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Career Day

She’ll sell you Springsteen’s guitar or dancing with Madonna

Being a professional auctioneer takes more than talking quickly and banging a gavel.

By Alix Strauss

Lydia Fenet is the Global Head of Strategic Partnerships & Lead Benefit Auctioneer for Christie’s. Her book, “The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You,” was released in April.

What made you want to be an auctioneer?
When I was working at Christie’s in my early 20s as a clerk, I would stand onstage next to the charity auctioneers and take down the paddle numbers as people bid. From the first minute I went up onstage with our auctioneer, I knew I wanted to give it a try.

What kind of training do auctioneers have to go through? 
It’s basically an un-televised version of Survivor. [At Christie’s], it’s a three- to four-day tryout. We cut a few people every day until we have people that we feel confident sending out for a [real] auction immediately. There is no way to fake a charity auction in a room that isn’t filled with at least a couple hundred guests milling around, a few drinks into the evening.

In order to be an excellent auctioneer, you need to have been onstage at least 100 times to see everything that could go wrong. Hecklers, non-working microphones, glasses breaking, cell phones ringing — once you figure out your response to these and other distracting scenarios, you’re ready to be a charity auctioneer. 

We only speak quickly when we are trying to keep the energy high and drive up the bidding.

Did you have to learn to speak super quickly?
People always assume that auctioneers speak like the cattle auctioneers on TV when, in fact, we only speak quickly when we are trying to keep the energy high and drive up the bidding. 

What goals do you have when doing an auction for charity?
Motivate the crowd. Beat the target number that the organization has given me as their goal. Make it fun.

How do you motivate a crowd?
If I walk into a room that is very low energy, I really ramp up my energy level and engage them from the first second I get onstage. If they are already ramped up, I match their energy level and then sometimes use silence as a tool to get them to pay attention. You can control a room of 1,000 people with your voice level, your actions, and your ability to maintain some semblance of control despite anything that is happening.

What’s your favorite moment of the evening?
I love the paddle raise at the end of the auction. It’s the moment that everyone who couldn’t bid on the big ticket items can give something to the nonprofit. We start at the highest level of giving and then in some cases we take the giving request all the way down to $20.00.

What are three of the most unusual items you’ve auctioned?
A guitar played by Bruce Springsteen, a plate of his mom’s lasagna, and a ride on his motorcycle — which sold as a package for $370,000. A walk through the battlefields of Gettysburg with Ken Burns, which brought in $420,000. And a one-hour dance lesson with Madonna for $65,000. 

What makes someone bid on an item?
Either they love the item, love the charity, or they raise their hand and I effectively engage them so they feel like the star of the show and get caught up in the action. The best kind of bidder is a combination of all three.

How many gavels do you own? 
Ten or 15. I find them everywhere — in purses, drawers. My gavels don’t have handles. I only use the top part because the first time I took an auction, the handle broke and I had to crawl under the podium to get the top.

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Alix Strauss is a writer based in New York.


Illustration by Verónica Grech

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