How to Become a Fine Arts Auctioneer

Auctioneers give patrons the environment to bid against one another in the spirit of friendly and ethical competition. The auctioneer is the best-known person in the auction process – he or she facilitates a method of selling that has a 2000-year history. Today’s auction industry is flourishing as an alternative to the retail store environment – and the National Auctioneers Association (NAA) records that there is more than a quarter-trillion dollars worth of goods and assets sold every year via auction. That’s 250,000,000,000 or 250 billion dollars annually!

More than just chanting at a rapid pace, auctioneering requires keen business sense and management, confidence, considerable people skills, and a deep knowledge of the pricing of items that are on the auction block. A network of personal and professional contacts is always an asset. A career as an auctioneer, especially one with a specialty niche like auctioneering for Fine Arts, is a career that requires knowledge from several disparate fields – Fine Arts, business, appraisal, management, marketing and communication, and culminates in a ‘specialty role’ for the auction house.

Take a look at this infographic for a breakdown of the role of auctioneer.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Lucas Hunt

Auctioneer

Quick Look Bio

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Understanding My Career Path

  • I began my auctioneering career as a boy in Iowa, where I assisted our small-town mayor auctioneer at public events. He was a graduate of the renowned World Wide College of Auctioneering in Mason City, Iowa, and taught me valuable techniques. Particularly, his training on how to manage a crowd with my voice has helped my career immensely.
  • It was not until years later after graduate school that I had my first opportunity to act as principal auctioneer for an event. I was asked to fill in for an auctioneer who had grown ill the night of a charity auction. A friend asked if I could do it, and I thought, “Yes! Actually, I can!” That was my first live auction, and I broke a years-long record for earnings at that particular event.
  • From that point, I kept getting referrals and breaking more records. People were so happy with my performance, and I found that I loved auctioning art for very good charity causes in my community and the surrounding area.
  • Next year, I am auctioneering in New York City and New Mexico, among other places.

Recommended Organizations

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
I don’t have a formal education in auctioneering, but I do have natural aptitude and a great mentor. I was glad to have him to lead and guide me. We all need teachers in life and in our profession. It’s important to know who these people are and how they are successful.

On finding your own professional style
One of the most important skills of the trade is being able to gauge a crowd and sincerely connect with both the buyers and the non-active bidders, and make everyone feel welcome. Auctioneers have to have their own style, no matter how subtle it may be. To develop this, get involved with other public events that might inspire your style like agricultural sales, fashion shows, community gatherings, or anything where an announcer is addressing the public.

On relevant fields of interest
Study art – including music, dance, opera and poetry. Doing so helps you make connections to art history across cultures. It also helps analyze the larger picture of what’s trending and why, as well as what else a buyer may or may not be interested in.

Practice makes perfect
The best way to become a reputable, lucrative Fine Arts Auctioneer is to spend time around live auctions. Practicing bid calling techniques is valuable too. You need to get a feel for the type of audience you enjoy as well as how to engage them and have a working knowledge of your wares and how much they’re worth. It is especially important to practice speaking in front of a crowd, so that your confidence is well established.

Auctioneering as fun
Learn how to have fun auctioneering and play with it like a game. While the exchange of high dollar bids is a serious business, the overall interaction is culturally based, and invites happiness to the participants. After all, you are helping people get something that they want, and that is a good thing.

Neil Vaughn

Hudson Valley Auctioneers LLC

Quick Look Bio

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  • Neil Vaughn
  • Beacon, NY
  • 32
  • Self-employed

Understanding My Career Path

  • I began working in the antique trade in 1978. At the time, I worked for an established auction and retail company. I left after six months’ employment and began a somewhat informal but serious education in as many aspects of the antique trade as I could by participating in numerous antique shows and flea markets.
  • Over the next few years I worked as a ‘runner’ for auction companies while I opened and operated a succession of antique shops and antique centers.
  • In 1983, I was encouraged to participate in an antique auction held at a rented hall as a partner in the venture. I immediately realized I had found my niche and have been in the auction business ever since.
  • After 38 years of selling antiques and personal property, I often ask myself if I am ready to give it up. I fantasize about not having to do all the difficult chores associated with the auction business. Then I realize how lucky I am to be on a real-life treasure hunt almost every day, make an excellent living, and help people during difficult periods in their lives.

Recommended Organizations

  • New York State Auctioneers Association (NYSAA) – your state’s auctioneers associations use professional practices to promote auctions as a viable method of selling goods.
  • The National Auctioneers Association – this organization helps the public understand that auctioneers are entrepreneurs who develop marketing campaigns to the public on behalf of their clients. Members of the NAA are often also experts in their field of sales and a valuable resource to bidders.
  • The Appraiser’s Association of America – helps its members promote the profession of appraising by encouraging professional development. The Association also has a public awareness campaign that advertises its rigorous professional practice by through high ethical standards of its fine arts appraisers.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
I have often thought that a fine arts degree and perhaps an internship with a big city gallery would have vaulted my career to a different degree of success. It certainly would have been a more established path. From that point, a certified auction school course with appraisal courses leading to accreditation is also something I would recommend. My continuing education is home study, museum trips, auction catalogs and the continuation of attending quality antique shows to follow market trends and emerging markets. I also bought and sold a great many items, usually tens of thousands of objects annually. I believe there is a particular urgency and motivation involved when your own wallet is at stake.

On passion for the auction transaction
The auction business is a unique sales technique and not everyone takes to it. Among other things, it takes the ability to recognize the actual or potential value in an object but to be willing to sell it to the highest bidder with enough detachment to ensure that your consignor, maybe yourself, is satisfied. You also must accept that the object, once sold, will likely be resold for a profit.

On business ethics
It is important to realize that depending on the state or city in which the auction house is located, it is subject to either strict regulations or no regulations, as is the case of New York State. Especially in this case, refining your personal business ethics is extremely important in order to establish a reputable auction business. Smaller auction companies like mine often encounter ethically challenging situations with both buyers and sellers.

On growing your business
Set up your business as legally as possible, strive to keep accurate and comprehensive records, get good insurance, get a good accountant and attorney, keep your overhead low and grow only as fast as your income, body and mind can handle. Strive to find good staffers, and above all, pay your consignors on time and in full; even if it means borrowing to do it. These are the main reasons that I have seen auction companies fail over the years.

Ruthie Winston

Winston & Associates

Quick Look Bio

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  • Ruthie Winston
  • New Orleans, LA
  • 26
  • Self-employed

Understanding My Career Path

  • My parents – especially my father – enjoyed collecting antiques and fine art. We would occasionally go to the local auction houses to look at art and personal property. I credit them both with giving me an abiding love of my profession.
  • After I graduated from college, William Doyle Galleries, 175 East 87th Street, New York, New York, hired me. I worked initially as one of the front receptionists; part of my duties involved registration for the auctions, which was great to get to know clients. I was also involved in managing the pick-ups that gave me the opportunity to observe what the clients were buying. Additionally, the receptionists were enlisted to work the bid desk during the auction and when needed, to rotate to various departments to provide extra help. Within four months, I was working in the PR department. I also worked the auction exhibition every weekend for extra cash, which gave me the opportunity to get to see the art and antiques and to meet the customers.
  • My contacts at the auction house led me to Daniel B. Grossman, American and Continental, 19th & 20th century, Fine Art, 1001 Madison Avenue. This job allowed me to see the other side of auction: How the paintings purchased at auction were marketed and sold in a retail context. Part of my duties included attending fine art auctions to record the sale prices. I also served as a courier, bringing paintings to and from clients or other dealers.
  • I applied for a job back in New Orleans at Neal Alford Auction Company in June 1987, and at that time, I joined the American Society of Appraisers. I worked at Neal’s for almost 20 years as a consignment agent, appraiser and auctioneer. As a regional auction house, Neal’s conducted estate auctions – not specialty sales, which meant I was able to gain vast experience with all types of property. I gravitated to Fine Art and to regional property; ultimately I was the Director of Southern Regional Property and Estates. Having served for a few years as the primary bid spotter for the auctioneer, I was encouraged to become an auctioneer.
  • In 1990, I attended Mendenhall School of Auctioneering and NYU’s Appraisal Studies Course.
  • Post-Hurricane Katrina in 2006, I joined the staff at New Orleans Auction Galleries as the Director of Business Development and auctioneer. This was a part-time job as I maintained my independent appraisal business.
  • In 2009, my appraisal business became my primary business. I am a Certified Appraiser of Personal Property (CAPP) with designations in Fine Art and Antiques & Residential Contents.
  • I currently call auctions for Crescent City Auction Gallery here in New Orleans.

Recommended Organizations

  • The International Society of Appraisers – as the foremost personal property appraisal association in North America. Belonging to the ISA tells the public that you’re highly trained and ethical in your field.
  • The American Appraisers Association – provides members with the professional knowledge and skills to promote their profession of appraising. The Association engages in publicity campaigns to educate members of the public about the importance of choosing a professionally trained appraiser.
  • The National Auctioneers Association – helps their members engage in professional development in order to improve their practice while learning new techniques. Auctioneers belonging to the NAA adhere to strict professional and ethical business standards.

Advice

On pursuing a formal education
If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a Fine Arts Auctioneer, I recommend to get a degree in Fine Arts and Psychology, work for an auction house, then a private gallery and finally, personally buy and sell in art. Most importantly, find a niche: Become a specialist in one particular thing.

On continuous learning
Having earned a BA in History, my formal education included a bit of art history, and this has served me well. One of the reasons that I enjoy the business of fine art and antiques so much is that every day I have the opportunity to learn something new. Attending art openings, going to museums and looking at art in clients’ homes is also a great education. With regard to auctioneering, I chose not to apprentice, as I wanted to earn the license quickly and benefit from the education offered at the auction school. That said, auctioneering is a skill that you hone over a period of time. More than calling numbers, it helps dramatically if you understand and appreciate what you are selling.

On fast-tracking into the role
Attend auctions and ask questions. Offer to work exhibitions at a regional auction house so that you get to know them and they get to know you, or work for a Fine Arts Gallery. This allows you to meet a client base and learn about the art and the business of art. Occasionally, a dealer will want to send someone to bid for them at auction so that he/she remains anonymous, and this aspect of working for a dealer allows you to introduce yourself professionally to the auction house. Your knowledge of art and your client relationships would subsequently be of interest to the auction house.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Fine Arts Auctioneer?


Auctioneering with an interest for fine arts is a career that greatly benefits from a background or degree in Art History, although in this line of work, it is not a prerequisite. Post-secondary institutions at the university, college, and general interest levels all offer courses and degrees on an array of applicable subject matter. Degree or not, students are encouraged to develop a passion for the objects that they may see on the auction block.

For auctioneering, there are several accredited courses offered throughout the country that offer a range of seminars and courses to train new auctioneers and to help experienced ones hone their skills. A formal education is a bonus, but mentorship with an experienced auctioneer is a valuable asset, and in some states, a formal mentorship arrangement is required. As with many other fields, volunteering is a valid way to gain valuable career experience. Auctioneers can enter their chosen career on a part-time basis; greater experience leads to more lucrative opportunities.

A study conducted by the National Auctioneers’ Association (NAA) reveals that 35% of professional auctioneers have a college degree and some, but not all, have formal auctioneer training from a specialty career college like those listed below.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A FINE ARTS AUCTIONEER?

Although no formal degree options are available in the US, you can still obtain certification from a local technical college. We’ve listed some popular options below for auctioneer accreditation:

  • World Wide College of Auctioneering
    The World Wide College of Auctioneering, located in Mason City, Iowa was founded by one of the country’s most successful auctioneers, Col. Joe Reisch. Offering 10-day courses in auctioneering in both English and Spanish, this college has produced over 40,000 auctioneers. Course offerings are scheduled once every few months, and periodically in other locations to meet demand.
  • Continental Auctioneers School
    Located in Mankato, Minnesota, the Continental Auctioneers School offers one-week comprehensive courses for would-be auctioneers. The course curriculum covers such topics as bid calling, auctioneer commission rates, recordkeeping and appraisals. Continental Auctioneers School has a large practical component as well; students participate as auctioneers during their training week at local facilities.
  • Mendenhall School of Auctioneering
    Founded in 1962, the Mendenhall School of Auctioneering has been offering auctioneer training to students in North Carolina and throughout the US. Over the nine-day course, students learn and perfect the art of bid calling during real auction scenarios. Coached by seasoned auctioneers, the program offers training in bookkeeping, marketing, legal aspects and current technology trends – all with a focus on building your auctioneer reputation and business.
  • International Auction School
    Located in Greenfield, Massachusetts, the International Auction School is part of the famed Douglas Auctioneers holdings. With nationally acclaimed auctioneers as instructors, the emphasis is on helping each student determine their own personal style of auctioneering. In addition to bid calling, the curriculum includes sales skills and psychology, value and appraisal skills, as well as technological advances in the field. Students participate in all aspects of the auction process while on course.
  • Western College of Auctioneering
    Located in Billings, Montana, the Western College of Auctioneering offers applicants key training for all manners of auctioneering, including commercial and heavy equipment, auto and livestock, charity, real estate, and gallery auctions. The course philosophy centers on a personal connection between auctioneer and student in order to train students according to their personality. The school has been educating future auctioneers since 1948.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Would-be auctioneers can take a number of paths in order to get started in the industry. Regardless of whether you pursue a formal education, the best way at to get your foot in the door is to spend time around live auctions – either as a volunteer or in a paid capacity – in order to get a feel for how they function.

Become involved with other events that build your public speaking skills. Learn as much as you can about your areas of interest. While the exchange of high dollar bids is a serious business, the overall interaction is based on the interaction of people and that can invite happiness. After all, you are helping people get something beautiful, useful, or interesting that they want, and that is a powerful feeling.