Hugh Edmeades, International Auctioneer for Christie’s, shared with us the most amusing stories and unforgettable moments of his 34 years of auctioneering. This time, we asked the gavel master about the routines and rituals that he might go through before stepping onto the rostrum. Hugh told us about the strict selection process that potential auctioneers experience in auctioneering school, as well as the similarities between auctioneering and performance art. What is it really like in auctioneering school? How is auctioneering connected to performance art?
International Auctioneer for Christie’s - Hugh Edmeades
Q: You said auctioneering is a performance art. Who is your favourite actor for inspiration?
Hugh: There’s an English actor, mainly theatre, called Simon Russell Beale. He is a great Shakespearean actor. He played Macbeth, he played Lear. I like the way he is able to switch from a serious Shakespearean role into a comedy role. That is what auction is, you need to be able to be nimble-footed enough to switch from one role to the next. When I was at the auctioneer school, we used an actor called Robin Kermode. He taught us breathing, voice and body language techniques, anything that would help us get those extra bids.
Simon Russell Beale in ‘King Lear’
Q: Can you tell us more about the auctioneering school?
Hugh: We still run the school for auctioneers every two years. You might get 40 ‘want-to-be-auctioneers’. If they are lucky, we will put through three, more likely two. We are pretty gentle with them for the opening round and they get progressively harder and harder, and I become meaner and meaner.
Q: What techniques do they learn at the auctioneering school?
Hugh: With wrong ‘footing’ bid, split bids, it just makes them really think on their feet. And how do you try to get to 100,000 for an absentee bidder? Someone gives you 93,000 and how do you get back on track to make sure that you hit 100,000 for the absentee bidder rather than letting someone in the room hit 100,000. If I sell it to the room, then the absentee bidder would say, ‘I left you 100,000, why haven’t I got it?’ So the absentee bid will take preferences over the room. It’s the question of the auctioneer orchestrating the bidding.
Offering a chance to train with actors and to be taught by top auctioneers, the auctioneering school sounds like a dream school that many would like to attend. Having seen so many wonderful auctioneers ‘perform on stage’, we were curious as to which ones were Hugh’s students. And before stepping into the spotlight, how does an auctioneer prepare him or herself?
Q: Who are your students? What kind of challenge they have faced after graduating from the auctioneering school?
Hugh: Most of the Asian ones here are my students. Their trouble is that they only have two selling sessions a year, one in May, one in November. They do not get their practice. When I first started selling, I was selling 300 items at least every week. In London now, if each auctioneer gets 100 lots a month, they are doing well. My learning curve was vertical because I was selling so much, I was learning every week. Now, you are selling one week and then next month. When you try to get back up, you need to start again.
Q: Do you put on makeup or any particular outfits to help you perform better?
Hugh: No. Being a male auctioneer, we are somewhat limited, we have to wear a suit and a tie. I tend to use a very bright tie so that there’s something for the audience to focus on. With the girls, I tend to suggest they wear a nice piece of jewelry. I think it helps for the audience to have a focal point.
Q: What’s your preparation work before auctions?
Hugh: I do a few voice warm up exercises because we have to use our mouth, our head and our voice. I loosen up my face, adjust my jaws, do some tongue exercises because when I get up there, I have got to be on my game. Nothing annoys me more than when I say to an auctioneer, ‘How did the sale go?’ And they said, ‘Fine but it took me 10 or 15 lots to get into it.’ So I say, ‘What about the owners of the first 10 or 15 lots?’ The owner of lot 1 is expecting you, relying on you to be on your game for him at that stage.
After learning about all the intense training and preparation work that auctioneers have to go through, we are now ready to follow Hugh back on stage in the salerooms. The international auctioneer will share with us his ‘top secrets’ to getting more bids and the most unforgettable bidder that he has come across. Stay tuned to find out more about the gavel master’s auctioneering journey.