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Work life: Auctioneer

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Deborah Allan, 34, is head of the Impressionist and modern art department at Christie’s South Kensington. She lives in Battersea with her husband, Ash, a marketing consultant and their 9-month-old daughter, Camilla.

There’s a lot more to being an auctioneer than people think. I had to compete against 40 colleagues to be trained by Hugh Edmeades (Guru of the auction world) and I’m still regularly observed and tested on my performance. I call it ‘Auction Idol’ because it’s so intense. I used to practice my patter on an ironing board, banging down a wood spoon and testing my voice across the kitchen!

My day begins at 6.30am when Camilla starts crying. Breakfast is a bowl of Alpen and a mug of boiling water. I always pick what I’m going to wear the night before so I don’t have to rush. Being an auctioneer is like being a performer so I have to look my best. My wardrobe is full of Diane Von Furstenberg, Massimo Dutti and LK Bennett skirt suits.

I drop Camilla at nursery at 8.30am and am at my desk for 9am. I’m a compulsive list writer (I have one for what I need to achieve that week, and one for that day) so I’ll dig out the one I wrote the night before sitting down for a half-hour catch up with my team.

Auctions start at 10.30am. We only have about four a year but each one involves so much work. I do all the original valuations for the lots, sometimes months before the sale and then a week before the auction they are collected in the sale room so I can prepare my notes. You can learn so much from the back of a painting –who’s owned it and when, what countries it’s been to... its whole lifetime.

On the day of a sale I leave my office at 10am and go to the sale room. With butterflies in my stomach, I sit alone with the lots and rehearse all the possible outcomes for the sale ahead. I have to work out the figures in my head: starting with how much it’s worth and working backwards to see where I should start.

The minute I put on my microphone and step onto the rostrum I’m in character. The atmosphere is electric and I get so excited, looking at the expectant faces of the bidders and wondering which piece will sell for the highest price.

Some clients are very subtle when they’re bidding so I’m constantly looking for any sign of movement. When I first started auctioneering it was more difficult to know if someone was moving in their chair but it’s instinctive now, particularly with regular clients. I’ve got a little black book of clients, from private buyers to high profile dealers who I meet at least twice a month to discuss what works are coming up. They are fiercely private though. Some of them prefer to bid in a separate room to avoid being seen.

I have a bowl of soup at my desk while I check my emails after the sale. Then I might go to see a client about a work they want to sell. I fly all over Europe seeing private collections. I could be in Paris one week, Geneva the next, seeing some of the greatest works of art of the 20th century and speaking to collectors who have met Dali or were good friends with Picasso.

If I’m in the UK then I spend the afternoon assessing sale items, writing estimates and giving valuations. These can take months as, after I’ve assessed the work it will have to be tested and verified and then I’ll make a judgement based on previous sales, experience and the wider market.

The highest bid I have ever taken was for a work Francis Bacon, Study from the Human Body, Man Turning on the Light. The hammer finally went down at just over £8 million. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.

After work I either go home and spend the night with Ash and Camilla or head out to a charity auction. As the auctioneer you have to be the main event so I re-do my make-up and put on my fail-safe cocktail dress (a royal blue silk number I had made a few years ago). I have to meet all the big bidders and work the room before stepping up, banging my gavel and getting things started.

I’m usually woken up a few times in the night by Camilla so I try and get to bed by 11pm. Sometimes it’s hard though, I’m on such a high after an auction the last thing I want to do is sleep.

Photo by Gemma Day

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