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Friday, February 17, 2017, 10:29

When the lady holds the hammer

By Wang Yuke

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, Wang Yuke reports.

When the lady holds the hammer
Elaine Kwok is not a born public speaker, but she has become a successful auctioneer at Christie’s through training and practice. (Photo provided to China Daily)

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.

Then there’s eye contact, 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.

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