Calm head pays dividends for auctioneer

When a work of art can sell in 40 seconds, it requires an experienced hand to know when to push a sale and when to give buyers more time

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 June, 2013, 8:46am

Ji Tao was one of the first registered auctioneers on the mainland, and he has seen the auction industry develop since the government passed a law in 1997 standardising auction practices and protecting those involved. Today, with his own company in Beijing, Ji looks back on his 15 years as an auctioneer.

When did you get the idea to become an auctioneer?

I went to university in 1978, after the college entrance examination system resumed. Before that I worked at a printing plant in Hebei province. My wish was to become the head of the plant, which I thought was the most amazing job. At that time, people never thought of changing careers; it seemed unnecessary. I learned physics at university in Shanghai and became a teacher. In 1991 I was offered a scholarship to study in the UK. Life was hard for Chinese students studying abroad, as we didn't have money, so I tried everything I could to save money. I knew I wouldn't stay in the UK for a long time, so I went to second-hand auctions to bid on some household items. I bought a colour TV for £3.30 and a mountain bike for £30. I attended dozens of auctions in the UK. In 1992, something happened in China - some people, mostly public servants and teachers, quit their jobs and went into business. So, in 1995, when I returned to China, I had a job interview with an auction company in Beijing. The company asked me whether I knew anything about auctioneering. I replied that I had attended several auctions in the UK, and I was hired. I worked in the marketing department for my first two years at the company. In 1997, when the auction law went into effect, I sat the qualification exams and passed. There were three qualification exams that year, as the auction industry was new and needed fresh talent to meet demand.

What sort of items have you sold ?

All sorts of things: land, real estate, works of art, vehicles, equity stakes, naming rights. A block of land in Beijing sold at auction for 1.2 billion yuan (HK$1.5 billion) in 2007. And in 2000 I hosted the auction of a state-owned hotel in Hangzhou that sold for more than 20 million yuan.

What makes an auctioneer?

First, an auctioneer needs to speak clearly and look esteemed and smart. It's not hard to get into the industry. To be a good auctioneer, you need to know how to deal with difficult situations without losing your head. And you need to know how to adjust to different kinds of auctions. For example, when you are selling artwork, you need to act elegantly and speak with a fast tempo, but in a clear, stable and gentle way. It takes an average of 40 to 50 seconds to sell one piece of artwork, because the buyers are quite experienced, and they are knowledgeable about the price. But when you are selling land, you need to slow down, because in most cases the prices for land are very high, and the buyers need time to consider, so you must stay passionate and sometimes try to lighten the atmosphere, even with some funny remarks. You can repeat the price several times and wait a little longer for each bid. Generally it takes about five minutes. At charity fundraising auctions, the tempo is even slower, as many buyers are entrepreneurs, and they might know little about the auction, so you can't be too fast, and you try to make the buyers feel relaxed and happy.

What was the most interesting auction you have hosted?

In 2011, I was hired by a real-estate developer to auction dozens of shops in a shopping mall in Shaoxing , Zhejiang province. There were 800 bidders packed into a room, with public security officers deployed in the corners to maintain order. After the first price was offered, one of the bidders stood up and shouted something, and suddenly almost all the bidders stood up and wanted to leave. There was chaos, especially because police officers blocked the exit. At that moment my mind went blank, thinking things would get out of control if everyone left. Later I learned that the original plan by the real-estate developer was to simply sell the shops at set prices, but as soon as the they learned that there were many more buyers than expected, they decided to auction the shops instead. But this did not go down well with buyers, who worried that the auction would send the prices higher. Bidders were scolding me, as the representative of the seller. I tried to calm everyone down, and invited the real-estate developer on to the stage to explain to the buyers what was happening. He told them that the auction was intended to offer a fairer way to buy the shops. Finally they understood and the auction went well. Generally speaking, auctions of artwork are peaceful, and the buyers have fewer complaints against the sellers.

What are your thoughts on the development of the auction industry in the past years?

Artwork auctions have emerged, and the market has been growing extremely fast in recent years. I think artwork auctions will heat up as the markets are more regulated. However, I think the market for property auctions will be stable, because the prices of real estate are already high, and the market's capacity is limited.

Unlike in the West, jewellery auctions are underdeveloped in China. The main reason is that Chinese people are too eager to make money, or to make more investments, so they don't want to spend money decorating themselves. Plus, jewellery doesn't look as if it could make quick profits like land. However, collectors in the West are more willing to pay for beautiful jewellery, especially precious items, with which they can dress up. But, as my friend complained to me, even if you buy some beautiful jewellery here in China, you have few chances to wear it outside, for security reasons. But the market is shaping up.


Ji Tao spoke to Laura Zhou