On the fall of the hammer! By Trevor Plumbly


I hate to use ‘the old days’ cliché, but back then there was a drama about auctions that sadly looks like getting throttled by the Internet. I ran an auction house for many years and whether the offering was estate clearance or fine art, the faithful turned up, nursing visions of a starring role and the dream of a bargain, but most blissfully unaware of the predictability of the process. For the auctioneer, most of the punters were readable, from the dealer’s air of bored indifference to the novice’s fidgety excitement. The mix was meat and drink to the old-style ringmaster: a brief nod to accept a bid from the professional and an encouraging ‘your bid madam’ to fuel the innocent’s enthusiasm. It was entirely his show, and the good ones loved playing conductor, wielding the gavel like a baton whilst cajoling, pleading and even mocking to squeeze out one more bid.

Doing their bidding?

Auctioneers need a routine and there are only three methods. The ‘American’ involves firing the patter out at machine gun pace, largely unintelligible until the final shout of, SOLD! The ‘Builder’ is more sophisticated, using the ‘Bolero’ technique: a quiet beginning to lull the senses, with a gradual build-up to the finale, a cry of ‘Going, Going, Gone!’ followed by a crash of the gavel. The high priests are in the fine art field, perched above the congregation, poker faced, with voices to match, the only show of emotion you can expect is a quizzically raised eyebrow, suggesting that, ‘Surely you’re not going to stop bidding now?’ At any level it’s a game for double agents, the vendor needs to feel he got a good price whilst sending buyers away convinced that they called the tune.

A lot to go through

Bidding styles are a study all their own. Dealers are the closest thing to an auctioneer’s friend in the room, always readable and far too focussed to risk the auctioneer missing their bid. Newbies aren’t much of a problem either; they just love being part of the action and keen as mustard to be ‘seen’ to bid. The ‘sneaker’ causes most problems: he (sorry guys, it’s always a he), believes that he’ll get the lot cheaper if he hides his interest, then complains you missed him winking from the back of the room. Payback for that is achieved by pointing the gavel and saying, ‘Is that a bid?’, or ‘Your bid sir!’ and of course, a little more hesitation before bringing down the hammer. After some time and a few hiccups, I did get used to the facial tics and catalogue flicking of the pros, but I always found secretive bidding a bit of a risky business.

A fine art

One classic example of the frailty of ‘coded’ bidding occurred at a major London auction house some years ago. The bidder’s instructions to the auctioneer were reasonably clear, ‘If I am seated I am bidding and once I stand I have ceased to bid.’ It worked well for the most part and when the lot reached the buyer’s limit, he stood; after a few moments, thinking himself out of the bidding, he sat down again, but the auctioneer, true to his instruction, continued to bid on his behalf till he eventually bought the work at far beyond what he was prepared to pay. Lawyers were consulted and, as far as I remember, they were the only ones to emerge with any profit. They couldn’t possibly blame the buyer; he’s an income source, so that only left the guy on the rostrum.

The eye of the beholder

The patter is pretty much obligatory at general sales, but I’m always wary when an art or antique auctioneer waxes lyrical like a fairground barker, adding superlatives or veiled qualities to practically every other lot. Information like that, if true, belongs in the catalogue, where it can be challenged; spouted from the rostrum it’s just a pretty patent con-job. The thing is that the professionals don’t believe a word of it, but to the newcomers he’s an all-knowing figure and the mention of a ‘restorable piece’ hints that the lucky bidder is likely to buy a hidden treasure, rather than scrap timber. The trick is to plant the seed. So ‘in the style of’, or ‘possibly by’ should be taken with a grain of salt, or better yet, ignored.

The baited hook

Another vexed point is the ‘reserve’ price. Obviously, as a form of insurance it makes sense, but if, ‘passed in, subject to reserve’ crops up too many times it can suck the energy out of the room, which is the last thing the ringmaster wants.

I’m telling you folks, them was the good old days; it was all there: acquisitiveness, greed, deceit, enmity and humour. Hell, the odd one actually was a serious collector! A roomful of misfits lorded over by a highly trained control freak: pure theatre! Try getting that on line.

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