Christie’s leading charity auctioneer and Global Head of Strategic Partnerships imparts her wisdom on commanding a room and empowering young women (the subject of her new book), and the ‘pinch-me’ moments of her career so far
I fell in love with art history during my junior year abroad program. I spent the first half of my semester at the University of Oxford, the rest of it was spent visiting museum collections around Europe with an art history professor. We took classes in front of the art. During this time, it became very clear to me that I was passionate about art. A year later, I completed a summer internship at Christie’s New York — I was immediately hooked on the auction world. I applied for a second internship the following year and never left. This year marks my 20th year at Christie's.
My mother is my biggest inspiration. I admire the relationships she holds and the counsel she gives. Both my parents, however, have been instrumental in my professional life. At an early age they instilled in me great self-confidence, drive, and the belief that if you want something you can achieve it.
Everything associated with auctioneering appealed to me: the deal-making, the international travel, and the possibility of interacting with some of the world’s greatest art collectors. At the very beginning of my career, I read an article about women in the auction world and immediately wanted to find out more. I started taking charity auctions when I was just 24. Since then, I have taken between 70 and 100 auctions a year for 16 years, raising more than half a billion dollars for charity. It’s one of my proudest achievements in life.
The sale of The Elizabeth Taylor Collection was a real ‘pinch-me’ moment. Landmark cross-category sales such as that one, which was held in New York in December 2011, showcase the phenomenal global reach of Christie’s. I stood at the phone bank with my colleagues as they bid with clients from all over the world in so many different languages. Knowing how much effort people in the company put into honouring her legacy made the final result truly remarkable. I am always struck by the power of a community of people — and what they can achieve when everyone works together towards a common goal.
Sharing a stage with Bruce Springsteen is definitely at the top of the list of ‘pinch me’ moments. It was at the Stand Up for Heroes auction to benefit the Bob Woodruff Foundation. I have taken the auction for five years now, and every time I walk on stage at Madison Square Garden it is such a thrill. Not feeling intimidated on stage next to one of the biggest acts in the world is incredible; I always get this overwhelming feeling that I am at the top of my game.
I don’t warm up before an auction. Unlike many other auctioneers, I am usually seated at a gala dinner about five minutes before I go on stage. I usually get an adrenaline rush about two minutes before I go on stage. Instead of dreading it, though, I have learned to channel that energy into the performance. You have to bring lots of energy and confidence in order to set the tone from the start.
You have to find a technique that will get you in the zone and command the attention of the crowd. In a charity auction setting, there is always a ton of ambient noise. I strike the gavel down three times to grab people’s attention; this is what I call the ‘strike method’. Once I have got the audience’s attention, it’s about keeping the 95 per cent of non-bidders entertained. As soon as you have lost the room, people are less likely to bid.
Charity auctions are a bit like the Wild West. There are no rules when it comes to bidding increments. I will usually start bidding low, so that everyone has the chance to raise the paddle. I’ll also acknowledge the crowd — talking to the audience empowers them and engages them, so they feel like they are part of the story.
My mind is always racing after an auction, so I tend to read or write to unwind before eventually falling asleep. I actually wrote a lot of my first book, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room Is You, after evening auctions.
I hope my book inspires women to live the life they want to lead. I wanted to pass on everything that I have learnt over the past 20 years, including my successes and my failures, to empower women to believe they can achieve anything they want. I believe that we need to be role models for the younger women who are just starting out.
Rejection is like exercise. The more you do it the better you get at it. Use failure as a learning tool to help you grow, sharpen your skills, and pivot in a new direction. Also, try not to take it too personally.
‘I hope this book inspires women to live the life they want to lead’ — Lydia Fenet
I can’t sit still. I have a million and one ideas, three children, a full-time job and a book that’s about to be published. Life can be hectic, but I’m not about to slow down now. I’m just getting started. The world is filled with opportunity and I want to do as much as I possibly can.
Calmness is the greatest gift I can give to my team. In my opinion, leadership is about being the person who maintains an atmosphere that people want to work in. Whenever I feel like things are out of control I go on a long run. Running helps me decompress and figure things out, plus it really calms me down when I feel like I am getting hit with things from all sides.
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My advice to young women starting out would be to just do it! We can’t let other people define what we want in life. We have to create the road maps of our own lives and carve out the lives that we want to live.
Lydia Fenet’s new book, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room Is You: Command an Audience and Sell Your Way to Success, is published by Simon & Schuster on 9 April 2019