Zimmerman, Minn. – Wearing a white cowboy hat and a black rain jacket, Yvette VanDerBrink banters with the soggy crowd clustered around her on a wet July morning.
She waggles a hand. She points a finger. She scans the faces of the burly, bearded men in ball caps, searching for the look that tells her, yes — he really, really wants the rusty motorcycle parts in the cardboard box at her feet.
“Sold for $600,” she calls out as the crowd shuffles on to the next item.
This is VanDerBrink’s comfort zone: a barn full of rare treasures from a bygone age, lovingly assembled over decades by eccentric collector Roger Dickenson and now going to new homes. From her base in tiny Hardwick, Minn., a town of 190 residents some 215 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, she’s built a thriving auction business, specializing in vintage vehicles and farm equipment.
At 54, she’s overcome cancer, several brushes with death and prejudice against women in her field, making her way with grit, energy and a no-bull attitude.
“I’m pretty ballsy,” she said. “I’m pretty fearless.”
This isn’t like those auctions you see on cable TV, where shiny collector cars roll across a dazzling stage and fetch prices of more than $100,000. VanDerBrink sells “regular stuff to regular people,” said Jeff Stumb, a vintage car expert with Coker Tire, a Tennessee company that sells tires for the classic-car market.
“The museums are fine, the high-end things are fine,” VanDerBrink said. “But those barn finds are my bread and butter.”
VanDerBrink typically handles anywhere from 20 to 30 sales a year and has held auctions in 18 states.
“She’s always pretty busy. She doesn’t let any grass grow under her feet, that’s for darn sure,” said Frank Imholte, executive vice president of the Minnesota State Auctioneers Association. “She’s cut a pretty wide path when it comes to collector cars. She’s good at it.”
The prophet speaks
VanDerBrink grew up on a dairy farm in Garretson, S.D., about 5 miles from the Minnesota state line. She was always involved with cars; her dad collected and sold ’57 Chevys and helped run races at small-town tracks.
She married, went to work as a hospital lab technician and had two kids. To make extra money, she and her husband, Steve, bought old farm tractors, fixed them up and sold them.
Sometime after the family moved to Hardwick, life at the hospital started getting too hectic.
“They changed how we did things,” she recalled. “It was night shift-day shift, and after a while you even forgot if you had underwear on.”
Going to work one night, she thought about auction school.
“It came out of the blue,” she said. “So I got information from the auction school in Billings, Mont., and I didn’t tell a soul.” She also didn’t send in her application.
“There was no way I could do it,” VanDerBrink recalled. “I was a mom. And if I left, surely the dog would die and the house would burn down.”
Six months later, her mother invited her to a local church, where a Pentecostal prophet was appearing.
“He called me up [on stage],” she said. “And he said, ‘How come you haven’t sent in those school papers that are in the cupboard in your kitchen?’ ”
That night, her husband asked if she had papers in the cupboard. Yes, she replied.
“And he said, ‘You need to send them in.’ ”
VanDerBrink got her auctioneer certificate and went to work. She lined up her first auction in the fall of 2001.
‘Make me a sandwich’
In the early days, she faced scorn from men who didn’t think she belonged.
“One guy told me, ‘Honey, why don’t you go make me a sandwich and let the boys do this?’ ” she said. But the farm girl knew how to handle an ornery critter.
“I didn’t take any bids from him,” she said, laughing at the memory. “And he wondered what was going on. And I said, ‘Hey … I don’t have to take any bids from you!’ ”
In those days, seeing a female auctioneer “was like spotting an alien or Bigfoot,” VanDerBrink said. “Like, a woman doing this? That’s like a white buffalo.”
Now that she’s established, her critics have backed off, and she has, too.
Today, between 10 and 20 percent of the licensed auctioneers in Minnesota are women, Imholte said.
In 2007, VanDerBrink was in Colorado, booking an auction, when she felt a lump in her breast. It was breast cancer.
Over the next three years she went through multiple surgeries — including a double mastectomy — chemotherapy and radiation. Several times she became infected and nearly died. But she kept working.
“I just knew that if I quit, that was going to be the end of it,” she said.
She had a wig made, but every time it rained or snowed, “I looked like a wet clown,” she said. “So I threw it away and did it in a pink hat.
“One of my competitors was telling people, ‘Don’t hire Yvette — she’s dying.’ And that pissed me off.”
She came out of her illness and landed the auction that really put her on the map.
Ray Lambrecht ran a small-town Chevrolet dealership in Nebraska. Over the years, he stashed hundreds of barely driven, unsold cars on his farm. In 2013, when he finally decided it was time to sell, VanDerBrink won the job.
The sale was a sensation, among old-car hobbyists and beyond. More than 10,000 people showed up in Pierce, Neb., as news helicopters flew overhead. The auction was covered by national media — the New York Times labeled it “Field of Low-Mileage Dreams” — and it landed on more than 100 newspaper front pages, VanDerBrink said proudly.
Her experiences have strengthened her faith. The bid cards at her auctions carry a message calculated to reach the heart of an automotive enthusiast.
“Who’s driving in your life? With the Lord Jesus at your side, you’ll never need a map,” she reads, sobbing as she nears the end. “Put your trust in Him and let Him steer your life.”
A week after the Zimmerman auction, she closed the books and declared it a success. The trove of cars, motorcycles, parts and assorted household goods brought “just shy of a million,” she said. “I’m happy, and the family is very happy.”
She savors the thought that one man’s passion will live on with others.
It’s what she loves, VanDerBrink said: “Bringing ordinary people’s collections to life.”