When the lady holds the ham­mer

Auc­tions have be­come big busi­ness in Hong Kong, and auc­tion houses rely in­creas­ingly on home­grown tal­ents. Many houses are turn­ing to tal­ented women, to help spur their sales, re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOCUS -

It was a land­scape paint­ing by a renowned Chi­nese artist Zhang Daqian: re­serve bid HK$850,000. It took less than a minute to drive the bid up to HK$5 mil­lion and then, min­utes later: “Now it’s HK$10,240,000. Any­one else? Any­one?” Elaine Kwok scanned the au­di­ence, her eyes mak­ing lock­ing on ev­ery bid­der on the piece.

The am­bi­ent up­roar went quiet. Barely au­di­ble mut­ter­ing from those un­able to match the top bid broke the near com­plete si­lence. Kwok brought her ham­mer down, “Sold!”

Kwok is the first Hong Kong born fe­male auc­tion­eer at Christie’s, a global power among auc­tion houses, with a his­tory of nearly 250 years.

Live auc­tions are drama and the­ater — the­ater to cre­ate ex­cite­ment and drive bid prices into the strato­sphere. Hav­ing command of those fun­da­men­tals is the mark of a great auc­tion­eer.

Kwok was trained to “put on a show,” as she puts it. It’s part of the train­ing for ev­ery auc­tion­eer. It’s not just call­ing out num­bers, but “how to speak the num­bers, how you look and ges­ture, how you vary the pace and vary your tone,” she ex­plained.

T hen there’s e ye con­tac t, mo­ments ap­proach­ing in­ti­macy when the auc­tion­eer and a mem­ber of the au­di­ence are in di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion. They are mo­ments that can cat­alyze a sale, ac­cel­er­at­ing the ac­tion and driv­ing up prices. The auc­tion­eer doesn’t let her eyes set­tle on the top bid­der, the big spender. “In­stead, you al­ways look at the un­der bid­ders.”

Per­son A, over there, just bid. Per­son B now makes a higher bid. Kwok quickly turns her fo­cus back to A. As she ex­plained the tech­nique, she ges­tured with her hands lead­ing her gaze into di­rect con­tact with the “un­der bid­der,” as if she were at a real auc­tion.

Be­fore bring­ing her gavel down, she looks one more time at each of those who had dropped out of the bid­ding along the way.

Even early dropouts got that “ques­tion­ing stare”. Just that may spur a bid­der back into ac­tion, rais­ing the bid even higher. “Don’t let any un­der bid­der off eas­ily” is her rule.

Eye con­tact is the most ef­fec­tive way to con­nect, Kwok con­cluded. She learned from ex­pe­ri­ence. The auc­tion­eer’s gaze is sug­ges­tive, en­cour­ag­ing the los­ing bid­der “go higher”. It can’t be co­er­cive. Pushy auc­tion­eers are frowned upon. Pushi­ness is un­pro­fes­sional, said Kwok.

“I’d never say some­thing like, ‘You look re­ally beau­ti­ful to­day, lady. Keep bid­ding!’ or ‘Oh sir, you have more money. Come on! Bid some more.’ That kind of tac­ti­cal ap­proach is dis­cour­aged by Christie’s.”

Grasp­ing the tech­nique can be tricky. There’s no for­mula. Kwok has her own style of star­ing at the po­ten­tial bid­der, with a gen­tle, ex­pec­tant smile, wait­ing qui­etly, while the bid­der makes up his mind. “Si­lence”, some­times, works magic, noted Kwok, al­though she did not work it of­ten. Too much dead­ens a room, leav­ing an awk­ward si­lence. At the right mo­ment, how­ever, si­lence is golden. All things be­ing equal to a good auc­tion­eer can add 10 to 20 per­cent to the fi­nal bid price.

Psy­chol­ogy at play

Run­ning an auc­tion is ex­haust­ing work. Sales go on for up to three hours, so pac­ing is im­por­tant. If bid­ding gets hot and heavy, the auc­tion­eer slows the pace. If there’re only a few bid­ders for a par­tic­u­lar lot, or if the item shows lit­tle prom­ise of at­tract­ing a high price, she brings down the ham­mer fast, and moves on to the next. Know­ing when bid­ding has run out of gas is an ac­quired in­stinct, said Kwok.

Pac­ing also helps the auc­tion­eer avoid burn­ing out half­way through a marathon sale. Even more im­por­tantly, good pac­ing keeps the room on edge, stok­ing higher en­ergy among those who came to buy. They get bored if the af­fair starts feel­ing dragged out. When that hap­pens the win­ning bids are lower too.

“I’m the one who con­trols the pace. I try to keep a brisk pace as long as pos­si­ble,” said Kwok.

On the main­land re­serve bids are set be­fore the auc­tion. That’s the min­i­mum the seller is will­ing to ac­cept. In Hong Kong it’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. The auc­tion­eer ob­vi­ously is bound by the re­serve but may de­cide to start bid­ding lower. If a high value item on the block is val­u­ated close to the re­serve bid, Kwok starts the bid­ding close to that, to fin­ish the sale and move on to the next. On higher end lots, she’ll some­times start the bid­ding well be­low the re­serve.

“The pur­pose is to build more mo­men­tum and more com­pet­i­tive­ness,” ex­plained Kwok. In Hong Kong, you see auc­tion­eers bid­ding. They’re pro­tect­ing the seller and the re­serve. Kwok says she uses the tac­tic quite of­ten. She’ll start bid­ding at HK$600,000 dol­lars on a lot with a re­serve of a mil­lion or higher. The auc­tion­eer is the only one in the room who knows the re­serve. Once the top bid hits the re­serve, the auc­tion­eer act­ing for the seller, bows out.

Un­der­stand­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal makeup of peo­ple who bid at auc­tions is key. The auc­tion­eer’s game is to evoke the com­pet­i­tive spirit out on the floor, wait­ing for im­pul­sive bids that sud­denly jack up prices into a higher sphere.

Peo­ple will pay more for an item that they think is rare or in short sup­ply. Peo­ple go­ing to high end auc­tions ex­pect to bid on valu­able stuff but they don’t have much time. When the ham­mer goes down, on a higher bid, they’ve lost their chance. It’s ego thing play­ing. Peo­ple get anx­ious if they think they might lose out on some­thing that they re­ally want. The bid­ding in­ten­sity quick­ens and peo­ple over bid.

That’s why Kwok checks each bid­der on any item be­fore smack­ing down the gavel. “I don’t want them to re­gret for miss­ing out on the last chance.”

The way an auc­tion­eer dresses is also part of the psy­chol­ogy be­hind the game. As a woman in the auc­tion­eer­ing busi­ness, she wants to be per­ceived as young and mod­ern. Her mode of dress com­ple­ments the en­ergy she wants to gen­er­ate in the auc­tion room. If she gets too trendy or flam­boy­ant, she be­lieves bid­ders might not con­sider her se­ri­ous about her work, or pro­fes­sional.

Kwok has writ­ten her own dress code: no sleeve­less dresses which might make her look mas­cu­line; no small prints and her­ring­bone pat­terns that look bad on screen and on cam­era; hair up or sim­ply worn in a bun, to en­sure her hair is not a dis­trac­tion to peo­ple in the au­di­ence. Chi­nese tra­di­tional dress, the Qi­pao is one of her sig­na­ture cos­tumes. She will go fab­ric shop­ping. She sends the ma­te­rial to

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