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.
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