How Do You Become an Art Auctioneer?
Mar 4, 2022
When we imagine an auctioneer, we think of a rapid-fire talker throwing out numbers in a fast paced atmosphere.
And for many auctions, that’s fairly accurate. Many auctions do run at a fast pace, encouraging bidders to get in while the getting is good. The auctioneers will also follow a “chant” — a sonorous rhythm that their fast talking sticks to.
But those kinds of auctioneers don’t quite capture what an art auctioneer does, because art auctions are a world of their own.
We know them mostly for the shocking numbers that appear in headlines every six months or so as a big name auction house breaks a record. But if you have ever attended one, either online or in person, you know that these are much less high energy than an auction just about anywhere else.
Because an art auctioneer is so close to the action and involved so closely with wonderful works of art, many people might be curious about how to become one themselves.
If you are wondering about it yourself, you’ve come to the right place. Below is a short guide on how to become an art auctioneer.
What Skills Does an Art Auctioneer Need?
Before you try to snag a job as an auctioneer, you need the skills in place to succeed. The main skills include:
- Art expertise
As an auctioneer, you are expected to have an intimate understanding of the value of work being sold on the block and the context that makes it worth the money you are trying to sell it for (auctioneers usually get a percentage of the sale price, so the higher they can get the bids, the more they are paid).
That usually means art auctioneers are experts, typically with an art history degree of some kind and a specialized area of expertise where their knowledge is much more comprehensive.
No matter how educated you are, you’ll still need to do prep work before you step up to the podium, refreshing yourself on all the details. That knowledge can be for flavor, like providing just the right information to get bidders ready to drive up the price, but it can also be highly practical. Imagine the embarrassment of an auctioneer who mispronounces an artist’s name!
As a salesperson fundamentally, the auctioneer also needs to understand a lot about the room they will be running. Are there any known bidders who will attend? What things do they particularly like? Are there any bids on items already? What is the estimated sale price? What is the minimum price for each item? This helps the auctioneer in the heat of the moment finagle the best price for the work.
And a lot of that salesmanship comes down to performance. When you are at a podium in front of a group of people, you have to perform. From colorful attire to your auctioneer chant to your gestures to the way you emphasize certain words, it all can make a difference.
Part of the performance? Endurance. Auctions can carry on for hours.
What Does an Art Auctioneer Do?
The skills outlined above are put to use in every duty that an art auctioneer has to carry out.
Long before anyone picks up a paddle, the art auctioneer is already hard at work with tasks like:
- Appraising the work that will go for auction
- Maintaining the auction catalogue
- Gauging interest of potential attendees, marketing the auction, and connecting with people
These tasks put everything in place for the big day. Knowing what will be for sale, the value of the works, the minimum prices that the seller might have set, and the estimated sale price give an auctioneer a good idea of their goals and the kind of buyers who would be interested in attending.
The auction catalogue is where a lot of this information is presented to attendees. This coincides with displays of the artwork that attendees can visit before the day of the auction — a universal practice for the big houses where things sell for millions of dollars.
And with an auctioneer's understanding of the art world and the big art buyers likely to attend, they can market the auction to potential buyers. Because an auctioneer gets a cut of the sale price (somewhere between 10% and 15%), it is in their best interest to get the biggest bidders they can into the room on the day.
On the day, art auctioneers will:
- Be the host and emcee of the auction
- Introduce and describe the lots (items up for auction)
- Track and announce bids for the room
- Decide when to call a winning bid with the strike of their gavel
These duties are the first thing you think of an auctioneer doing, and these are the meat and potatoes of their work. Ultimately, no matter how well you research or how much you network with potential buyers, it all comes down to how you handle the auction.
How do You Get a Job as an Art Auctioneer?
Starting out, many aspiring art auctioneers begin doing internships and entry-level jobs in the art industry. At the beginning, any experience is usually a good experience, but some jobs are better than others.
If you can gain an internship at an auction house, you will have high quality experience to prepare you for the world of art auctions. If that’s just not possible, make sure to attend them frequently. You don’t have to bid to watch. And with all that time spent at auctions, you can get a sense for how an auctioneer performs in the room, then you can go back to your apartment and practice in front of the mirror!
Jobs, internships, and apprenticeships in galleries, art conservation, and auctions are all good options.
And once you feel comfortable in the art world, it’s time to attend auction school. A good auction school will go beyond the nuts and bolts, including guidance on the more difficult aspects — like tax, law, and ethics.
If you plan to work in a state that requires auctioneers to be licenced, auction schools can help you with this process, too.
If you feel highly qualified, you can also shoot for one of the big houses. Christie’s, for instance, holds an auctioneer school every two years, accepting only 40 applicants. Of those 40, two or three will progress to private instruction and careers as art auctioneers at one of the most prestigious art institutions in the world.
An art auctioneer is a vital part of any art scene, with the responsibility of realizing the best price for artwork. Their work is difficult and valuable, and if you think you are up to the task — it’s a great career. Want to read more, check out how to buy art at an auction.
Courtney Christensen, Christopher Barnekow, Kathleen Guzman, Alasdair Nichol
Elysian McNiff Koglmeier