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"You're Playing Conductor": What It’s Like to Be a Christie’s Auctioneer

Leading the high-energy, high-stakes saleroom requires a special set of skills.

"You're Playing Conductor": What It’s Like to Be a Christie’s Auctioneer
Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2022

Auctioneer Rahul Kadakia starts the bidding for Christie’s Lot 62—an agate, diamond, and sapphire zebra brooch designed by esteemed jeweler Joel Arther Rosenthal—at $60,000. Immediately, bids from the amassed crowd surpass that estimate, emboldened by Kadakia’s rapid cadence. “$110,000. We have $120,000. $130,000 online.” The bid quickly rises to the $300,000 range and the auctioneer has yet to break his pace. “Would you take $390,000?” asks a bidder. “Because you’re wearing red socks sir,” Kadakia interjects to muted laughter. Once the bid hits $420,000 his pace slows down, jumping feebly to $430,000, then $440,000 with a prolonged pause before he slams the gavel. “Sold!”

The auctioneer stands at the rostrum (a reconstruction of one designed by Thomas Chippendale) in the front of the room oscillating between his roles as salesman, linguist, and jester. In-person bidders at the Christie's saleroom in New York City sit in a grid of chairs in the center of the room, flanked by Christie’s specialists bidding by phone for their clients. TV screens decorate the walls. Some depict the current lot (a single unit in an auction) with quick stats while others keep pace with the value of the present bids. Those numbers barely flash on the screen before the number increases. Thanks to the auctioneer, Kadakia in this instance, each lot in this three-hour Christie’s Magnificent Jewels auction has possessed some semblance of Lot 62’s rip-roaring energy.

“Rahul has this cadence—it feels like he's galloping along, doesn't it? He's on a mission,” says Christie’s Deputy Chairman Tash Perrin, who has been an auctioneer herself for over 20 years. “And if you want to participate, jump in, because you might lose your chance.” Each auctioneer cultivates their own personal style of behavior up on the rostrum (the auctioneer podium). Since he's also clocked over two decades in this vocation, Kadakia’s speed is so ingrained it's almost subconscious at this point. So are Perrin’s signature gestures, sayings, and behaviors—so much so they are hard for her to even identify.

Such charisma and flair are hard to teach, so Christie’s focuses its training on other aspects to hopefully increase an auctioneer’s self-confidence. The first step for prospective candidates is a bi-annual “auctioneer experience.” There, employees can ascertain what the job entails from a logistical standpoint—numerical dexterity, navigating sales and the auctioneer handbook, etc. “People are either glazed over or will say, ‘I'm in, hook line and sinker, you got me, tell me when I can come back, I want to learn more.’ And that's the person that you want to get in the rostrum,” says Perrin.

Tash Perrin auctioning David Gilmore's guitar collection at Christie's. “[You’re playing] conductor, telling the room we're going to speed this up a little bit. Now, we're going to pause a second. We're going to be quiet over here,” explains Perrin. “We're going to let the flutes come in now and this is a quiet little drumroll before the crescendo and then silence and then the hammer comes down.”

Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2022

If you’re hooked, you have to then try out. For their audition, candidates perform a mock auction in front of other hopefuls, auctioneers, and staff members. Perrin, who now trains new auctioneers, says they look for a mix of technical and personal skills. An element of salesmanship has to equate confidence. “You want to have some humanity,” she says. “You want to feel like you're happy to listen to this person speak and that they're speaking to you.” If you impress your audience, then the real training begins—it’s time to learn logistics. “From the first time that I ever expressed interest in being an auctioneer in 2014, it took until 2019 for me to take my first sale,” says Rachel Koffsky, international head of the Christie's handbags department.

Now that she’s a full-blown auctioneer, Koffsky begins her prep-work for each sale roughly a week in advance—that’s when the auction catalog comes out and the lots are available. She familiarizes herself with each lot (though she spends much more time working on sales in her own department), making sure to view them in person and study their characteristics. “Is this a top lot? What are some important notes about the provenance? What do I want to say when I'm up on the rostrum? Where do I expect the bidding to start? Where do I expect the bidding to come from?” The night before, she will meet with the respective department to note bids that have already been placed.

In addition to the mental prep, Koffsky makes sure to rest her voice leading up to the big event. The night before, she drinks tea and limits her coffee intake the following morning. Vocal exercises—recommended by vocal coaches—are a must to warm up her voice before she steps up to bat.

Morning of, auctioneers receive a book with each lot and its estimate. Once a sale is made, auctioneers jot down the corresponding sale price and paddle number of the final bidder. “The book is really your bible as an auctioneer,” says Koffsky. Post auction, said book then travels to the Christie’s archives where it will remain indefinitely—there are books dating back to the 1700s. Post-auction, there comes a mixture of elation and relief. And then it’s onto the next.

Essentially, no one stumbles into this complex world of auctioneering. All auctioneers do this in addition to their primary roles at Christie’s and they sell in categories outside of their own departments. “I definitely pushed,” reiterates Perrin. “I didn't give them an opportunity to say no. I really wanted this.” And that’s what she looks for in new auctioneers. “The lion's share of the property that we sell is via an auction. And there's one individual that gets to do that,” says Perrin. “How could I work in an auction house and not be part of that process? I found it compelling and exciting and thrilling.”

Auctioneering is a historical vocation; Christie's itself just celebrated its 255th birthday. "The historical element of that is very interesting for me,” says Koffsky. Their world is unsurprisingly marked with emblems of tradition. Upon their completion of training, each new auctioneer receives a personalized gavel, Koffsky included. Older auctioneers like Perrin or Kadakia have interesting stories behind there's as well.

“Mine was a gift that was given to me on a memorable occasion, and it has my initials on it,” says Perrin. “Now, I can't imagine taking a sale without this particular gavel.” Kadakia’s, a gift from legendary Christie’s auctioneer François Curiel, sits proudly on his desk. He admittedly plays with it from time to time, wielding the long history of Christie’s auctions in his idle hands.

Rachel Koffsky at the Christie's rostrum.

Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2022

Towards the end of the Magnificent Jewels sale comes Lot 74, the Light of Africa Diamond—an emerald-cut stone made out of 103.49 carats. Kadakia starts the bidding at $6 million and the stampede begins again, but this time in an even more incendiary fashion. Millions of dollars are on the line. The bidding jumps to $13 million, then that increment slows down to the hundred thousands. “We’ll be here all day, you know,” laughs Kadakia, though he’s still flying through bids.

Kadakia knew this would be the lot to watch in this sale. He knew who the interested parties were. With all of that information, he only estimated a $12 or $13 million sale. “Then I saw the bids coming in,” he says. “And they started breaking $14 million, $14 million to $14,500,000. I knew we were still playing and I thought, there's still a lot more fun to be had.”

“15.25, 15.5, 15.75, 16.” The room vibrates as specialists mutter under their breath to invisible phone constituents and it doesn't seem like the auctioneer has so much as paused to breathe. Kadakia gestures with his arms to the two remaining bidders (one via phone, the other sitting directly in front of him) wielding the audience’s head this way and that like a puppet master. Suddenly, they hit $17 million and Kadakia’s supersonic speed stalls. The room is now silent.

"When [bidders] slow down, that’s when the auctioneer knows this is 'think time,'" Kadakia explains. “You know to let the room have its moment.” So he waits. To watch this in person is to witness an intimate transgression. Kadakia sheds his conductor facade and holds his bidder’s gaze.

As with any historical practice, the threat of the internet looms in the background. For Christie’s, online sales provide a larger reach for potential bidders, greater flexibility with time zones, and general ease of access. But “it's not the same,” Perrin counters. “Sometimes you just need that moment.” She’s referring to the instance when you lock eyes with a bidder deep in thought, on the cusp of a decision. “That human connection is so important.”

“You know when they're done,” he concludes. “They look you in your eye and say, ‘Nope, that's it. Thank you very much.’” The in-person bidder concedes. SLAM. With that bang, the tension releases from the audience's shoulders as the diamond goes to the phone bidder for $17.2 million. With the Christie’s buyer’s premium—an additional charge to the hammer price paid by the winner—that’s $20 million.

“You were sitting in the room. You were not buying. You were not bidding. But you felt involved, right?” Kadakia asks me when we connect after his auction. He’s correct. “That's the best part of an auction. If you're sitting there and you're enjoying yourself, even if you're not participating, that means the auctioneer has done [their] job.”

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