The Pleasures and Perils of Auction-House Phone Bids

The popularity of telephone bidding at auction surges, despite the danger of dropped calls and bad connections

Johnny Van Haeften, a prominent London art dealer, had planned to attend the 2011 Old Masters sale at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna—or, at least, the preview—because he was interested in Frans Francken the Younger’s 17th-century painting Allegory of Man’s Choice. A specialist in Golden Age Dutch painting, Van Haeften doesn’t like to buy without seeing. Unfortunately for him, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland halted all Austrian air traffic.

“A few dealers in Vienna had looked at it for me and said it was good,” he recalls, “so I knew I was on solid ground.” And the Austrian phones still worked, so he decided to bid by phone—ultimately paying $9.4 million for the work, the highest price ever achieved by an Old Master painting at auction in Austria, and a new record for the artist.

A busy phone bank at Sotheby’s London sale of Impressionist and Modern Art this past June. ©SOTHEBY'S

A busy phone bank at Sotheby’s London sale of Impressionist and Modern Art this past June.

Not everyone is as lucky with purchases made remotely. “We once had someone bidding hundreds of thousands of euros for a painting, and then he crossed a tunnel and lost the bid,” says Henrik Hanstein, managing director of the Cologne auction house Lempertz. “He tried to call back, but you can’t reach the salesroom directly.”

Though more and more art-auction buyers are doing their bidding over the telephone or online these days—sometimes because they physically can’t get to the auction house, but more often because they don’t want to—it is a notoriously risky business. Many buyers are contacted while driving, but if they move too far from a cell-phone tower, the call is dropped. Other bidders are sometimes found on boats, at restaurants, in airplanes, or at sporting events when the auction house reaches them, and interferences and interruptions are unavoidable. “I had someone phone bidding on a lot,” says Nicholas Lowry, president of Swann Auction Galleries in New York, “who told me, ‘I have to go now. My house is on fire.’”

What with bad connections, dropped calls, and dying phones, the job of putting together and running an auction has become more difficult. That said, the formerly packed salesrooms for major auctions are not as crowded—which Amy Todd Middleton, Sotheby’s worldwide head of marketing, attributes to the development of “viable alternatives to being there.” Indeed, in recent years, the highest dollar-amount bidding usually takes place on the telephone. At Christie’s May 23 auction of American paintings in New York, for example, 41.5 percent of the overall $50,848,750 earned in the sale (or $21,102,231) came from phone bidders. And almost half of the $4,395,751 (including buyer’s premium) earned at the Dallas-based Heritage Auctions’ November 15, 2012 sale of American and European art, some $2,144,125, was generated by telephone bidders, while salesroom collectors only accounted for $399,398 (or 11 percent).

For Christie’s fall 2011 auction of objects from the estate of actress Elizabeth Taylor, head of private and iconic collections Andrew McVinish claims that 70 telephones were in the room—and, at certain points, they were all in use. (For most other major sales, he notes, the average number of phones is between 20 and 30.) Occasionally, additional staff members need to use their company cell phones to handle the overload.

The number of phone banks in auction salesrooms has also grown significantly over the past decade. Most banks are located on one side of the auction salesroom, although Heritage Auctions sites its phones at the front, close to the auctioneer, “so that phone bidders can hear in the background the excitement in the auctioneer’s voice,” says Paul Minshull, Heritage’s chief operating officer. Auction staff will phone the buyers who have expressed an interest in a lot, usually five or six lots in advance. “Whenever possible, we try to get a regular landline,” said Hanstein, but usually the auction house is given a number for a cell phone. The bidder is then asked for a back-up cell phone or two, and is informed that “mobile phones are risky.”

If a call is dropped, the auction staff person tries to call back on that number or on a back-up phone number, signaling to the auctioneer that he or she is attempting to reconnect. Usually, a pause in the action is permitted, lasting between 15 seconds and a few minutes, depending upon the estimated value of the lot and the prominence of the bidder—and sometimes, the bidder is lost for good. Alan Fausel, vice president of fine arts at Bonhams, once mistakenly hit a button on the telephone he was using while speaking to a bidder, disconnecting the would-be buyer. “I was in full panic mode, looking around, trying to figure out how to get back to the bidder,” he recalls. Fortunately, a colleague saw what had happened and pushed the original button, reconnecting Fausel to the bidder, who had only been on hold for a few seconds.

There are various ways for an auctioneer to buy time while a staff member tries to redial a bidder. According to Middleton, “auctioneers can become conversational, quite loquacious, if they have to be,” making jokes or offering commentaries on artworks between lots. Middleton also notes that many of the high-end collectors and dealers in Sotheby’s skybox, which overlooks the sales floor during major auctions, occasionally choose to bid by telephone or online although they’re in the room. According to Hanstein, some may want their identities kept secret, because “they don’t want their government to know what they own and how much money they have.” One collector who attends auctions prefers to do his bidding online “so other people in the room won’t know who they are bidding against.”

Despite the convenience for phone and online bidders, what has become more complicated for auction houses is how to whip up enthusiasm among prospective bidders who aren’t on the auction floor to experience the staged drama in person. The goal, therefore, is to recreate the excitement of being at the actual auction for the person at the other end of the line—and matching the right staff person to the particular telephone bidder is an art in itself. Leslie Hindman, a Chicago-based auction-house owner, says that “if the bidder is a bit hyper, we find someone who is calm and reassuring. With someone who is more low-key, we’ll have someone on the phone that can get them more revved up.” There are some employees who may be experts in their field, she goes on, “but we wouldn’t allow them on the phone, because they don’t have the right personality.” All auction-house staff members who operate the phones during sales receive special training on when to contact the bidder, how to avoid giving away the name of the person whom they are calling, how to get bidders to make decisions quickly, and what to say about the sale in general and the lot in particular.

The bidding itself offers no time or opportunity for additional chatting, as the staff person must repeat to the prospective bidder what the auctioneer has announced —almost simultaneously. Complete sentences take too long, and might lose a buyer the chance to bid. Instead, Hanstein says, they keep it short. “Not, ‘Do you want to make another bid?’” he says, “but ‘Bidding?’ ‘One more?’ ‘Sure?’”

Daniel Grant is the author of The Business of Being an Artist (Skyhorse Press).

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