Auctioneer Karen Sorbo: Coaxing is her calling

Meet charity auctioneer Karen Sorbo, a free spirit who is one of Minnesota's experts at separating the well-to-do from their money.

She's bright, she's bubbly, she wears 5-inch heels like they're ballet flats. And when she grabs that mike and starts cajoling bids from some of Minnesota's deepest pockets, she's formidable.

Karen Sorbo is the Twin Cities' best-known charity auctioneer. If you go to local fundraising galas, chances are you've seen her, and above all heard her. That rhythmic, rapid-fire chanting style she learned in auctioneering school sounds like a purr on steroids.

"Do I hear 12 thousand? I need 13! What's another thousand?" she called from a stage at the Minneapolis Convention Center on a recent Saturday night, scanning the sea of attendees with a bird of prey's short, swift head swivels. "Say yes. Sayyessayyes. He said yes! Sold!"

The event was the annual gala for PACER, a Minneapolis nonprofit serving children with disabilities. "It's like checkers. It's your turn. Just do it. Do it! Do I hear 11 thousand? Aaaaand back to you, my lady friend!"

Asking donors who have already paid for expensive tickets to give even more is not an easy job, and not many people do it well. Especially not many of Sorbo's gender. The National Auctioneers Association estimates that only 7 percent of auctioneers nationwide are women, and perhaps only a dozen specialize full-time in what Sorbo does, charity auctions.

Carole Wiederhorn, a frequent benefit attendee, has bought several live-auction items from Sorbo recently, including a trip to London and some wine at a Minnesota Chorale event. She finds Sorbo's routine hard to resist because it comes across as genuine caring.

"She doesn't start too high," said Wiederhorn. "She makes you feel like she really has a vested interest in the organization. It's evident when she comes down into the group and stands in front of us that she does really have compassion. It's a challenge to get the same groups of people to contribute every year, but she's just so charming when she does it. And I'm thrilled she's a woman -- that's so rare."

Sorbo's longest auctioneering relationship has been with PACER, for which she has conducted live auctions the past 16 years. Paula Goldberg, executive director, said "she wasn't very well known when she did our first one, but she got calls from 11 other places after that."

One of her assets, Goldberg said, is that "she knows when to stop. That's a talent, to sense your audience and know you can't drag it on anymore."

From tomboy to glam girl

Sorbo's professional persona may be clad in tropical-hued silk and glittering stilettos, but she got her start as a tomboy on the rural hobby farm near Delano where she grew up.

The woman who makes a living with her voice didn't really start talking until she was 6 years old, she said.

"I spoke just enough to get by -- I really didn't like carrying on conversations," she said.

She attended private school, Minnehaha Academy, through financial assistance. The commute was 43 miles each way.

"I guess my dad didn't want me to get pregnant, and he thought it might be harder this way," she said.

Today the picture of femininity, as a teen she was up at 4 a.m. doing chores with her father, and wore overalls and "an old man's cap" to school, where she would sometimes "do 360s in the parking lot in my '68 Mustang," she said.

After attending college in California on a music scholarship, she worked a variety of jobs, including teaching piano and French horn. In 1993, while married to her first husband, actuary Allen Sorbo, she, her brother and father all decided to go to auctioneering school in Kansas City, with the goal of opening an antique consignment shop.

"I had to learn the difference between a Jersey and a Guernsey cow, and memorize every type of combine," she recalled.

These days, it's more useful for her to know the difference between Cartier and Tiffany. But that early training lit the spark for the career of her lifetime.

"She's never been a desk person," said real estate agent Cathy Berzins, a friend of Sorbo's since both were in their early 20s, when Berzins was a dental hygienist and Sorbo a receptionist in the same office. "She's independent and resourceful, and I think the auctioneering is exciting, a challenge."

In a way, Sorbo works on commission. Her sliding-scale fee is based on fundraising-goal tiers -- $10,000 to $20,000, up to $100,000, $100,000 to $250,000, and $500,000 to $1 million.

"Once I got asked, 'Why should we hire you when we can get news anchors for free?' I said you don't have to pay me if I don't raise at least $100,000. And I did $115,000."

While she wouldn't reveal more on that system, her chosen profession has clearly been lucrative. Working eight months a year, as fundraising season is typically February through June and September through November, she claims to have been earning "well over six figures" since 2004.

Outgoing and twinkly as she is, she said she doesn't click with everyone: "I've had people pass on me and I've turned jobs down. My personality doesn't work with all chairpeople."

It might be her atypically Minnesotan personality -- relentlessly cheerful, fervently idealistic, given to superlatives. But her friend Berzins thinks it might have something to do with her blonde-bombshell good looks. "The thing that's always worked against Karen is people judge her by her appearance without looking past that to her heart," she said.

Still, Sorbo says, that appearance is part of the job.

"Three years ago, I gained 15 pounds and heard through the rumor mill that people were saying I was getting old and fat. When you're in my arena, serving affluent people, you have to look the part. I'm in my 50s now, and I have to work out every day."

Comfort at home

Sorbo radiates a softer glow when she's not working, but it still creates a nimbus around her. She's just that kind of gal. The logo on her website is a colorful butterfly, the lower tips of its wings dipped in rippling water reflecting its image. She's prone to sharing upbeat, inspirational quotes, some of them the "Live, love, laugh" kind you see at Bibelot, others deeper and more thoughtful.

At home, she's more boho chic than town-and-country. The decor in her cozy Hopkins cottage blends African artwork, unusual furniture and fanciful touches like a ceiling painted with birds and flowers.

The African influence comes from her second husband, jewelry artist Francelino Zau, a native of Angola whom she met in Rio de Janeiro. The trip was a graduation present for her daughter Sunny. Zau was selling his jewelry on the street.

Though neither could speak the other's language, "we had a spiritual connection," Sorbo said. "My daughter said, 'Mom, what are you doing?' But I knew it was right."

She went back to visit him six times over the next year, once going with him deep into the Amazon jungle, where she got malaria. With no access to modern medicine, Zau rustled up some natural native remedies to help her recover, she said. That cemented their bond, she said, and they were married three years ago in the Hopkins house.

Sorbo also puts much of her free time into charitable work. This year, she became a volunteer spokeswoman for Nimbaya, an all-female drum group from Guinea that works to eradicate female genital mutilation. She and Zau have continuing projects in his native Angola and Namibia to help rebuild villages destroyed by dirt storms and to provide soccer lessons and equipment to boys.

Sorbo describes herself as deeply spiritual, but doesn't practice any religion.

"I just will not live by rules," she said, flashing that megawatt smile.

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