1

Introduction to Auctioneering

Fine art is a visual art created for intellectual and aesthetic purposes, which is typically judged for its meaningfulness, appeal, worth, and beauty.  Fine art consists of sculpture, photography, calligraphy, architecture, paintings and drawings or sketches, printmaking, music, poetry, film, design, dance, and theater. 

Fine art auctioneering is the sale of art by highly skilled professional auctioneers who take bids and sell a variety of items at a live event called an auction.  Commonly, a catalog that lists all items for sale will be available to attendees at the onset of an auction. 

A fine arts auction is one of the most enticing and most mysterious ways of collecting artwork for many people.  From the secretive bidding to the behind-the-scenes whispering, an auction can be fun and exciting, and a great way to collect works of art from some very talented people, including Pablo Picasso, whose Les Femmes d’Alger painting sold for $179.4 million in 2015; the highest price ever paid for a piece of art at an auction.  Even today, Pablo Picasso’s works remain the most coveted art at auction. 

Individuals who wish to enter this field and work as a fine arts auctioneer must become both a fine arts specialist and a shrewd businessperson. A passion for fine art is also required because in order to valuate pieces of art, you must first appreciate their value.  Many fine arts auctioneers specialize in the type of art they sell. Professionals may work exclusively with paintings from the 1800’s or contemporary works of art.  Others will only sell sculpture or photography.  Either way, they are typically very knowledgeable about the artwork they sell, and may even be collectors or appraisers themselves. 

Job duties vary but can include examining art pieces to assess their condition, quality, age, and origin, confer with historians and experts, provide valuations of artwork, prepare catalogs for attendees, ensure the authenticity of artwork and proof of ownership and keep details records of all pieces.

2

What You Need to Know

For centuries, society’s elite have attended fine arts auctions.  At that time, auctions were typically small, private affairs only attended by those who fully understood the market. Many attendees only showed up for the sole purpose to buy fine art inexpensively, and resell it at a higher price, which led to the art world’s ‘secondary market’.  (A secondary market is art that’s put up for sale by a collector or dealer, and not by the artist).  It wasn’t until fairly recently (the 1970’s) that auctions really started to catch on and have a larger impact on the art world.  Although the auction market tanked in the early 1990’s, since then the price of sales and the importance of auctions as a way to buy artwork not readily available elsewhere has steadily increased. 

When an auction house acquires a piece of artwork, a fine arts auctioneer will appraise the piece and examine it to determine its value. He or she will also conduct research on the piece of art to create estimates of what it might sell for at auction.  Pieces are then gathered and featured in a catalog, and there may also be a presale exhibition where the public can view the groups of works.  At the auction, each piece is bid on separately. If it doesn’t receive any bids or doesn’t’ reach a reserve price, it is bought-in.  If the piece of artwork is sold, the buyer is reasonable for the hammer price and buyer’s premium, plus any taxes.  The auction house takes a commission, which is deducted from the final price, with the rest of the proceeds going to the consignor. 

The fine arts auctioneer plays a vital role in every step of an auction; from gathering items for sale, sorting them into lots, and preparing a sale bill that advertises the location and date of the auction, to researching items for authenticity and value, and setting up the sound system.  And, while ‘bid-calling’ or the ‘auction chant’ might stand out as the most memorable part of an auction, it is really only a small part of the job.  Besides finding and appraising fine art, an auctioneer will also spend a lot of time finding clients and building relationships, and studying the market.  A fine arts auctioneer must also have a complete understanding of any laws that may govern the sale of a particular item, such as if an item is part of an estate or is available because of bankruptcy.

On auction day, a fine arts auctioneer must be both salesman and entertainer and will need a great deal of stamina and energy to get through the day. A sense of humor is also important as it can put an audience at ease and also build a following because an auctioneer who can ‘put on a show’ will probably draw larger crowds for the next sale.  Auctioneers must have a strong voice and good communication skills, confidence, and enjoy being in the spotlight. But, most importantly, they need a strong background and advanced knowledge in fine art, which can come from earning a degree, interning, or becoming an apprentice.

3

What Does It Take to Make the Cut?

Although a degree is not necessary to make it as a fine arts auctioneer, many auctioneers receive training at specialized schools or earn a degree in art history to learn the trade and obtain licenses. The fine arts auctioneer field is highly specialized and requires a great deal of knowledge about art and the art world.  It also requires a broad knowledge of history, cultures, artists, ethics, law, and communications.  After all, there is little room for error. A typo in a catalog can make a 1649 Rembrandt a 1946 Rembandt, cutting its value in half and bewildering auction attendees. It also pays to be bilingual or multilingual as many of the larger auction houses have locations around the world.

The National Auctioneers Association (NAA) reports that 35 percent of all auctioneers hold degrees, while another 36 percent have some college experience.  But, becoming an expert in fine arts is the key to success in this competitive market. To become a highly specialized fine arts auctioneer, a graduate degree or even a doctorate may be required.  Many individuals who work in art auction houses are also art appraisers who are certified by professional art associations, such as the American Society of Appraisers (ASA), Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), or Private Art Dealers Association (PADA), among others.

Individuals can also work as an apprentice to an experienced professional or enroll in online distance-learning courses. In addition, the NAA also provides a list of ‘auction schools’ throughout the US that teach bid calling, marketing and sales, and training on how to start and operate an auction business.  They also teach students how to work government and estate auctions, appraisal skills, and how to deal with tax issues.

Another way to learn about this filed and gain valuable knowledge is to attend auctions, work for an auction company, intern while in school at a gallery or fine arts auction house. With training, there are even opportunities to become a fine art auctioneer aboard a cruise ship.

To gain experience, individuals can donate their time by auctioneering at charity events. Although you won’t get paid, it is a great way to network and start earning a reputation.

As in most art fields, working hard and submerging yourself in the art world are sure ways to become successful as a fine arts auctioneer. Attend art exhibitions at art galleries and museums, as well as other professional events for art professionals. And, dress the part.  Auctions are usually semi-formal events and showing up in cut-off jeans and an old t-shirt won’t help your reputation or get you a future job.

Licensure

Licensure requirements for auctioneers vary from one state to the next.  Some states don’t require a license at all, but 37 states do, and there may even be special licensing requirements for different types of sales. Aspiring auctioneers should consider joining a professional organization to learn specific requirements for fine arts auctions or check with a local licensing authority. 

4

Jobs Outlook and Salary

In 2014, Christie’s (one of the largest auction houses, along with Sotheby’s, in the US and Europe) employed more than 115 people in the US alone.  Looking to surpass that number in the coming years, Christie’s asserts it is a reflection of the growth in the art market overall, as well as an increased interest by young art collectors.  There are also online art houses like Auctionata, who require the talent of art experts with knowledge in programming and web design.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect data; salary or employment outlook, on auctioneers. However, according to the NAA, fine arts auctioneer’s salaries vary a great deal as most are paid on commission, taking a percentage (usually 10 – 15 percent) of the proceeds from an auction.  Since most fine arts auctioneers are paid on commission, salary also depends on how much money a collection brings in.  Estimates by the NAA are in the range of $46,000 per year for a part-time auctioneer.  Fine arts auctioneers can make more or less.

Many auctioneers work part time and hold down other jobs, but as auctions are held whenever a collection is assembled, fine arts auctioneers may work weekends, evenings, and even some holidays when necessary, and travel is usually expected if employed by a large auction house. Auctions can also be seasonable, so some moths may be insanely busy, while other months there is no work at all.

Get to Know Our Experts

Lucas Hunt

  • Title:
    Auctioneer
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    Brooklyn, NY
  • Experience:
    2 years in the industry
  • 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

    The World Wide College of Auctioneering trained my excellent auctioneering mentor among their 40,000 graduates to date. The college is located in Mason City, Iowa and has an 80-year history.

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Hudson Valley Auctioneers LLC
  • Where:
    Beacon, NY
  • Experience:
    32 years in the industry
  • 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

  • Title:
    Principle owner, senior appraiser at Winston & Associates
  • Company:
    Winston & Associates
  • Where:
    New Orleans, LA
  • Experience:
    26 years in the industry
  • 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.

    Fine Arts Auctioneer Infographic