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  • Nov 25, 2014
  • Updated: 5:38am

Going, going, gone! Sold on a career

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 January, 2011, 12:00am
 

An auctioneer runs auctions, selling things at public sales. The most famous auctions are of art, but auctioneers can also sell antiques, property, wine, industrial equipment and even livestock.

Young Post meets Elaine Kwok, who works as an auctioneer for renowned art auction house, Christie's.

Requirements

You need to be good with numbers since you have to deal with large amounts of money very fast.

You should be a confident and entertaining public speaker.

You need to be able to think on your feet, and handle pressure. Many things can happen at the same time during a sale and you need to be on top of the situation.

Speaking more than one language is an advantage, especially in Hong Kong where Chinese is becoming as important as English in this business. Kwok says it makes a big difference if you can look a buyer in the eyes and tell him in his mother tongue 'last chance no regret'.

Of course, a keen interest in the goods you are auctioning is crucial.

Qualifications

A bachelor's degree in the area you would like to specialise in is advisable. If it is art, an art history degree is essential -Chinese University offers a good art history degree. Kwok studied both business and art history, and says both were good training for auctioneering.

You can even study at some of the famous auction houses. Christie's Education offers undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in London and New York.

There are various ways to learn auctioneering techniques. Kwok went through in-house training for two years. She met regularly with the head of Christie's auctions to practise and hone her skills. She also attended many auctions to learn the different styles auctioneers use.

Another way is to attend short training courses at auction schools, which are based mainly in the US, but also can be found in Australia and South Africa. Such programmes help you improve your public speaking skills and learn auctioneering jargon.

Compensation

People working as full-time auctioneers are paid for each job they do. They earn a commission on the items they sell. The commission varies depending on the value of the item, and the experience and reputation of the auctioneer. Being an auctioneer can be quite lucrative as soon as you are well established in your speciality, but earnings are unlikely to be steady.

Work prospects

Once you are trained, you can work on lower-value sales. Kwok said her first sale was terrifying, but now she has had more experience, she really enjoys it. She is more comfortable with the numerical side and can spot bidders easily.

On average, Kwok works on two sales a month. But there are no rules: there could be four one month and none the next. She also has to travel for some of them.

Like many art auctioneers, Kwok does not work as an auctioneer full-time. Her 'day job' is business manager for Christie's President's Office and Jewellery Department. Auctioneering is just one aspect of her work. It helps build a reputation, but she doesn't receive commission on the sales she auctions.

A full-time auctioneer is in charge of every aspect of the sale. They need to source the items, photograph them, do research and write a catalogue about them, exhibit the items and promote the sale. They also need to organise previews and meetings with interested parties.

Long-term prospects

For now, Kwok deals with watches and wines, but as she gains more experience, she will start dealing with higher-value sales, such as jewels and art.

Where to apply

Send your reume to auction houses. You will start as auctioneer assistant in some houses, and interns in others. Every May and November, Christie's hires exhibition viewing assistants to help with big sales. Kwok also interned at Sotheby's, another famous auction house, while at university. Some apply to join a house after an internship.

A day at work

There are four ways to take a bid at Christie's: in person, as an absentee bid (before the sale, clients specify the maximum amount they are willing to spend and this amount is recorded in the auctioneer's book), by phone or online via Christie's Live (the sale is broadcast live online).

The auctioneer must be aware of the reserve. This is the minimum price the item can be sold for.

On the day of a sale, Kwok arrives early to look at the auction book, absentee bids and reserves. During the sale, Kwok has to stay alert and take all bids into account.

It is the auctioneer's job to make the sale entertaining. 'It's as much about how you look as it is about how you sound' she says. Gestures and facial expressions matter.

Kwok says being on the podium is very exciting. But she also says it's a very tiring job, and you need a lot of stamina and energy.

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