What's It Like To Be At An Auction?

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 28 months ago
What's It Like To Be At An Auction?
The auctioneer is in full flow and there are people on the phone either side of him behind. Image courtesy Christie's

The opening lot is a Henry Moore. Before we can figure out who in the room is actually bidding, it's sold for £300,000 — which flashes up on a projector along with seven other currencies. And so we continue at this breakneck speed, powering through 49 lots in just 60 minutes.

This in an auction of Modern British and Irish art at Christie's in King Street, Mayfair. Most of these auctions are free and open to the public, so we've had  a wash and a brush up, and come in to take a peek.

The room is packed, and people are spilling out into the lobby. There are plenty of bidders on the phone too. At the centre of proceedings is the auctioneer — eyes like a hawk, countenance of a judge, grace of a ballerina.

Above all, this man has energy. He keeps the whole thing charged for the entire hour, and we count him take exactly one sip of water the whole time he's at podium. "Welcome to you, sir" he coos at one man, "Where did YOU come from?" he joshes with another. He makes light of his colleagues on the phones, winkles out bids from every corner of the room, and never once lets the pace slacken. When the bidding slows, he leans expectantly towards prospective bidders, before banging his gavel with a flourish (we wonder if he practises in front of the mirror).

A Lowry that went for £1.5m

It's hard to take our eyes off the master of ceremonies but we manage to glance across at the Christie's employees on the phones. Some speak openly, almost ostentatiously, with their clients while others cover their mouths, making us wonder what could be so secretive in their discussions. (But madame, you KNOW you've no room for another Lowry...").

The audience itself are a well-heeled crowd (many seem to know one another too) but there is the odd person in jeans and trainers throwing in some bids. What surprised us most is that the bidding isn't dominated by a few attendees — lots of people have their eyes on one prize only.

Despite the unsightly amounts of dough bandied about, there's an odd calm to proceedings (though excited murmurings arise when a Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth or a Lowry is up for sale) and we feel this is familiar territory for most. During the evening only a few works exceed their estimates and several works don't reach their reserve price at all. While the top sale is a Henry Moore sculpture selling for £1.55m, we are shocked when some of his sketches don't meet the reserve price. But then, what do we know.

It's easy to get caught up in the drama of the thing and we're tempted to get involved, before realising we'd have to sell our flat multiple times before we could afford most of the works.

Oh, and television has clearly lied to us. We were relieved to find that scratching our head didn't get us involved in an accidental bidding war.

The auction we attended was held on 20 June at Christie's, King street. It was the Modern British and Irish art evening sale.

Last Updated 22 June 2016