Ever wondered what it’s like to be an auctioneer?

EDGAR spoke to David Bennett, Auctioneer and Sotheby’s Worldwide Chairman of International Jewellery, to find out.

April 9, 2017

David Bennett has been auctioning incredible jewels for more than 30 years, often for tens of millions of dollars – no wonder he’s nicknamed ‘the 100-carat man’. As Sotheby’s open a new gallery in DIFC, EDGAR spoke to David about what it takes to be an auctioneer,

Do you remember your first auction?
It was 1978, I was 26 and I was given two days notice. The chairman of Sotheby’s told me, ‘You ought to take the next sale, that’ll be alright, won’t it?’ I just nodded. 

Were you nervous?
It never struck me that it might be scary until I stood on the rostrum on lot one. I remember thinking ‘oh my god’ as the enormity of the auction hit me. It went well, but I don’t think I enjoyed it. 

How has the job changed?
Nowadays it’s completely different. There’s a massive training programme, mock auctions and lots of practice over many months before you’re allowed to get up there and take the sale. Just before I started at Sotheby’s we were selling in guineas – can you believe that? 

Do you get a buzz from a sale?
When an auction goes well, it’s extremely enervating and takes a while for me to come down. There’s a lot of stress leading up to the sale and the auction is the pinnacle of that stress. 

Is part of your job trying to whip up enthusiasm during an auction?
Absolutely. There’s nothing worse than an auctioneer who lets the excitement drain out of the room. It’s a question of timing – when do you go fast, when do you slow down, when do you add drama? You have to control the rhythm like a conductor with a piece of music.

How difficult is it to spot bidders?
It’s the responsibility of the bidder to make themselves visible, more than it is for the auctioneer to see everyone. That’s why we give people paddles, which help. In the old days people used to bid with a wink. I’ve got a lot better at anticipating bids, it’s almost telepathic. 

How many bids can you handle before it gets too much?
It can be difficult when eight or 10 hands go up in the air at the same time because I have to decide whose bid to take in a split second. The really exciting thing is when you have several bidders in the room and they’re looking at each other – that can be very dramatic.

Have you seen people lose their temper?
It’s not uncommon [laughs]. I’ve had very few serious altercations in the room but it’s not impossible. 

As the bids get bigger, does your heart rate rise?
There’s nothing more exciting than selling a unique thing, such as the Sunrise Ruby [sold by David in Geneva in 2015 for $24m]. We exceeded the record price and from then on it was just... wow. But it doesn’t feel like a sum of money to me, it’s a figure. 

Do you have your own gavel?
No. Perhaps I should have an elegant handmade gavel in a leather case, but I don’t [laughs]. I’m not the slightest bit superstitious but I used to be. I know colleagues who wear lucky socks for auctions.

How do you feel about your nickname, the ‘100 carat man’?
Well, 23 years ago I sold my third 100 carat diamond. At that point nobody had sold any so I cornered the market. The name has clung on a bit and it makes me smile. 

What was your biggest sale?
Um, this should be on the tip of my tongue, shouldn’t it? [laughs]. I think it was the Blue Moon diamond for $48m in 2015 (left). 

How did that feel?
It was electric. If you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you’ve seen a lot of gemstones, but from the first moment I saw this stone I knew it was extraordinary. Once I got past the world record price at auction, it was pure pleasure letting it take off – just wonderful.