Dan Davies takes centre stage in the saleroom as he learns the fine art of auctioneering at Christie’s
I am standing in the Christie’s rostrum — a copy of the famous original designed by Thomas Chippendale — a pen in one hand, the gavel in the other, looking down on a sea of expectant faces. ‘Welcome to the Post-War and Contemporary Art day auction,’ I say, attempting a smile while furiously clenching my buttocks — a technique, I have been reliably informed, that stops one’s hands from shaking.
What makes a good auctioneer? It is the first question that Hugh Edmeades, Christie’s international director of auctioneering, asks those who have signed up to his one-day course. Edmeades should know, having conducted more than 2,300 auctions since making his debut in August 1984, selling over 300,000 lots for more than £2.2 billion, and managing the select group of 65 men and women taking sales across the globe for Christie’s. Many of these auctioneers are graduates of the highly competitive Auctioneering School that Edmeades runs every two years for Christie’s staff.
Personality, charisma, confidence, clarity, movement, spatial awareness, a sense of humour, numerical dexterity — these are all attributes that Edmeades agrees with and scribbles on his flip-chart. ‘Selling!’ he exclaims, as the room seems to have exhausted its list of suggestions. ‘You have to love selling.’ Christie’s auctioneers are encouraged to watch all types of sales people, he explains, ‘from Del Boy types on street markets to shop assistants. A good auctioneer will add 10 to 20 per cent to the value of a lot by asking the question of an underbidder.’
Co-chairing today’s course is Nick Finch, an experienced auctioneer and the director of bids for Europe, the Middle East, Russia and India. His is a familiar face to those who attend Christie’s most prestigious evening sales or follow them on the Christie’s LIVE website. ‘At auction time, all the focus is on the auctioneer,’ says Finch, who can be seen standing to the side of the auctioneer during these big sales, scanning the room. ‘We are Christie’s, and people have come for a performance.’
My first lot is a 1975 work by Antonio Calderara, with a reserve of £15,000. A glance at my auctioneer’s book confirms that there are two absentee bids, one of £18,000 and another of £19,000, and three potential telephone bidders. With a quick clench to ‘centre’ myself, and a mental reminder to keep my head up, I address the room: ‘There’s plenty of interest here, so let’s start the bidding at £16,000.’
The top priority, we are taught, is to ‘get on the right foot’. This entails first learning the bidding increments, which break down into four distinct patterns, and then starting with the correct opening bid to land a bidder on the reserve price, which remains confidential. The second task is to ensure ‘the bidding is with me’, as the auctioneer, for the highest absentee bid. Absentee bidders take priority over bidders in the room, Hugh and Nick explain, and as such I am bidding on behalf of that person and therefore have an obligation to try to secure the lot as cheaply as possible.
This all requires a complex calculation that’s solved instinctively by experienced Christie’s auctioneers, but that comes only with great exertion to the non-mathematically minded — like me. ‘It’s like a journey,’ Edmeades says. ‘There are many different ways of getting from London to Paris, but as long as you get to Paris, that’s all that counts.’
Thankfully, I make it to Paris with the Calderara, before the bidding takes us beyond, to £24,000, at which point the pace perceptibly slows. Strictly speaking, according to the increments, I should be looking for a next bid of £26,000, but I try to heed the advice of our tutors by squeezing as much from the lot as possible. I decide to accept a bid from the room of £25,000. As instructed, I look to my right at the bid team manning the phones, but they shake their heads. I then glance at the screen at the back of the room, which tells me there are no more online bids. Finally, I look squarely at the underbidder in the room, raise my eyebrows and ask, ‘One more bid, madam?’
Christie’s retains the services of a voice coach, Robin Kermode, who works with the company’s auctioneers. Beyond buttock-clenching, his recommended warm-up exercises include reciting ‘Humpty Dumpty’ with your tongue extended out as far as possible, and practising speaking with a big smile on your face which, he insists, makes your voice sound better. ‘It’s a visual performance,’ Edmeades reminds everyone, before likening the auctioneer’s role to that of a circus ringmaster or a game-show host. ‘If the audience doesn’t like you, you’re in trouble,’ he adds. More worrying is Kermode’s revelation that a crowd will make up its mind on that score within the first 10 seconds.
Christopher Burge joined Christie’s in 1970 and went on to become the company’s top auctioneer, averaging more than $1 million a minute in sales up until his retirement in 2012. At one stage, he had hammered down eight of the 10 most expensive works ever sold at auction. Hugh and Nick play us a video of Burge at his best: the sale of a Monet Water Lilies in New York, in which he coaxes bids from three people in the room, and two on the phones, through a subtle blend of charm, energy and his ability, in his words, to work as ‘a pickpocket who uses his tongue’. ‘He was an extremely nervous auctioneer,’ says Edmeades. ‘He studied his auctioneer’s book three to four hours before a sale to really know what he was selling. And he always had a large glass of whisky before getting into the rostrum.’
There is no glass of whisky for me as I open the bidding on the fourth and final lot. So far, I have done reasonably well, being on the right foot with each lot to hit the required points in the bidding, surpassing the high estimates, albeit modestly, and even establishing something approaching a rapport with two difficult bidders in the room (played convincingly by Edmeades and Finch).
Now to finish well, with an oil on canvas by Ad Reinhardt, estimated at between £120,000 and £180,000. The book tells me there are six bidders waiting on the phone, and an absentee bid of £130,000, so things are looking good. I look out at the room and open the bidding at £110,000, ‘trotting it’ (bidding on behalf of the vendor up to the reserve price) up to £130,000, all the while trying to think of what Jussi Pylkkänen, Christie’s global president and lead auctioneer, would be doing in this situation.
Edmeades urges us to make use of the space. The rostrum is not the biggest stage, but this does not hinder Pylkkänen in emulating the poses struck and shapes made by James Christie, the company’s founder. In one hand-coloured etching from 1794, titled The Specious Orator, Christie can be seen looking to his right, resting on his right forearm, the gavel delicately clasped between two fingers of his poised right hand. It is a pose I am familiar with, having in recent times followed Pylkkänen on Christie’s LIVE as he hammered down the two most expensive works in auction history, among countless others.
The bidding on the Reinhardt climbs past £200,000 before stalling at £230,000. ‘All done?’ I enquire, making my final checks of the phones, the screen for online bids and the bidders in the room. ‘No more?’ I ask, hoping to tease out one last bid. Nothing’s doing, so I bring the gavel down with a sharp snap, write the hammer price and paddle number in my auctioneer’s book and exit the rostrum.
Had this been a real auction, the book, with all my notes and marks, would enter the archives alongside books from every Christie’s auction dating back to the founding of the company in 1766. Instead, a few days later, I receive a link to a video of my performance. It’s not as bad as I feared, although it does reveal three things: the first is a slight facial tic I was totally unaware of; the second is that I was clearly not clenching enough; and the third is that Jussi Pylkkänen has nothing to worry about just yet.