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On the Floor of the Auction

By Scott R. Trepel

"Auction is theater." So observed the late David Bathurst, former chairman of Christie's. His career with the gavel gave him this insight, and he used his memory, quick wit, congenial manner and sense of drama to turn art auctions into theater.

The selling of hundreds of lots could so easily become a monotonous, droning affair, if it were not for the skill of a good auctioneer. The energy and mental stamina required to make each lot significant must come from somewhere inside, perhaps from the same place that keeps performers "fresh" night after night of reciting the same lines, or dancing the same steps.

More than merely enhancing the process, the vitality of the auctioneer is demanded by everyone involved. For every lot there is a consignor and prospective buyer. Envision the consignor's reaction if, at the moment his lot came on the block, the auctioneer yawned. Or, imagine the fury of a bidder who lost his opportunity to bid because of an inattentive or reckless auctioneer.

Fools are not suffered easily, but foolish auctioneers are simply hanged.

With the great many details necessary for an auctioneer to remember or recognize during an auction, it is miraculous that so few mistakes or oversights seem to occur. This is especially so in a profession without formal training and in which obtaining a license is much less difficult than obtaining a hot-dog vendor's permit.

However, as with many things in life, auctions succeed when there is effective communication. And, with communication being a two-way street, there is a shared responsibility between the bidders and the auctioneer for ensuring clear lines of communication throughout the auction. Thus, each bidder has his or her own role to play in the theater of auction. The purpose of this article is to look at the floor of an auction and introduce the process to readers who might someday like to participate by bidding in person.

From the moment one enters an auction room, the choreography of an auction can be observed. Minutes before the sale begins, socializing and private conversations create a reception-like atmosphere. To the uninitiated, the scene must resemble a party where everyone else knows each other.

There are, of course, the regulars who attend most auctions -- the dealers, auction agents, and the collectors who might be called auction "groupies." So habitual is their presence that certain places in the saleroom are unofficially reserved for them.

The dealers tend to migrate toward the rear, from which point -- standing or seated -- they can read the room, interpret the bidding and size up the competition. The professional agents who spend most of their time in auctions generally seek out the most comfortable and practical positions, generally toward the front of the room where tables are usually set up and their frequent bids will not be missed. Other regulars tend to have their favorite spots -- by the window, on the aisle, or seated on the very front row where their gestured bids will not be seen by anyone other than the auctioneer.

Viewed from the auctioneer's rostrum, this predictable pattern is a benefit. It is said that routine is the foundation which supports innovation and improvisation. Therefore, knowing where certain bidders will be -- where they will not be -- helps the auctioneer develop what appears to be a remarkable "sixth sense" of anticipating a bid before it is made. John Marion, president of Sotheby's and a master of the art, has this uncanny ability to find a nearly imperceptible bid among an audience of a thousand. Part of this skill is knowing the regulars, their patterns of bidding, and where they are located in the saleroom.

However, in every auction, there is the unexpected event that tests the auctioneer's ability to react quickly and appropriately. It might be a mere distraction -- one friend waving to another across the room, fully unaware that such a gesture compares closely to a bid -- or it might be a "new" bidder, someone who has just entered the public market. A new bidder is always a welcome sign that the market is moving forward, but new bidders also require special attention to ensure that their inexperience will not undermine the auction process.

With any bidder, especially the inexperienced, the auctioneer has the responsibility to clearly communicate three basic pieces of information: the current high bid, whether or not the person he is looking at is the high bidder (i.e., the bid is "yours" or "against you"), and the next "advance" in bidding (usually according to established increments).

If you have never attended or bid in an auction before, and expect one day to become this "new" bidder, there are certain basic rules and methods that will make the sale more interesting and more successful. Here are a few to start:

Position

If the room is large, or there are more than 30 bidders attending, pick a location where you will be easily seen by the auctioneer, such as the center aisle. Avoid distant or peripheral positions.

Time to Learn

Plan on arriving in time to register for the sale and to watch the action for awhile. This way, you will become familiar with the bidding increments, auctioneer's pace and style, as well as some of the expressions used to indicate how much is bid and from whom. Expressions such as "on the book" (a bid executed on behalf of an absentee bidder), "fair warning" (the lot is about to be knocked down), and "bid in front, at left, in the rear, etc. ..." (location of current high bidder) are typically used during the sale.

Use a Paddle

If paddles are used in the auction, begin by using one. Some regulars simply gesture to the auctioneer, who will know the bidders' numbers. But when you are a new or infrequent bidder, the paddle is the surest way to catch the auctioneer's attention, and your number will be easily visible.

Signaling Your Bid

Avoid the Statue of Liberty approach to bidding. Leaving your hand or paddle raised high in the air is overkill for the auctioneer, and it might just encourage others in the room to "run" your bid, for whatever reason. Once the auctioneer has acknowledged your initial bid, he or she will return to you for a signal. Then you can lift your paddle slightly or nod to indicate your bid.

Staying in the Action

Do not worry or be upset if the auctioneer seems to ignore your bids at first or during the action on one lot. An experienced auctioneer will quicken the pace of the sale by "retiring" one of two bidders, then going on to another bidder who might have been there all along. If you feel ignored while the action is taking place elsewhere in the room, just wait until the pace of bidding slows, then raise your hand or paddle again. Also listen for "fair warning" or "going" to determine if the auctioneer is almost ready to bring the gavel down.

Use Your Eyes

Eye contact is essential to communication. The auctioneer always looks at the bidder for a signal. The bidder should also look at the auctioneer. Louis Robbins, a professional auction agent for decades, always looks directly at the auctioneer when bidding. When he has stopped bidding, he looks back down at his catalogue. As both a bidder and auctioneer, he is very aware of the value of eye contact.

Watch, but Don't Speak

When bidding, try to avoid turning around to see who else is bidding, and never communicate with the other bidders as the lot is being offered. It irritates or antagonizes other people in the audience. Also, every auctioneer has the obligation to stop collusion between two bidders -- that is, one bidder inducing another not to compete -- and the surest sign of two bidders colluding is any form of communication between them while the bidding is in progress.

Knowing Who is the High Bidder

If you are uncertain of whether or not the auctioneer has recognized your bid as the highest bid -- which can happen, especially when one bidder is seated directly behind another -- simply look at the auctioneer, point to yourself, and gesture "me?" It sounds simple, but many times bidders are absolutely stonefaced until the lot is knocked down to someone else.

Plan Ahead

Try to decide exactly how much you want to limit yourself on a lot before it comes up. For example, decide at least ten lots beforehand how much you are willing to bid as your maximum (remembering the buyer's premium and possible sales taxes involved). Then, when your lot is called by the auctioneer, enter the bidding early if it opens well below your limit. If there is competitive bidding, drop out for a moment and see if others in the room go further. If the bidding slows and it is still below your limit, raise your paddle or hand again to draw back the auctioneer's attention to you. Chances are, he will look your way because you bid earlier.

Take Notes

Your own notes taken during the auction can prove to be a useful source of information, or help to settle a dispute should one arise. Next to each lot entry, write the opening bid (the first number called out by the auctioneer), the final bid, and the initials or paddle number of the successful bidder. A simple record such as "100/375/ST" tells me that the lot opened at $100, sold for $375, and the buyer was "ST." I often note who the underbidder was if possible.

As an auctioneer and bidder in other auctions, I have sat on both sides of the rostrum. Far from being a busman's holiday, bidding in other auctions can be a great thrill, especially when there is active competition and the auctioneer is skilled. The "theater" of the auction is easy to become a part of when you wage battle over a coveted lot.

One auction I particularly enjoyed had nothing to do with stamps. It was a furniture auction in downtown Manhattan, where a small Federal period work table was being offered. The majority of lots were "repro," the philatelic equivalent of regummed and reperfed, but this small table was authentic, dating back to the first decade of the nineteenth century. It was a collector's dream -- a "sleeper" -- and I was determined to buy myself a bargain.

On the day of the auction, the saleroom was filled with unfamiliar faces, yet the same roles were being played. There were the dealers at the back, the spectators, the regulars and, in some obvious cases, the nervous consignors.

With an estimate of $100-150, and my pre-determined "maximum" bid of $600, I sat confidently as the auctioneer came to the desired lot. Earlier lots had been selling at or below the published estimates, which fueled my greedy anticipation as the table was brought up on view. But this "sleeper" woke up, and the bids bounced to $200, $300, $500, past $600 - - and my paddle was not even raised yet. Finally, at $750, the bidding seemed to slow down, with a few dealers at the back left in the action, and I raised my paddle. After tiring out a bidder standing in the rear -- the certain posture of a dealer -- the lot was mine for $950, which, after commissions and tax, was almost double my intended bid. No regrets.

The last point to remember about attending public auctions is that the auctioneer's role is to encourage competition and to maintain a fair balance between the sellers' interests and the buyers' interests. The auctioneer must regulate the sale in a way that is fair to all parties and based on the established rules of the auction. If an auctioneer does not bring the gavel down quickly while your bid is current, remember that he is being paid to obtain the highest bid possible.

There will be times when a bidder is visibly making up his mind whether or not to bid, and the auctioneer has every right to await that bidder's decision. After all, it might be you who someday needs an extra moment to decide to bid. Asked if it was difficult to bid up to $1 million on a stamp, the successful bidder responded, "Well, the first $950,000 was easy...it was that last $50,000 that really hurt."

- Enjoy the theater.

Scott Trepel is President of the well-known Siegel Auction Galleries in New York.


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