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Hugh Edmeades on the life and art of an auctioneer

Popular auctioneer Hugh Edmeades, who was in Mumbai for the maiden art auction at Prinseps, says his work requires them to be a salesperson to get the required numbers.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Nov 28, 2019

While auction as a format of acquiring democratises the process itself, allowing ‘anyone’ to participate, it also remains elitist, making it something not for ‘everyone’. Etymology of the word auction is augment, which literally means to increase. We have come a long way since the first-ever auction having being recorded as early as 500 BC, when women were auctioned for marriage and it was illegal to allow a daughter to be sold outside the auction method.

STIR interviews Hugh Edmeades, the auctioneer of the recently concluded maiden auction at Prinseps in Mumbai. Edmeades has conducted over 2,500 auctions, selling 3,00,000 lots for a sum in excess of 2.7 billion pounds.

Francis Newton Souza’s painting of the Pope | Prinseps | STIRworld
Francis Newton Souza’s painting of the Pope Image Credit: Courtesy of Prinseps

Rahul Kumar (RK): In the context of contemporary arts, why should there be an interest in auctions, especially for works of artists who are alive and practicing?

Hugh Edmeades (HE): Since the emergence of the contemporary art market in the 1970s, there has been an exponentially increased demand for the category. The rise of such mega-dealers such as Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, and Zwriner have all helped promote the area to become the biggest selling one in the art market. This has been seen at the top of the market with artists such as David Hockney, selling for US$ 90.3 million, and Jeff Koons, selling for US$ 58.4 million, and all the way through to the millions of objects sold at the emerging artists level. Auctions are the perfect outlet for works of art in this category. One can wait many years to get put onto a gallery’s waiting list to buy works by the top contemporary artists. Auctions provide a short cut to this and open up to the public the opportunity to own one of their works and that is why we see such interest in buying at auction. This is also true of contemporary Indian art, which is now much more available to buy and collect.

RK: What does it take to be a successful auctioneer? What role does the auctioneer play and how much credit really goes to the auctioneer for the success or poor performance of a sale? 

HE: An auctioneer needs to be a multi-tasker, marshalling bids from the clients in the room, on the telephone, online and executing absentee bids from clients who are unable to attend the sales. He or she needs energy, clarity and humanity. Anyone can stand there calling the numbers, but a successful auctioneer needs to be a salesperson extracting additional bids from a client who is attempting to stop bidding. Humour and empathy are also a useful addition to an auctioneer’s performance. An enormous amount of work, by a lot of people, goes into the preparation of any lot before the auction. The cataloguing, the research, the photography, the marketing, and the display. So, there is great pressure on auctioneers to perform to their maximum ability to ensure that a great price is achieved.

Untitled by VS Gaitonde | Prinseps | STIRworld
Untitled by VS Gaitonde Image Credit: Courtesy of Prinseps

RK: In a country like India, where engagement with art is still limited, let alone art collection, why does it make sense to conduct an art auction? Does it help expand art followership?

HE: With such a vast population, it is surprising how relatively few Indians are engaged in the buying and collecting of art. Auctions open up the market to an enormous potential range of buyers who might not necessarily want to travel abroad to buy art. With the wealth and breadth of talented Indian artists, auctions provide a wonderful arena in which their talent can not only be discovered and appreciated, but also rewarded. The more Indians that can be encouraged to buy or collect art, can only be good for the state of Indian art in general.

RK: How do you use technology to improve the experience of a physical auction?

HE: The ability to allow clients to buy via the telephone was a great step forward in the history of auction houses. Then, more recently, the introduction of ‘online’ bidding was a seismic change in the way auction houses could obtain a global market audience. Many clients never see what they are buying in person. They rely on the expertise of the auction house in the description of the art on offer. They can receive multi images of the piece via their computer and then do their bidding from the comfort of their homes or their offices. An auctioneer would obviously prefer to be ‘performing’ to clients attending in the saleroom, but there is no doubt, better and more competitive bidding has increased since the online bidding introduction. This is obviously to the detriment of the auctioneer, but is an enormous financial benefit to the auction company. There is now no excuse not to participate in auctions in real time.

Renowned auctioneer Hugh Edmeades | Prinseps | STIRworld
Renowned auctioneer Hugh Edmeades Image Credit: Courtesy of Prinseps

RK: Please share with us the most fascinating experience (anecdote) from one of your auctions.

HE: I have personally conducted over 2,500 auctions (both commercial and charity), selling 300,000 pieces, so I have a wealth of fascinating experiences. But one that particularly stands out in my mind was when I was fortunate enough to be asked to conduct the charity auction at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday party in London when I sold the seven lots for a total of GBP 4.2million. When one has Elton John bidding against Oprah Winfrey, life as an auctioneer is very easy. In 2018, I was very happy to be asked by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to be the auctioneer for the 2019 IPL tournament – this was the first time I had actually auctioned human beings!

RK: What are you looking forward to, what is coming up next?

HE: Between now and Christmas, I have auctions in London, Paris, Geneva, Dubai and Riyadh. I return to Kolkata (India) to take the 2020 IPL auction in mid-December and ending up in St. Moritz (Switzerland) for the annual auction of ‘Christmas Trees’ at the Badrutt’s Palace Hotel on December 21. Christmas seems a long way off for me at the moment!

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