At his core, Hugh Edmeades is a salesman, albeit a dynamic and entertaining one. He runs fine art and charity auctions, having wielded one of his many gavels on more $2.75 billion in final bids at more than 2,600 auctions for Christie’s. He has juggled bids on items as varied as old master and impressionist paintings, antique furniture, and more contemporary treasures that once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Thatcher and Eric Clapton.
Formerly the international director of auctioneering for Christie’s, Edmeades is now an international freelance auctioneer who spoke in London recently about why auctioneers need to be performance artists, the future of his field and how he shares the tools and tips of his trade with a new generation. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How important is it for an auctioneer to inject the fun factor?
A: Auctions can be quite dry, very numbers-oriented affairs. Private buyers are probably only there to bid on one, two or maybe three lots, so I try to keep them entertained while they’re waiting for their lot to come up, by being charismatic, by being fun, using a change of voice, a change of tempo. And a smile from time to time doesn’t cost anything. You want them to want to do business with you. If they’re scared, they’ll be less inclined to put their hand up. It’s all about making relationships.
Q: Who is buying these days?
A: Interest — and therefore prices — for fine and rare pieces have continued to increase over the past decade. The market for contemporary art has been noticeably strong compared to that of the traditional “antique” market. Buyers from Russia, the Middle East and particularly from China have been increasingly active. The most significant change I have noticed is a seismic change in the ratio of trade buyers to private buyers. When I began auctioneering in the 1980s, roughly 80% of the lots I offered were bought by antiques dealers who in turn sold them on to private buyers. Nowadays, private buyers seem to be much more willing to buy direct from the auction houses.
Q: What attracted you to the business?
A: I have been an actual auctioneer for 35 years, but have worked in auction houses for 43 years. I was initially attracted by the quality and variety of fine and decorative objects that I would be handling, be it paintings, furniture ceramics or objets d’art. Secondly, I knew I would enjoy working with like-minded people.
Q: How has technology helped, or hurt, the auctioneer?
A: Auctioneers obviously prefer to perform to bidders sitting in front of them. We’re kind of frustrated actors at heart. Auctioneering is a performance art, so you like to see the reactions you are generating face to face. I’m very conscious that even if I’ve only got 20 people in the room, I’ve got to show the same amount of energy as I would if I was performing in front of 300, 400 or 500 people.
But technology has brought the auction process to a global audience — so if it doesn’t “help” the actual auctioneer, it certainly has helped the auction houses. I have taken online bids from people while they were sitting on their yacht in the middle of the Atlantic, in their ski chalet in Vermont or from somewhere in the mountains in Italy. Technology has made a difference, with some auctions having 60% of their sales to the telephone or internet bidders.
Q: How do you become an auctioneer these days? Is it a viable career path?
A: The majority of auction houses develop their auctioneers in house. At Christie’s, we would run a “school” every two years, starting with as many as 40 in-house candidates, which over the course of a week would be whittled down to about 10. Then this would be reduced to as few as half a dozen. One-on-one sessions would then ensue until we were satisfied that the ones with the most potential and the ability to “sell” would be allowed to conduct part of an auction.
Q: Is that type of training still happening?
A: Yes, although, sadly, it is a shrinking job market. With fewer live auctions and more going online, there’s less need for new auctioneers and fewer chances to gain experience. I was lucky when I first started: I would sell a lot of furniture every week, help out with a picture sale, a jewelry sale. Now with fewer sales, auctioneers are lucky to handle 100 lots in a month. Gone are the days when the auctioneer would take the entire 300-lot sale. Now, it’s limited to 100 lots, no more than two hours at any one time.
Q: Walk us through a typical early training course.
A: The Christie’s training could last several months, but now, as a freelancer, I offer an introductory three-day course, with the first spent talking about the basic requirements of being an auctioneer, the second studying the numbers and learning about the patterns that enable an auctioneer to arrive at the reserve price, the minimum an owner will accept for the item. The third, I get them to “sell” some lots that they haven’t seen before to see if they can think on their feet.
Q: Who makes a good auctioneer?
A: Some traits divide a run-of-the-mill auctioneer and a good one: energy, charisma, engaging, confidence, persuasive, entertaining, quick thinking, patient, commanding, enthusiastic, charm, awareness, humanity, passion, fun. One doesn’t necessarily need to be a specialist in the subject, though a degree of one sort or another, ideally art history, is now a prerequisite to get a job in the major auction houses.
The auctioneer will walk around the sale with a specialist ahead of time who will say, this is rare, or that an item might have an interesting provenance. I’ll have a few bullet points I will use to encourage the bidders that it’s not just any old chest of drawers, it’s a particularly fine chest of drawers, and they don’t want to lose out by not bidding on it. Having a sense of humor helps, but the main criteria is being able to sell. Anyone can stand up there and spout the numbers, but that is not much use if he or she can’t garner additional bids.
Q: What were your most memorable sales?
A: I have been fortunate enough to have auctioned collections belonging to Princess Margaret, Elizabeth Taylor, Margot Fonteyn and Margaret Thatcher. For Taylor, it was a four-day auction in New York of her jewelry, clothing, her film memorabilia. I did the memorabilia section: Things like a script from “National Velvet,” those director’s chairs with the names on the back. The Thatcher sale was fun. I sold a pottery eagle that had been given to her by President Reagan. I have auctioned “that bikini” from “Dr. No,” Audrey Hepburn’s “little black dress” from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Charlie Parker’s saxophone.
Q: How do charity auctions differ from more sedate fine art sales?
A: I am always perfectly aware that at charity events, only a small percentage of the attendees will actually participate in the auction part of the evening, with the majority of them wanting to continue talking, eating, drinking, dancing, networking and generally enjoying themselves and hoping that I will get the auction over with as soon as possible. I never let this faze me. I’ve got to hit the floor running. I’m trying to get as much money as possible, but 90% of the room sees me as a rather annoying interlude.
Putting their gavels to work
Kate Flitcroft, Tom Best and Gemma Sudlow were among the graduates in 2012 from Christie’s in-house Auctioneering School taught by Hugh Edmeades in London. Where has that training taken them?
Flitcroft, 37, is a Kansas native who spent 10 years with Christie’s and since 2017 has worked in London as a silver and jewelry specialist for the Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull.
“When I’m auctioneering, I feel in a state of flow. I lose myself in the room, in the bidders and in stoking the competition,” Flitcroft said. She has also seen changes in that room, she said. “Now, there are more women on the rostrum.”
She began wielding the gavel in 2010 and two years later was invited to attend the training. “It was a five-month process — I’ve never worked so hard for anything before.”
Edmeades, she said, “taught me that you can be a good auctioneer by acting like one, but you’ll never be a great auctioneer unless you are one. His approach encouraged me to develop my own style and be myself while selling.”
Best, 32, who was born in Dorset, England, spent seven years at Christie’s. He now runs his own London auction house, the Auction Collective, as a way to fill a gap in the market for “studio-fresh” contemporary art.
“With my love of art history, I knew I wanted to work in the art world so started doing work experience in every part of the industry. When I saw the auction rooms, I was completely hooked,” Best said, adding, “I loved seeing the auctioneers carefully negotiate the sale of each object to a room full of passionate collectors and the following rush of happiness from a buyer when they ‘won’ the work.”
In the training, he said, “Hugh taught everything from bidding increments, voice coaching and auction etiquette to tips on maximizing each sale for the consignor. But the lesson I learned most from Hugh is that empathy and respect for the bidders is everything. An auction room has to be a comfortable environment for buyers where everyone is treated equally by a trustworthy auctioneer. You only earn that trust by being fair, considerate and welcoming to every bidder.”
Sudlow, 38, has remained at Christie’s, now serving as vice president and head of the department of private and iconic collections in New York.
After living in Japan for a year, she was inspired “to pursue a career within the arts that would combine travel, commerce and art — the auction world seemed the best place to combine these passions.”
“Learning the ropes on the numbers is just one small part of the overall performance and agility that’s required to be an auctioneer,” Sudlow, a Briton, said of her training. “Hugh’s comprehensive training ensures you’re prepared for every eventuality, both good and unexpected. Most importantly, he taught me the value of being myself and putting clients first in every interaction from the podium.”