Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Day in the Life of an Auctioneer, or Heritage Auctions presents lots and lots of lots

Oct. 29, 2009
Written by Stewart Huckaby

(I have the pleasure today of introducing a new writer to the masses of Heritage Blog readers, one Stewart Huckaby, a longtime numismatist, editor of the Heritage Weekly Coin Newsletter, and all around computer Jack-of-All-Trades here at Heritage Auctions. He's also a good writer. Stewart today has given the blog some insight into the world of actual auctioneering - what happens on the podium, when and how. It is interesting and much appreciated. In my capacity in PR here at Heritage, I spend a lot of time with the actual items - I know, I know, it's rough, but someone has to do it - in order to write about and promote them. I rarely get the time to watch, let alone learn about, the actual auctions themselves, except in prices provided to me after an event. My thanks to Stewart for opening the window. Take a few minutes now and climb in… - Noah Fleisher)

Woke up… got out of bed… dragged a comb across my head…

With all due respect to the Beatles, anyone who knows me knows that that’s not how my day starts – besides the fact that my supply of hair is continually decreasing, what’s left is not something you would want to waste a comb on.

A little introduction is in order, I think. I’m a long time numismatist, and I’ve been editing the Heritage weekly coin newsletter since about the time I started here seven years ago. I have a lot of other jobs here; in fact, I wear so many hats that sometimes I think the company wants me to consign my collection.

Near the end of last year the company decided that they wanted to get a number of new auctioneers licensed. Figuring - with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek - that I didn’t have enough different jobs around here, I decided to go through the process. After the required classroom instruction and a passed state exam, the license came in near the end of March. Then, after a slow period where I only called one auction for the first six months I was licensed, October saw me calling auctions seemingly every Friday.

Friday the 23rd, the last floor session of the Dallas US Coin Signature Auction, was my first experience calling a Heritage coin auction. The usual questions came up: Will there be lots of bidders in the room? Will I call lots at the right speed? Is there anything really expensive that I don’t want to mess up? What kind of dinner are they serving?

As it turned out, there were maybe 7-8 bidders in the room when the night started. This isn’t bad for a regular coin session away from a major show; Platinum Nights, on the other hand, will fill the room most of the time.

Auctioning coins for Heritage is a little different than calling most other types of collectibles. In most Heritage auctions, you might say something to introduce the lot, and this means that it helps to know something – well, not necessarily about the specific collectible you’re selling, but certainly about the subject of the collectible. For example, I’m not a sports memorabilia expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know sports, and most of the time I can speak with at least a little knowledge of the subject of the lot.

With coins, you’re selling a lot of lots, which means that you have to take bids, period. There are more lots in coin (and currency) auctions than in the auctions for any other type of collectible we sell, and neither the bidders nor anyone working the auction wants to be up until dawn when there are a lot of lots to sell. In practice, coin and currency auctions roll along at roughly twice the speed of the others.

The process of calling an auction requires you to think on your feet, literally. You need to know the bidding rules and the increments – and half increments – backwards and forwards. This is easier said than done when someone places a cut bid when the current bid is $3,750 and you’re calling for $4,000. You need to be able to hold an audience both in the room and over HeritageLIVE; if you put the bidders to sleep, they’re not going to be able to bid (“Sir, was that a yawn or a bid?”). Above all, you need to be fair and to get things right – and to not let things go to hell when something goes wrong. And you need to do all this and ask for bids at the same time.

Thankfully, we have good people to make sure that the auction goes smoothly. Generally, three people are on the podium – the auctioneer in the center, flanked by one person running the book – that is, the bids that come through, as well as mail, fax, and other written bids – and the other running HeritageLIVE bidding.

We open the lot at the same amount that shows up as the current bid on the Website, although if there are also proxy bids through HeritageLIVE, the bid on the floor will rise very quickly. At that point, live HeritageLIVE bids, floor bids, and phone bids might come in. Some lots just open and close. Other times, the bidding can be intense, and I’m just trying to make sure I see and recognize all the bids.

I called the eagles (no, Don Henley did not answer) and Liberty twenties; Bob Korver handled the rest of the session. There wasn’t really a huge amount of bidding activity during the session – there were some battles between HeritageLIVE bidders, as always, and there were a number of floor bids, but there wasn’t the kind of back and forth bidding that had taken place at the Sports and Autographs auctions I’d called earlier this month.

The lots seemed to roll along fairly quickly, although at one point, Jacob Walker handed me a note that said that I was only auctioning 100 lots an hour, which translates to: “Yikes, we’ll be here all night!”

It turns out I was going substantially faster than that, although still not as quickly as I would have liked – 200 lots in an hour is probably about right in a coin auction, and I was maybe 20% slower than that. Yes, I’ve done the math; that makes for an average 18 second lot time, which seems (and is) really fast, but again, we want to sell everything before the roosters start waking up.

If you were watching me in action on HeritageLIVE, I sincerely hope the video didn’t freeze, and I apologize for any damage your computer monitor may have suffered. My face is best suited for the telephone, largely because radio doesn’t want me.

Still, from a personal standpoint, I thought I did Okay – only one error that I know of, and that was in the bidder’s favor. Most importantly, most everything sold, and the prices looked pretty good.

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-Stewart Huckaby

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