An auctioneer is a professional who values and sells goods and services at auction, that is, an open bid environment.
An auctioneer is a reputable, professional position that has existed in one form or another for hundreds of years. Auctions, that is, a collection of people who can openly bid on something, have been held as the best way of selling a whole number of things, but in particular property and fine art or antique pieces. This is because it fosters an open feel to negotiations and, on the part of those who are selling, means you might get a bit more money than you were bargaining for as people vie for the lot.
Although most people’s view of auctioneers focuses on them standing at their lectern at the front, banging the hammer and declaring the classic “Going, going, gone”, there is a lot more to the job. There is a lot of behind the scenes work, such as valuing and allotting prices for pieces as well as arranging reserves and filling out paperwork so that the auction house gains their commission.
The work environment for an auctioneer tends to be predominantly indoors at the auction house, as people tend to come to them with their pieces for sale and they examine them there. The auction room is the other main place of work and that too tends to be indoors, although at some property auctions the proceedings might be held outside, weather permitting. There is, however, some scope for travelling out of the office, visiting clients to value their goods, for example.
There are a few differing routes into auctioneering. A good start is to gain work experience at an Auction House, doing any sort of work just to get your foot in the door, as it were. A lot of people tend to specialise too, becoming trained valuers before or as part of their training, which of course helps build up a knowledge of the type of products they will have to auction.
Auction houses tend to do business over all seven days, though most heavily during the working week, so that people working in the local area can attend in the hope of bagging themselves some bargain antiques or property. Scheduled auctions normally take place during normal working hours, and an auctioneer will fill the rest of his or her time valuing and marking the lots and dealing with the paperwork relating to the auction house itself gaining its commission.
Finally, although seen by many as a patrician type of industry women are more than encouraged to become auctioneers, and many can be found doing just this type of work everywhere from the smaller outlets to the big names such as Sotheby’s.
When in training, for example as an apprentice, salaries will usually start around the £16,000 per annum mark, though with experience and specialism this rises to £22-£30,000.
There is no upper limit on an auctioneer’s salary, and big names carrying out big sales can earn very good money. There is also the opportunity for auctioneers to take a commission from whatever they sell, which also swells their pay.
Of course, a lot of this is dependent on location and experience, as with any job.
Below is a list, not necessarily exhaustive, of the type of things you would expect to do as an auctioneer –
- Meeting with those who wish to sell items to set reserves etc
- Valuing and marking up the lots, to ensure a fair price is agreed and to make sure that the auction house is selling things that are worth their time.
- Organising clerks, microphones and setting up anything else that is needed in the auction room for the sale to go smoothly.
- Managing and carrying out the auction, explaining the lots and then taking bids, awarding the winner once one makes him or herself known.
- Calculating the commission on pieces sold and filling out paperwork to this end
- Helping prepare the brochures and/or catalogues and assisting with marketing and publicity for auctions
- In a general sense it pays to keep up to speed with your area of specialism, be it antique china or cottages. This might include checking new legislation. Put simply, it is vital to stay well informed.
As mentioned above, there are a few different ways in to auctioneering, one of which involves an academic route. Specialist qualifications can be gained at a university or on part-time or distance learning courses offered by both the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors or the National Association of Valuers and Auctioneers, which can qualify you to do auctioneering work.
These are some of the aptitudes you will need to display or develop in order to be successful as an auctioneer –
- Strong, confident speaking voice
- Self-confidence and certitude
- A passion for sales
- Commercial awareness
- A deep interest in the area in which you are selling, e.g. antiques
- Excellent communication skills
- Attention to detail
An auctioneer can expect to spend the vast majority of his working life within the auction house, either in offices appraising pieces or doing other clerical work, or in the auction room arranging and carrying out the auction itself. On other occasions it might be necessary to go out and visit other businesses or people’s homes to appraise what they want to sell.
As they are indoors, the working environment for an auctioneer is very safe, with no real dangers apparent. However, breaking a particularly valuable family heirloom which someone is wanting to sell might lead them into peril!
As touched on before, the very best experience for someone wanting to become an auctioneer is to offer yourself to an auction house on a work experience basis, doing porter or clerical work to get a taste of working life there. Furthermore, you should attend auctions yourself and get a feel of how they work, the traditions and unwritten rules.
Anything related to the work would also be advantageous, from any sales experience to specific experience, in property or paintings for example.
The major employers of auctioneers are, unsurprisingly, auction houses! In addition to the academic route discussed above, auction houses run apprenticeships, whereby you work in-house for them whilst learning the ropes, and taking your exams as and when they arise to become qualified. This tends to foster a lot of loyalty in auctioneers, as you will see from the case study below.
It is possible to be a freelance auctioneer, if you have built up an especially deep knowledge of one area or have gained fame of some sort within your work, but this is quite rare.
The main line of progression for auctioneers is to work their way up to management level at an auction house, overseeing the entire auction process itself. This is all based on aptitude and experience though, and as mentioned above some auctioneers can choose to go freelance or even set up their own business. Others still opt to go back to simple valuing work as they appreciate a more hands-on interaction with their specialism.
Also known as…
Auctioneers are not known by any other name
- Antiques Valuer
What’s it really like?
Jeremy Thornton, aged 42, is Managing Director of Biddle and Webb in Birmingham. He tells us what being an auctioneer is all about.
How long have you been doing the job and how did you get in to the industry?
I joined Biddle & Webb in 1990 as a temporary porter/saleroom assistant. I liked the work and the company, and the founder, Mr. Biddle, saw some talent in me and I decided to stay. I started to do some auctioneering in 1991/92 and became a director of Biddle & Webb in 1994 and MD in 1997 when Mr. Biddle sadly died.
Did you do anything else before you took this job?
I was at university from 1986 to 1989, and then did a job to earn money to allow me to travel, coming back to the UK in the summer of 1990 to find a job.
Could you please describe a typical day’s work at Biddle & Webb for you?
A typical day is spent partly visiting clients, often in their houses, to advise on/value their antiques, pictures and other items for sale through auction. The other part of my day is spent keeping my eye on, and at times organising, the day-to-day work of the auction house although I have a good general manager who does most of this work.
What do you enjoy about the job?
The most enjoyable part is definitely the auctioneering. I still enjoy the atmosphere of a sales room, the business mixed with a little drama/theatre. A successful sale gives you a buzz.
Is there anything at all that you dislike about auctioneering?
I’m lucky in that there is very little I don’t like. Auctioneers do occasionally come across some sad stories when we are helping solicitors clear properties for deceased estates and the odd one is unpleasant but it has to be done and we hope to make the process as easy as possible for the relatives.
I understand privacy is a part of what you do, but can I possibly ask what was the most expensive thing you’ve ever auctioned?
Our house record, and I had the pleasure of being the auctioneer, was to sell a picture for £50,000. This was back in 1995/96. I had seen it in a house on a Saturday morning for an estate agent client who was involved in a deceased’s estate and it was nailed to the wall. You could immediately tell it was of exceptional quality and a good thing.
On a similar note, have you ever dealt with any famous people through your work?
Again all auctioneers have some fascinating items pass through their rooms with items occasionally going to museums/large institutions, and the occasional known individual. We also sell items for a wide mix of people from lords and ladies through to the person in the street. Sorry I can’t say more.
Is there any advice you would give to someone wanting to become an auctioneer?
Try and get some experience of the wider antique/picture/silver business. It is quite competitive getting jobs in auction houses even for roles of saleroom assistants/sale viewers. When we do advertise a position we often get 50 plus replies for each job. I have in the last 15 years or so helped start the careers of half a dozen people in the auction world by taking them on as a part time worker/summer job/ etc. including one or two who have worked in other jobs/professions and come to worked for no pay at B&W on their days off. You need to get some experience on your CV. Also it really helps to handle objects and start to appreciate quality, assess when an item was made, how it was made and in time its value.
How do you see your career progressing? Is there anything else you would like to do?
I do not see myself leaving Biddle & Webb, although I never say never.
Finally, is there any insider information you can give about auctioneering and getting in?
The industry as a whole is not the highest payer. Porters and cataloguers are not high earners. The work is also governed by deadlines i.e. the auctions, catalogue deadlines etc. Everyone in an auction house has to be able to work to deadlines and be happy with the time pressure this brings. That said, staff turnover in auction houses is low with many houses having porters/cataloguers who have been in the same job for 20 or even 30 years. The job is varied: you are always meeting new people, the items you handle are always changing and you get to handle some beautiful objects. It really is a great job.