Guide to the Art Business: Auctioneers

Guide to the Art Business: Auctioneers
Today we will go into detail about the profession of the most important individual at an auction: the auctioneer. Find out what it takes to become a great one.

Let us start with some basic definitions:

Auction- a staged event with many participants managed by an auctioneer. Looking from the outside in, everything seems quite simple: someone rises onto the stage with a mallet in hand and proceeds to sell the lot on “one, two, three!”  

The auctioneer’s tasks include more than banging a wooden hammer and selling a piece to the highest bidder. He/she organizes the process, captures participants’ desires, and auctions off the 100% of his lot- needless to say, it is not easy. Auctioneers even know how to psychologically influence customers and get new bets or allow his favorite one to end with the highest bid.

This profession requires the endurance of a marathon runner, the voice of an actor and the eyes of a hawk. To become a great auctioneer, nerves of steel and superb acting skills are a must. At the very least, one must be able to hold pauses to add momentum and incite intrigue. In earlier times, such abilities were not nurtured, only inherited, but today it is possible to learn to play the part in educational institutions.

Contrary to popular opinion, auctioneers are taught not to talk and sell the products, instead let them sell themselves. Active auctioneers prepare for stressful, multi-hour marathons- an auction can last up to six hours when going at a rate of a lot per minute. During this time, one must be friendly and joke around while watching hands, absentee rates, and minding over-the-phone clients.

Auctions nowadays are held in different styles. The Anglo-American approach is more common, which is more friendly and entertaining than the traditional English version.

Auction houses can either have their own auctioneer or invite an independent one. 

No matter how great the auctioneer, he cannot hold an auction alone. Even when there are no physical buyers (many participate over the phone or online) they are always on site.  Here are a few:

  • The spotters: helps the auctioneer pay attention to those who wish to buy an item,

  • The pushers: is an unofficial, illegal position in which their job is to raise the hype and bets on items being presented,  

  • The secretary: arranges everything that happens in the auction,

  • The handlers: take objects to the hall, and

  • The phone colleagues: bet on their buyers behalf and inform them on the course of the auction.

Although being an auctioneer is predominantly a male profession, women have recently begun to appear in the field. Some famous auctioneers include:

Jussi Pylkkänen

Finnish art dealer, executive director, president of Christie's auction house. On the sale of a Leonardo da Vinci:

“It is every auctioneer’s ambition to sell a Leonardo and likely the only chance I will ever have, It’s the pinnacle of my career so far. It is also wonderful for an Old Master to be at the centre of such attention. The excitement from the public for this work of art has been overwhelming and hugely heartening. "

Helena Newman

Head of the European Department of Sotheby's auction house, co-chairman of the department Impressionists & Modernists

Thanks to the energetic style of the Helena’s auctions, the summer landscape of Gustav Klimt reached the amount of £ 48 million at an auction on March 1, 2017 - becoming the third most expensive piece sold at an auction in Europe for 2017.

She is a 28-year-old veteran of the auction house - and the only woman on the Sotheby's executive board - who has long been developing the market of impressionists and modernists. She has managed to build relationships with a large number of international collectors and institutions.

Simon de Pury

Swedish baron, collector, auctioneer and DJ. He received the nickname the “Mick Jagger of the Auction world” due to his dynamic style of conducting the auction.

"I compare the work of an auctioneer to the work of a DJ: you cannot be ready for everything, there is a bit of improvisation and you need to be on the same wavelength as the audience. If you are conducting a jewelry auction, it's not at all like selling modern art or books. I have seen auctioneers be rude to the public, and it's not worth it. You have to be very courteous. "

Lord Mark Poltimore

Chairman of the Board of Directors of Sotheby's Russia, CIS, Lord, and TV host. A seller of Russian art in London, he describes auctions as this, "Art is passion, an auction is an emotion."

In recent years, large and small auction houses have gone online. Some aim to capture a more  global audience while others are looking to cut costs. With this transition, an auctioneer's profession is dissolved into digital algorithms, and traders take turns patiently placing new bets within 30 second intervals, or until the lot goes to the most generous "bidder." While this might make the process more fair, it increases its time frame.

Perhaps in the future, an auctioneer’s profession will disappear altogether, but the emotions that participants experience in closed luxury evening trades can not be replaced.

Auctions usually have complex and inaccessible systems; however, the BALTZER auction agency understands and participates daily in a variety of auctions around the world. It is our job and pleasure to help ease the process of receiving, selling, or transporting any piece, whether it’s a Rembrandt, an ancient manuscript or a chandelier from the XVIII century.


Before an auction, successful auctioneers:

- Prepare and study the catalog in a profound manner,

- Repeat “Humpty Dumpty” with their tongues out as far as possible.

- Have a glass of whiskey and an apple, as Simon de Pury suggests.

26 June 2018
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