Christie’s Veteran Lydia Fenet Is Looking For Auctioneers
People often ask Lydia Fenet about her insecurities. Does she suffer from impostor syndrome? Does she struggle to manage her work-life balance as a mother? Was she scared to leave her job?
No to all of the above. Fenet commands supreme confidence, and her latest business ventures ensure you can be too.
When asked to define confidence, she answered without hesitation.
“Confidence is when you walk into a room and you bring your full self. You’re not looking around for other people’s opinion about whether you’re doing it right or wrong. That you believe in who you are, and you believe in what you’re doing, and that’s good enough. I truly believe that confidence is just living the life you want to live.”
The Louisiana beauty was not raised in the art world, but made a name for herself at Christie’s auction house from her early years as a humble intern in 1999. Her 2019 book, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You, recently optioned into a forthcoming Netflix series starring Kiernan Shipka, details how she was undeterred by the dominance of white men at the top of the company. She spent 20 years working her way up to Global Managing Director, running a three-day auctioneer training for 15 years and leading the events department for 10. But two decades, two books, three children, and many side hustles later, it was time to move on from the auction house that shaped her skill set.
Her new eponymous agency was a natural next step. “I get to write the book for what the auction space looks like going forward…,” she said, “Someone said to me, ‘As long as you’re playing on someone else’s chess board, you’re always going to be playing by their rules’. I have to create my own chess board.”
She has stepped down as a Christie’s Ambassador to enjoy flexibility at other houses such as Sotheby’s and Phillips, ultimately shaping the auction world for herself: Lydia Fenet Agency is well underway, with its official launch summer 2023. Fenet will be recruiting “best-in-class” charity auctioneers who deviate from the Christie’s mold of blockbuster hitters like Tobias Meyer and Jussi Pylkkänen, seeking an intentionally diverse array of improv actors and people with that extra spark of charisma to train for maximal gains.
“It was only in the past couple of years that there was even a conversation about putting a woman up on the block, on the podium, during the evening sales,” Fenet said, “It became something where people finally recognized that the only people up there were guys. It’s stunning when you think about it looking backwards, but that’s really how it was my whole career.”
Instead, Fenet found her footing on the charity auction circuit, where she was so pleased to see not just the positive impact of ethical nonprofit work for underrepresented communities, but also on her own career.
“The acceleration and the point of interest was always getting on these stages in the charity auctioneering, because I was on my own. It was up to me to do the work, and if I did the work, I could get better and better, and the stages could get bigger and bigger…it wasn’t about me being a woman anymore; it was that I was good at my job.”
Now a seasoned auctioneer in her own right, Fenet reports raising $1 billion for global nonprofits, and that a trained auctioneer at a charity event can yield a 30% increase in fundraising revenue. The largest event she annually oversees is at Madison Square Garden, which housed 7,000 people.
Her pet peeve is “painful” gala auctions. She has witnessed the growing pains of the post-COVID auction world where new cities have seen rapid growth without the talent, like Silicon Valley or Texan cattle country, where a stable of polished auctioneers could make the difference for success. Cultural representation is especially powerful for charities, where the auctioneer can and arguably should look like the community an organization is lifting up.
Fenet has already hired five auctioneers and is planning biannual open tryouts, by video or in-person, using the training program she developed at Christie’s as a boot camp to see which select few can master the art of running the room.
Fenet’s own experiences have taught her to catalyze some of the toughest large crowds, especially one that is tired from less engaged conferences or lectures. Tips include starting the bidding low to get the room going, even if there is a higher number on reserve—the lower the bid, the more engagement—and being able to drop a joke at the perfect time when the bidding is heated.
“It’s really about building energy,” Fenet explains. “One of the most important parts is that you need the entire room paying attention…With a great auctioneer, when they get on stage, they’re not just entertaining one person, they’re entertaining the entire room. So you need someone who has huge presence. There’s something about them you want to watch. They have to be incredibly quick and versatile…and more than anything, a talented auctioneer is not afraid of the crowd, which takes time to get over.”
There is also the technical reality of counting bids, including those higher amounts on reserve. For example, in the case of Ansel Im Attersee, due to auction at Christie’s tomorrow, a bid double the estimate could only be hammered if those in the room bid up to it. Otherwise it’s illegal, and besides, everything during the sale is microscopically recorded during regulated auctions.
“So, if the reserve is $100 million, as an auctioneer, your job is to get it as close as possible and land on someone in the room, because that bid has to be a legitimate $100 million. I may know I have a bidder going up to $200 million, but unless there’s an underbidder, I can’t take it past $100 million.”
As a seasoned Christie’s executive, Fenet is well-versed on preventing corruption.
“No system is perfect, but there are a lot of checks and balances that try to mitigate that…and no one wants to have their reputation ruined. You’re in pretty safe hands.”
Fenet is available as a keynote speaker represented by CAA and travels internationally to discuss sales and unlocking potential in addition to her new agency.
She has 20,000 Instagram followers @LydiaFenet, and can be reached via her website lydiafenet.com/the-agency.