Picking Up the Gavel

Picking Up the Gavel

Meet the four new auctioneers ready to be the next face of Sotheby’s.
Meet the four new auctioneers ready to be the next face of Sotheby’s.

A fter a brief announcement, the first lot is up. It has a reserve of $800,000 and an estimate of $1–1.5 million, as well as an advance bid that’s been placed at $900,000. You disclose that you have interest in this lot then open the bidding at $700,000, counting in $50,000 increments – $700,000 becomes $750,000 becomes $800,000 – on behalf of the advanced bidder.

Activity on the phones to your right causes you to pause. A colleague raises her arm and bids on behalf of her client: $850,000. You accept the bid then come right back at $900,000 from the advance bidder. Another colleague on the phones to your left jumps in and asks: “Will you take $925,000?”

What do you do? Quick, you have less than a second to think. You take the bid: $925,000.

You’ve now cut the bidding increments from $50,000 to $25,000. The room slows down, grows quiet. To your right, the phone bidder offers $950,000 and you take it. Back to the bidder on your left. You ask for $1 million, try to regain some control. He’s thinking, but the clock is ticking and now every second counts. You lean forward, lower your voice and offer a few warm words of encouragement, maybe crack a light joke.

It works! Hiding your relief, you hit the low estimate. Back to your right; there’s a renewed energy now. Do you have $1.1 million? Yes. Back to the left, you’re looking for $1.2 million. No, they offer $1,150,000. Should the increment be lowered again? It’s another split-second decision.

Your eyes flick toward the monitor for any bids online – nothing – and you’re about to accept when someone calls out: “Bid!” A new bidder is waving their paddle in the back. (Did you forget to keep scanning the room?) Now it’s to the bidder in the rear, at $1.2 million. Going once. Your colleague on the phones to the left shakes his head as you raise your gavel. Going twice. Your colleague to the right shakes her head too. Sold!

Only a couple minutes have passed by the time the first lot sells to the late-breaking bidder in the room for $1.2 million, plus the Buyer’s Premium. It’s a good price, comfortably between the low and high estimates, but there’s no time to celebrate – you still have 99 lots to go.

The Bidding Battle for Salman Toor’s “Four Friends”

The Bidding Battle for Salman Toor’s “Four Friends”
Presided over by Michael Macaulay, Senior International Specialist, Contemporary Art

So, do you think you have what it takes to be an auctioneer? Last January an email went out to hundreds of Sotheby’s staff members asking essentially that question. A new auctioneer training program, developed and led by an auctioneer with 25 years of experience, Brad Bentoff, saw Sotheby’s staffers strive for a coveted spot behind the rostrum. From 22 applicants across the organization, the auction house welcomed its four newest auctioneers this past fall, who now pick up their gavels just as the traditional role is being reinvented in the digital era.

According to Bentoff, the process for determining auctioneers has historically been somewhat self-selecting: individuals with the drive and ambition to seek out one of the cultural industry’s most unique and public roles tend to find their way to the spotlight. The auctioneer training and selection program at Sotheby’s New York headquarters was devised to identify and teach those who have the right mix of traits to support the company and succeed in an exceptionally stressful and difficult job. “We have many great experts at this company,” says Bentoff. “Not all are comfortable standing in front of people, in person and virtually, asking for bids.”

In February, applicants auditioned before a panel of about a dozen senior staff members, where they were tested on more than just their facility for tongue twisters and multiplication tables. The aspiring auctioneers read a passage from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven, recited numerical intervals and “sold” three works of art. The audition was a taxing process, designed to introduce applicants to challenging scenarios that, for the most part, would have been new to them, even after working for years at Sotheby’s.

Clockwise: Justin Cheung, Meaghan Steele and Kimberly Pirtle.

“To be an auctioneer you have to have a deep knowledge about art and luxury,” says Kimberly Pirtle, who joined Sotheby’s as Associate Vice President (AVP) of Customer Engagement only a few months before the invitation to apply went out. “My natural ability to connect with people may have gotten me through the audition, but you can’t fake the technical requirements of this role. Charisma was not going to carry me across the finish line.”

When Pirtle and the other members of her class passed their auditions, they began a months-long training program on top of their day-to-day jobs, which auctioneers at Sotheby’s never abandon. That meant hours of practice at the podium with the coaching of Bentoff, who organized mock auctions, throwing in plenty of curveballs and complex scenarios. Bentoff says the training is designed to teach the technical aspect so that the candidate is comfortable and able to handle any situation while creating a great client experience.

In some ways, an auctioneer is like the conductor of a global market that plays out in real time; they command the room and maintain a delicate equilibrium. But they’re also performers, who can intuit and play off bidders’ energy to up the final hammer price. “A look, a gesture, a simple phrase absolutely can get an extra bid,” comments Bentoff. “You have to bring it out of people using hand gestures and modulating your voice. It’s almost like acting.” A good auctioneer coaxes out potential bids, but never causes anyone to feel buyer’s remorse.

“A look, a gesture, a simple phrase absolutely can get an extra bid. You have to bring it out of people using hand gestures and modulating your voice. It’s almost like acting.”
Brad Bentoff

“There’s an authority that I love, and there’s also this game you play, this tension and playfulness you have with the audience and your colleagues in the room,” says Ashkan Baghestani, a Vice President and new auctioneer who joined Sotheby’s associate program in 2011 and now heads the Contemporary Curated auction series. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that most of the new auctioneers have backgrounds in performing arts. “I was a theater kid,” says Meaghan Steele, an auctioneer who joined the company nine years ago and worked five years as a business manager before becoming VP, Regional Director, US, for the Luxury Division. “That ability to connect with an audience, to react and play off of others is something that’s always been of interest to me.”

Steele was drawn to the auctioneer role for its scope to merge a theatrical sensibility with business precision. When she took the rostrum for her first live auction last fall, she noticed a familiar sensation – performance anxiety – during the first few lots. Quig Bruning, the US Head of Jewels, passed her a note that read, simply, “Breathe.” Steele’s first auction went on to achieve “white-glove” status – a prestigious accolade awarded when every single lot sells.

“It’s very important to have people in these public-facing roles who… you can identify with because of their interests and background.”
Meaghan Steele

Justin Cheung, a Regional Sales Director and Specialist, AVP, in Global Fine Arts, likens the role to that of a musician or athlete – but explains that as auctions increasingly move online and auctioneers become more public-facing representatives of the company, a new dynamic is emerging. “In the past, being an auctioneer was about accuracy and technique,” he comments. “Those are still very important, but today there’s additional emphasis on your onstage persona.”

Cheung says that although “there’s no one personality required to succeed as an auctioneer,” being one today requires understanding an audience beyond the one seated before them. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sotheby’s was the first auction house to livestream its sales, winning a Webby award in 2021 for “The Auction House of the Future”; in 2022, Sotheby’s auction streams received 26.4 million views across multiple platforms. Today, auctioneers need to be as charismatic playing to the camera as they are to the room, oscillating between bids coming in online and from the physical audience, while maintaining a sense of dialogue and friendly competition among both.

Ashkan Baghestani

Baghestani agrees. “I see auctioneering as one of the most traditional aspects of the art world,” he says. “How do you bring that into the 21st century and the digital, mass-media era?” As auctions increasingly expand online, attracting new digital audiences, Baghestani expects auctioneers to be seen increasingly as ambassadors of the brand. “The senior auctioneers are extraordinary, and we all look up to them to keep learning,” he says. “It’s a task that’s associated with a certain persona, and I think we need to give it a bit of a twist.”

Bentoff also sees the auctioneer training and selection program as an opportunity to build a more equitable Sotheby’s and to provide a space for continuing education. “We need a succession plan,” he observes. “Our global client base is very diverse, and we need to be cognizant of that.”

Between the four of them, the new auctioneers represent three continents and speak nearly a half-dozen languages. All of Sotheby’s auctions in the United States, Europe and Asia are conducted in English, but there are always translators interfacing with clients in real time. “Why is it important to have auctioneers who speak different languages?” asks Cheung, an expert in Chinese export art. An auctioneer’s ability to communicate with collectors in their primary language opens a new rapport, further welcoming people into a cultural marketplace historically fraught with imbalanced forms of dialogue and exchange.

Steele and Pirtle agree on the significance for clients – and art history at large – in having more women and people of color commanding the rostrum, adding that the impression such a program has on the company itself can’t be overstated. “Our organization has an incredible group of women and is becoming much more diverse,” affirms Steele. “It’s very important to have people in these public-facing roles who are representative of that, who you can identify with because of their interests and background.” Pirtle adds: “The impact this has internally, in terms of attracting talent and creating pathways for employees who want to progress within the organization – that’s equally as important as representing our clients.”

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