9 Secrets of Fine Art Auctioneers

Christie's auctioneer Tash Perrin conducts a sale.
Christie's auctioneer Tash Perrin conducts a sale.
Christie’s LTD. 2019

If a fine art auction can be compared to a well-coordinated circus, then the auctioneer is its ringmaster. At any given auction—which may include hundreds of people in the room and hundreds more watching online—the auctioneer is center stage, directing the audience's attention to lots big and small, generating excitement, and making sure the bidding runs smoothly. Auctioneers manage "all this while having charisma and a sense of engagement and great energy,” says Tash Perrin, an auctioneer who also holds a couple of senior management titles at Christie’s auction house. To find out what it takes to perform in such a fast-paced setting (and whether they always talk the way you see in the movies), we spoke with three New York City-based auctioneers who work for some of the world’s largest auction houses: Christie’s, Phillips, and Bonhams.

1. Auctioneering is mostly a side gig.

Auctioneer Jacqueline Towers-Perkins at the podium
Auctioneer Jacqueline Towers-Perkins at the podium
Bonhams

At the big auction houses, practically no one is hired to work solely as an auctioneer. As Perrin explains, “Nobody here at Christie’s is an auctioneer full-time. All of us have full-time jobs and then we do the auctioneering as a side gig.” Some auctioneers manage a particular department within an auction house, while others work in a variety of roles that may take advantage of their specialty in a particular field, whether that’s Chinese ceramics, Islamic art, or jewelry.

As a specialist in postwar and contemporary art with Bonhams, for example, Jacqueline Towers-Perkins sources all of the artworks for auction, researches their origin, and makes sure they’re authentic (and not some knock-off). Finally, as an auctioneer, she gets to find a new home for them. “When it comes to selling [an artwork], that is sort of the icing on the cake,” she tells Mental Floss.

2. Auctioneers need to be licensed in some states.

More than half of all U.S. states stipulate that individual auctioneers must get a license before selling items at public auctions. New York state does not have such a law, but leaves the decision up to individual municipalities. New York City—the location of many big-name auction houses—does mandate it. Would-be auctioneers must go to the Department of Consumer Affairs—“the same place that hot dog vendors get their license,” Perrin says.

3. Not all auctioneers speak quickly.

If you’ve been picturing an auctioneer who talks a mile a minute, you’re probably thinking of cattle auctioneers, who rattle off increments in an almost meditative style called "chanting." A few other types of auctioneers talk this way, but you won’t hear it at any of the major art and antiquities auction houses, which also sell across categories including jewelry, handbags, watches, wine and spirits, books and manuscripts, and more.

That’s because an auctioneer’s cadence largely depends on what they’re selling. Speed is especially important for cattle auctioneers because they often have more lots (a.k.a. individual cattle) to sell than the typical art auctioneer. (They also talk that way to "hypnotize" bidders, according to Slate.) However, when it comes to prized artworks and rare artifacts that rack up millions of dollars at auction, an auctioneer’s goal is slightly different: to generate excitement and build suspense. Sometimes, they might even slow down and allow a moment of silence to fill the room before speeding up again. “A really important element to being a good auctioneer is your ability to speak silence,” Perrin says. That means allowing for pauses when necessary—such as when a potential buyer might be thinking about a bid. It’s also about creating a welcoming atmosphere for bidders. “We want this to be a really great environment ... We don’t want to rush people through it or make it intimidating," Towers-Perkins adds.

4. Auctioneers sometimes stick out their tongues and recite Humpty Dumpty as a vocal warm-up.

Because auctioneers are talking non-stop for several hours at a time, the vocal warm-ups they do before an auction can get pretty ... creative. “Reciting Humpty Dumpty with your tongue out is definitely something we would encourage,” says Perrin, who also coaches auctioneers-in-training. In the above video from The New York Times, Christie’s former head of auctioneering, Hugh Edmeades, can be seen reciting this nursery rhyme to loosen up his facial muscles and warm up his voice. Perrin says some auctioneers might also recite their increments (we’ll get to those later) in the shower before coming to work, while others might use breathing and vocal techniques that are similar to the ones employed by actors and singers.

5. The auctioneer’s book is their bible.

Auctioneers can glean everything they need to know about a sale from something called the “auctioneer’s book”—although at some auction houses, it's a digital file on a laptop rather than a physical book. The book contains the lot number (the identifying number of the item or group of items up for sale), the item’s description, and the amount of money it’s expected to go for. It also has one crucial piece of information that neither the bidder nor the general public gets to see: The reserve price. This is the amount of money the owner of the lot will—or will not—sell it for.

6. An auctioneer's ability to multitask is crucial.

Auction staff talk to bidders on the phone
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Juggling multiple tasks at once is a skill auctioneers must learn to master. In addition to remaining aware of the reserve price, auctioneers must also check their book for any absentee bids that have been placed prior to the sale. Bids are also coming in over the phone and online, and those bidders must be given the same attention and opportunity that bidders in the room are afforded. Throughout all this, auctioneers have to be engaging and charismatic. “If it looks like you’re very methodical and have a sense of just trying to get the job done, you’re not engaging the audience,” Perrin says.

While auctioneers are on the hook for most of the sales proceedings, they do get some help from a bid clerk. This person stands next to the auctioneer and surveys the room—including the phone bank, where staff talk to potential buyers over the phone and hold up a paddle whenever a bid comes through—to catch bids the auctioneer might not have seen. This extra assistance is especially helpful when there are 700 or so bidders in one space. “They play an incredibly important role, and I often refer to them as my best man up there,” Perrin says.

7. There’s a lot of math involved in auctioneering.

Auctioneers can only use certain increments, which means they’re limited in the exact price they can offer to bidders. “It’s very set,” Towers-Perkins says. “The numbers go up in tens at the beginning, then in twenties, then in fifties, then in hundreds.” (The precise numbers can vary by house.) This gets all the more confusing when absentee bids are factored into the equation. Auctioneers must ensure they’re referring to the exact amount declared in an absentee bid, which means they must think ahead and do a bit of quick math to figure out which number they should call out. Perrin calls this skill “numerical dexterity,” but there’s another term for it too. When everything goes well and auctioneers offer the correct increments, it’s called “landing on the right foot.” (And when things go wrong, it's called, naturally, landing on the wrong foot.)

8. Auctioneers can tell the difference between an involuntary nod and a bid.

Auctioneer Sarah Krueger
Auctioneer Sarah Krueger conducts a sale for Phillips.
Phillips

Sometimes, a nod is just a nod. Other times, it’s a bid. Auctioneers are trained to observe bidders’ body behavior and know the difference. Customers usually raise their paddles to place a bid, but some might prefer to remain discreet. Sarah Krueger, an auctioneer and head of the photographs department at the New York City branch of Phillips, said auctioneers get to know the bidding styles of frequent clients: “A nod or a slight move might indicate a bid from one person, but for another they might just be waving at a friend across the room.” Perrin says one client in England bids by raising his eyebrows, while other bidders wink to raise the stakes. Usually, an auctioneer can judge whether or not a bid is intentional by paying attention to the bidder’s level of engagement—for instance, if they’re looking at the auctioneer or still have a paddle in their hand, they’re probably interested.

9. They take their gavels seriously.

A gavel on a table
Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images

Krueger has her own personal collection of six gavels: Three of them she uses in auctions, while the other three are more like collector’s items. Each auctioneer has their own preferences in terms of the style of gavel they use. “For my purposes, what I’m looking for in a gavel is something that fits comfortably in my hand and isn’t too heavy,” she says. “You also want to test it out against your sounding block and make sure that it’s giving you the right sound.” After all, auctioneers say that the moment the hammer falls, signifying the end of a sale, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. “The sound the gavel makes on the rostrum is incredibly satisfying—particularly on the very first lot you ever take and the most expensive lot you’ve ever sold,” Perrin says. “That’s extremely gratifying.”

10 Secrets of Victoria’s Secret Employees

A Victoria's Secret retail store in an airport mall
A Victoria's Secret retail store in an airport mall
studioportosabbia/iStock via Getty Images

Victoria’s Secret was born out of an awkward shopping experience. Roy Raymond didn’t feel comfortable browsing for underwear for his wife at a department store, and he wanted to create a more upscale lingerie destination that was welcoming to both men and women. The first Victoria’s Secret location opened in Palo Alto, California, in 1977.

In the 40-plus years since, Victoria’s Secret has changed the fashion industry, launched the careers of supermodels, and made shopping for bras slightly less awkward for the people who don’t wear them. Behind the company’s success are the sales associates responsible for keeping panties neatly folded and finding customers bras that fit correctly. Employees may confess they don't really know what Victoria’s secret is, but they can tell you how to get them to let you shop in peace, where to go if they don’t have your size, and more insider information. We spoke with a couple of former employees to discover their most revealing insights.

1. Victoria’s Secret employees are trained to fit all body types.

The clientele of Victoria’s Secret is diverse, and employees are trained to help every person who comes into the store find a bra that fits them. According to Andrea, who worked at Victoria's Secret from 2015 to 2019, bra fitting specialists undergo about six weeks of training to prepare for almost every possible scenario.

“Whether you’re somebody who’s had a mastectomy, or somebody who’s transitioning, or somebody who’s getting a bra for the first time, that’s what we’re there for and that’s why we do our jobs,” she tells Mental Floss. “Let’s say you have somebody who had a mastectomy. You always measure for the breast that is there. That even goes for people who have uneven breasts. So if one breast is a B-cup and the other is a C-cup, we always measure to the C-cup. Also, if you’ve just had your breasts done, like a breast lift or implants, we would measure differently for that too because the bras are going to sit differently on your chest [compared to typical fitting]."

2. Victoria’s Secret employees are allowed to suggest other stores.

There are some scenarios where the only option employees have is to admit they can’t help a customer. Victoria’s Secret only carries sizes 30A to 40DDD, and if someone comes in looking for a bigger size than what’s available, associates are allowed to send them elsewhere. Andrea says she would recommend Torrid or Soma to people in need of larger bras. “We did give other bra places business because we feel like everyone should feel good in their bra, even if it doesn’t come from us," she says.

3. At least in the past, being conventionally attractive helped you get hired at Victoria’s Secret.

The Victoria’s Secret image is synonymous with ultra-thin supermodels strutting down a runway in lingerie and high heels. The company has struggled with sales in recent years, and some industry experts blame that in part on the brand’s limited view of what's considered “sexy." Victoria’s Secret is trying to combat this by experimenting with marketing featuring more diverse body types, but when Rita (not her real name) worked there roughly a decade ago, the old beauty standards were still enforced. The former sales associate tells Mental Floss, “They would hire someone pretty over someone smart or capable. It was definitely part of the ‘fantasy.’”

4. If you're shopping for your partner, Victoria's Secret employees might recommend something other than lingerie.

When people come into Victoria’s Secret looking for a gift for their romantic partner, they rarely have all the information they need. “For boyfriends, they usually never know their girlfriend’s size. Like, ever,” Andrea says.

Even a professional bra fitting specialist can’t guess someone’s exact size based on sight alone. That’s why employees might recommend skipping the intimates altogether and considering alternative gifts if you’re shopping for someone else at Victoria’s Secret. “For dudes shopping for their ladies, unless you know for a fact what their size is, do not buy them lingerie,” Rita says. She suggests gift cards, lotions, and body sprays as safer options. And if you’re absolutely set on getting your significant other something they can wear, Andrea recommends panties and bralettes, which tend to be more forgiving in the size department than underwire garments.

5. The people who work at Victoria’s Secret see more than they want to.

Employees at the chain want their customers to feel comfortable, but in some cases, guests can get too comfortable. Rita recalls a woman who shared a little too much when shopping for intimate wear. “She'd just reconnected with her high school sweetheart—she was probably in her forties/fifties—and she made a point to mention her recent boob job. Then all of a sudden she basically flashes me in the front of the store. ... It was definitely not a normal customer interaction.”

Some stories of unusual customer behavior are not for the squeamish. Andrea recounts one such example: “I had a woman come up to me and say, ‘Do you have a cup?’ And I was like ‘No ma’am, I’m sorry, I don’t have a cup. What do you need it for?’" The woman replied that she really needed to urinate. "And I was like, ‘Ma’am!’”

On a different occasion, a customer of Andrea's found a creative use for one of the pink bows used to decorate the bras. “She takes it and she flossed her teeth with it in front of me. I was like ‘No!’ It’s so gross.”

6. Victoria’s Secret employees get sweet perks.

If they’re willing to deal with the occasional gross encounter, Victoria’s Secret employees can take advantage of benefits many retail workers don’t get. One of them is paid time off. “Even though I was only a part-time associate, because I worked so many hours, they did give me paid time off,” Andrea says. “Most places I’ve worked for, you only get paid time off if you’ve been there for a year or are a full-time associate, so being a part-time associate and being able to have paid time off without being there for a year is really rare and something that we really appreciated as associates.”

The pay is also competitive compared to similar businesses. According to Andrea, “Victoria’s Secret has a yearly raise, and I went from making $11.50 to $22.14 when I left [after four years].”

7. The holidays at Victoria’s Secret are as crazy as you’d expect.

Victoria’s Secret has been known to ring in the holiday season with deals designed to lure customers into stores. For shoppers, this means cheap bras, but for associates, it means congestion, disorganized displays, and the rare scuffle. “Holiday time is crazy,” Andrea says. “I’ve literally seen grandmas punch each other in the face.”

8. There’s a trick to getting Victoria’s Secret employees to leave you alone.

To shy shoppers, or those just craving a bit of peace, there are no worse words in the English language than “What brings you in today?” If the thought of getting this question from a Victoria’s Secret employee fills you with dread, know that it isn’t their goal to harass you. “It’s not that we want to bother you, that’s what we’re supposed to do,” Andrea says. “And most likely we don’t want to come up to you as much as you don’t want us to come up.”

But if you ever do get over-eager sales associates, Andrea has an insider’s tip for getting them off your back. “A good trick if you don’t want help is to remember the name of the person who you’re introduced to. So if the first person is like ‘Hi, my name is Stephanie,’ and then two or three more people come and say ‘Do you need more help?’ just say ‘Stephanie’s helping me, thank you,’ and they will leave you alone.”

9. Victoria’s Secret smells like body spray for a reason.

If you’d rather shop for lingerie without walking through a cloud of perfume, too bad: Spritzing the store with the brand’s latest scent is part of the job for sales associates. Rita says, “If we were working the front rooms, we had to wear ‘beauty belts’ with the latest body spray in them to spray around the room (cue the headache) and carry around the newest bra." And in case the constant spraying wasn’t aggressive enough already, Rita was also instructed to pitch it to customers—along with apparel and the Victoria’s Secret credit card. “We basically had to accost anyone who walked in with ‘Have you seen the new bra? Have you smelled the new perfume? Do you have the angel card? Why not? Don't you want exclusive offers? Blah blah blah blah,’ and it scared a lot of people off.”

10. Victoria’s Secrets ends up with items it can’t sell.

Victoria’s Secret has a generous policy when it comes to returns: Stores offer a full refund for items brought back within 90 days of purchase as long as you have a receipt (without a receipt, the policy may vary). According to Rita, some customers take advantage of this policy by bringing back garments that are clearly not fit to be resold. “People will try to return anything, claiming they just bought it last week and it ‘just didn't work out’ when it's clearly not a bra we even carry anymore and it's super worn and gross.”

Some customers ruin clothing without buying it first. “The worst part was having to damage out [retail slang for swapping out an irreparable item] underwear that girls had tried on without leaving their own underwear on," Rita says. "Happened all the time. It was absolutely disgusting.”

13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $8.8 billion this year on spooky goods, including $3.2 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, founder of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

1. Some Halloween costumes are just too outrageous for retail

For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … but there are some lines Halloween costume designers won’t cross.

Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. Designers can produce a Halloween costume in a matter of days.

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. Beyonce can help move stale inventory.

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “[In 2016] we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. Women don’t usually wear masks as part of their Halloween costumes.

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage in 2016.

6. Food costumes are always a hit for Halloween.

At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.”

7. Adding ”sexy” to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. People ask for some weird stuff when it comes to Halloween costumes.

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. Halloween costume designers have workarounds for big properties.

Go out to a Halloween party over the past few years and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. People love sharks.

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. Dead celebrities mean sales.

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.”

12. The Halloween costume business profits from people shopping at the last minute.

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. It’s not actually a seasonal business.

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.”

This piece was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

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