- Lydia Fenet is the lead benefit auctioneer and global managing director of strategic partnerships at Christie’s Auction House.
- She landed a coveted job as a live auctioneer at just 24 years old, after a summer internship at Christie’s and two years of working in the company’s events department.
- Since then, she’s led more than 1,000 auctions on behalf of hundreds of nonprofits and has brought her unique auctioning style and sense of humour into the traditional world of live auctions.
- This is her story, as told to freelance author Jenny Powers.
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I was 24 years old when I took my first auction representing Christie’s in New York City. It was a winter auction for a nonprofit based in Kansas City, but even arctic weather couldn’t put a damper on the fact that I was going on my first official business trip. An all-expense-paid trip to anywhere sounded like a dream at that point in my life.
It was 2001 and I’d been working in the events department for two years, having spent a summer as one of their college interns. I was single and living alone. The way I looked at it, I had nothing but time on my hands, so I could sit home by myself on Saturday nights eating takeout, or be an auctioneer and get dressed up, head out to black-tie galas, and take the occasional business trip.
Up until then, you had be at least an associate vice president to try out to be a charity auctioneer.
But as requests increased, the company needed a larger pool to choose from, so they decided any employee who’d worked at Christie’s for at least a year could try out.
When open tryouts were announced, I immediately signed up. Twenty of us turned up, including my boss and my boss’s boss. Sixteen men and four women. Tryouts lasted four days and included a series of mock auctions and interactive exercises including taking an auction when everyone was instructed to talk over us to show how unnerving it can be at times. It was all videotaped so our speaking elements could be reviewed and our style could be broken down and studied.
It was like the show “Survivor,” as we all witnessed people get voted off the island, one by one. My boss’s boss didn’t make the cut. My own boss dropped out. On the final day, four made the cut. Me and three men, each with at least ten to 15 years on me. Two were British.
When most people picture an auctioneer, they often conjure up images like the older British gentleman that were selected. I know I always did, so much so that for the first five years I took auctions, I seemed to be playing the part of a distinguished British gentleman. I was formal, polite, and detailed when presenting auction lots.
One evening I was scheduled to take an auction and got sick. I tried to find a replacement but when I couldn’t, I reluctantly got dressed and went. That night, I didn’t have the energy to play the usual part of the British gentleman and instead, I wound up talking to the audience like they were my friends. I joked with them, shared stories about my own life, and essentially, just sold as myself.
The most shocking part of it all was suddenly, people stopped chatting and began engaging, and then lots began selling for more than the anticipated price. At that moment, it dawned on me that although I was a storyteller at heart, I’d never used storytelling to sell lots.
From that day on, I dropped the British gentleman persona and simply sold as myself
The results were in the numbers. The auctions I took began earning 20%, 30%, even 40% more than in previous years and I began receiving more requests to take auctions than ever before. Even senior executives at the company started recommending me to their clients.
It’s been nearly two decades since that first auction in Kansas City. That night I struck the gavel three times on the podium in what has become my signature move, only to watch it break and watch it roll onto the floor.
Since then, I’ve auctioned off everything from a private yacht for hire with a staff of 17, to Bruce Springsteen’s own motorcycle, to lunch and a dance lesson with Madonna.
There are lots of moving parts when it comes to planning events. I typically meet with the nonprofit and their gala committee to ensure the auction is placed correctly in the evening and to review the auction lots, and be careful to put them in the best order to get people bidding. Most live auctions last 30 minutes.
To survive in this job and be successful, you’ve got to have a good sense of humour, be quick on your feet, and be completely unflappable.
Anything that could happen to me on stage has. I’ve worked through drunk people causing a ruckus, glasses shattering in the background, and much more. Once a world-famous celebrity presenter began ranting about politics and after two minutes of listening to him ramble, I put my arm around him and said, “This is fantastic, thank you,” and then gently but forcefully shoved him off stage.
At the last live auction I took for an event honouring actor Alan Cummings, I accidentally mispronounced his last name, leaving off the ‘s.’ He called me on it in front of a thousand people, and I made up a joke on the spot. Despite experiences like this, the good heavily outweighs the bad and even the awkward.
The pandemic has put a temporary halt on live auctions, but I’ve already taken two virtual ones and have 12 more lined up.
I’ve emphasised to our nonprofit clients this is not the year to try and crush your goal. We’ve all got to set realistic expectations. People are experiencing major Zoom fatigue, so fewer people are likely to participate than normally do in live auctions.
I miss the auctions a great deal. It’s a huge part of my life and has been for a long time.
These days I’m a married mother of three children under the age of seven, having taken auctions until I was nine months pregnant with each of my kids. As the lead benefit auctioneer for Christie’s, I like to say that’s really my night job, as I’m also the global managing director of strategic partnerships by day.
Since 2012, I’ve been the one leading the annual auctioneer tryouts, and now 40% of those who try out are women. My on-the-job experience led me to write my first book last year called “The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You: Command an Audience and Sell Your Way to Success.”
To date, I’ve taken more than 1,000 auctions on behalf of between 600-750 nonprofit organisations.
Overall, I’ve raised over half a billion dollars for charity.
To get into this line of work, having internships and working in special events or with charities is always a good way to get your foot in the door. Also, practice public speaking at every opportunity. You have to be able to speak confidently and think quickly on your feet, so you have to get over the nerves that usually keep people from getting onstage in the first place.
I don’t know when we’ll be back doing live auctions, but when we are, my gavel and I will be ready and waiting.
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