lincoln, Nebraska, Moravec has been calling numbers since he was 16. When asked if he admires Digger, he said he did, of course, but added that he might have handled one or two things differently today. "Those cranes, I would've choiced them right off the bat," he remarked, referring to the practice of combining two or more lots to lure bidders.
Moravec isn't an employee of RB Jebel Ali - like Digger, he flew in especially for the July sale - but his swagger has already earned him a nickname there. "Ah, yes, Trev," said one of the bid catchers. "Auction Idol." Moravec winced - slightly but visibly - when the subject of his nickname came up; apparently, he hadn't been aware of it. Within a moment, though, he had regained his composure. "To do this, you have to have confidence," he said, smiling. "If you don't, you're not going to make it."