Standing in the rostrum with a gavel in his/her hand, the auctioneer is almost like a lofty almighty who has indisputable power to decide what numbers to take, whom to sell the lot to, and when to put the gavel down. What is it really like to be an auctioneer?
We talked to Hugh Edmeades, International Auctioneer for Christie’s, who took up the job as an auctioneer since August 1984. Over the course of his 34 years in auctioneering, Hugh has conducted over 2,300 auctions, selling over 300,000 lots for more than £2.2 billion. Of so many sales that he has presided over, which is the most unforgettable sale to this gavel master?
Hugh Edmeades, International Auctioneer for Christie’s
Q: What’s your most unforgettable sale?
Hugh: The Imperial clocks that we sold here (at Christie’s Hong Kong), about 10 years ago. That was a fantastic sale offering mechanical clocks from a museum. 15 clocks, it took me 1.5 hours to sell them. The bidding was just fantastic.
Hugh: And we were lucky enough to be given the estate of Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister. So that was fun, we had a huge crowd for that. We had three salerooms, so we had two other auctioneers relaying bids in the other rooms.
Hugh: Charity wise, my colleague and I were asked to do Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday party in London. That charity auction was fun. When you’ve got Oprah Winfrey bidding against Elton John. Life as an auctioneer is very easy.
Q: Have you ever encountered any unexpected situation in auctions?
Hugh: We did a sale called ‘Champalimaud Collection’, which took place on the day that London was hit by the bombs, in 2005. We thought about should we carry on. London was shut down and the public transport was shut down but we had so many telephone bids, so many absentee bids. We just took the view that it was a particularly good sale. We just thought people will find the way of getting there so we delayed the start from 10am to 2pm.
Charisma, confidence, a sense of humour, qualities that an auctioneer should have, are perfectly exemplified by Edmeades during our interview. Yet, to our astonishment, auctioneering was the last thing that he wanted to do when he joined Christie’s.
Hugh presided over a sale at Christie's South Kensington
Q: How did you become an auctioneer?
Hugh: When I joined Christie’s, the last thing that I wanted to do was to be the auctioneer. And then when my boss suddenly left, they offered me his job. So I said, ‘Fine but I don’t want to be the auctioneer. Get someone who does want to be.’ They said, ‘No. Furniture is a main stone for Christie's at South Kensington. You’ve got to be seen as the public head of the department.’ So I had some interesting training with the directors. And I thought, ‘If this is auctioneering, you can keep it because I don’t want to do it.’
Q: Why didn't you want to be an auctioneer?
Hugh: At school, I hated school play. I volunteered to do the lighting, paint the ceiling. Anything to be out of the spotlight. Whether I was worried about making mistakes, forgetting my lines, being laughed at. I probably got some deep psychological problem.
Q: But you look so confident when you standing in the rostrum. How do you do it?
Hugh: When I got up there, I knew my bidding increment, the numbers. Backwards, forwards, sideways. Again, back to the theatre analogies. If you don’t know your lines, you can’t perform the piece. If you don’t know your numbers, they’re very boring, but they are the bedrock of any auctioneer’s performance. So I was super confident that I wouldn’t forget my lines, forget my numbers. Having that confidence helped me get up there. If there is anything that I can use to improve my performance, to improve my selling ability, I will grab.
Auctioneers needs to to stay focused and be careful with numbers at all times. It is important to maintain a high energy level. What's the most challenging auctioneering schedule in Hugh's long-standing career?
Q: What’s the most demanding auctioneering schedule you have ever had?
Hugh: It’s always a challenge here in Hong Kong. I got the jet lag when I arrived on Friday and landed at 6:30. I went straight to Ritz Carlton in Kowloon and put on my tuxedo. And I was doing a charity auction at 9 o’clock. Then I was doing a wine sale for Christie’s on Saturday and I’ve hardly slept a wink. While I’ve been here my body’s still on UK time but it’s the adrenaline that keeps me going. I’ve sold about 300, 400 of lots this week on 5 consecutive days. That’s a demanding schedule.
Q: What’s the longest sale you have ever had?
Hugh: My longest sale was the James Bond theme sale in London. I completely underestimated just how popular James Bond is. I was up there for 4.5 hours.
Hugh (continues): In New York a couple of years ago. There was a Chinese Works of Art sale and there were 160 lots. So we agreed to split it between two auctioneers, 80 lots each. That’s going to be probably two hours. And I started the auction. I got to lot 76, I’ve got four lots to go. I could see the finishing line. I said, ‘Keep going, keep going’. And on the lot before I did the handover, there was a tap on my shoulder by my colleague who was taking over. He said, ‘I’ve got a problem. I can’t take over. You’ve got to finish the sale.’ And suddenly the finishing line disappeared. I was up there for another two hours. So that was a challenge. But we like a challenge.
Many people think an auctioneer’s job at auction is simply speaking out numbers and taking bids. But it’s more than that. Hugh compares auctioneering to performance art, which requires different techniques, as well as the use of both verbal and body languages to keep the audience focused and entertained. For more tips from the gavel master, please stay tuned for the second part of the interview.