February 22, 2008
Laura Michalek, fund-raising auctioneer
The job: Between 1994 and 2005, Laura Michalek owned and operated four vintage furniture shops in Seattle, most notably Standard Home on Capitol Hill, which she opened in 2000. A self-professed "junker," she'd put 60,000 miles on her car every year just trolling for antique treasure at estate sales and auctions. Somewhere along the way, she became sold on the idea of grabbing a microphone and working as a full-time auctioneer herself. Today she takes the stage at dozens of local fund-raising auctions each year, helping community and arts organizations such as Home Alive and the Center on Contemporary Art drum up hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Q. How did you make the leap from selling antiques to auctioneering?
A. I went to the Missouri Auction School in 2001 because I was inspired by auctioneers who I had seen while buying furniture for my vintage furniture shops.
Within a few months of finishing school, I was asked to help out at an antique auction house in Edmonds, which turned into a once- or twice-a-month gig, without pay. I did that for two years and developed my chant. That experience was priceless, because it's not easy to get the actual "calling" experience that you need to develop as an auctioneer.
From there, I built my business on the side, until I decided to go full-tilt boogie -- full time -- in 2005. Thus, the closing of Standard Home.
Q. What exactly did auctioneer school teach you?
A. The school is actually only nine days long. It teaches you business skills, selling, chanting and ethics. Your instructors are world champions. The school I went to has a particularly strong focus on the chant, and you spend half your time there developing your chant through various exercises.
During the week, they sent us out to small auction houses in rural Missouri, in the evening, to sell. The whole town would come and watch and cheer us on. It was like free theater for the locals.
Q. What types of auctions do you do?
A. Contrary to popular belief, most auctions in this town are not black-tie galas. The average auction I do is a $100,000 fundraiser. But I do everything from a $2,000 auction to a $500,000 auction -- from public schools, private schools, nonprofits, art organizations and environmental groups to big galas at downtown hotels. All of my clients have a financial need that a successful fund-raising auction alleviates. There is no posturing or fancy money sitting in the room.
Q. What items are up for grabs at these auctions?
A. We procure a lot of experiential items, often related to an organization's mission. For example, I do an auction for Seattle Youth Garden Works. There are a significant number of gardeners and environmental enthusiasts who attend, so you tailor your procurement to that. For example, you might get a private consult with Ciscoe Morris. It's not about going out and getting a bag of jewels.
Q. How many auctions do you do a year?
A. I do close to 50 auctions a year, and they all range in size. I'm kind of going February, March, April and May hard-core. Maybe a couple auctions in June, then it slows down in July and kicks up again in September.
Q. How far in advance do you begin planning each auction?
A. I'm getting hired a year and a half out. But I get calls up to a week and a half before an event. A good six to nine months lead time is ideal.
How to hone your chant:
"I happily practice my chant in the shower. And on the freeway using sign posts as bidders. I practice number increments – "two-and-a-half... five, five-and-a-quarter..." – and filler words – "bidder to buy 'em at..." – and cadence. You have to be clear, accurate and fast. Clarity is key. If you don't understand the auctioneer, speed is useless. The old pros have brought the auction chant to a profoundly beautiful place. Some would argue it is indeed music."
Q. Besides working the auctions, what does your job entail?
A. I can't say I just show up and put my tie on the night of the auction. The week leading up to an auction, I prepare with my copy of the catalog. But if I am selling art, my research and preparation begins long before the week of the event. I study what I am selling and come up with solutions as to how to best sell it.
I also assist my clients in all aspects of auction event planning through in-person training and more than 100 handouts I've created on procurement, audience development, silent and live auction staging, guest registration, volunteer coordination, marketing and sure ways to lose money. It's much easier to lose money at a fundraiser than people realize. And by providing full preauction support, I can help my clients make the most money.
Q. What's your work schedule?
A. My schedule is quite envious, except to the person who loves their weekend evenings to themselves. Some weekends I have two to three auctions.
Throughout the week, I have two or three days with several meetings and trainings with my auction clients. In addition, I spend 15 to 20 hours or more per week on e-mail and phone correspondence, ensuring my clients have the tools and systems in place needed for a great event.
Q. Do you work on commission or do you get a flat fee?
A. It's very traditional in the antique world to do commission, and then have a flat fee on top of that. But I work on a flat fee only.
Q. Are there any requirements to become an auctioneer?
A. Becoming an auctioneer can be very easy. You can simply just start calling yourself one and then get a bond and a license. No test is required.
Q. What advice can you give budding auctioneers?
A. Start working or volunteering at any kind of auction, just to be around them. Work the ring at an antique auction, or volunteer to check guests in at a fund-raiser. Sitting on an auction event committee, reading business books, learning how to speak in public via Toastmasters – these are all very helpful.
Learning how to ask for money is also important. Working retail is a great way to get a glimpse into the mind of the buyer. Getting nonprofit experience and understanding how the fund-raising world works is helpful too.
I also believe a formal education in auctioneering is essential. I recommend attending the Missouri Auction School and reading books such as "Growing a Business" by Paul Hawken and "To Be of Use: The Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work" by Dave Smith.
Q. What skills are essential for making a living as an auctioneer?
A. Being able to handle a tremendous amount of pressure and decision-making in a small amount of time and having a reservoir of patience are great virtues, and of course being able to shoot from the hip. I went to auction school with a small business background, a comfort speaking in front of people and a suitable personality, but it's all for naught if you can't actually auctioneer and sell.
Once you get the schooling, practice all the time and start selling anywhere you can, even for free. You really have to create your own opportunities. Early on in my auction career, I not only had to convince folks to have an auctioneer but an auction. At the first auction I called, each item was worth $2, but at least I was selling something.
There is no auction too big or small. I still stand in backyards selling baked goods today. And I still go and watch other auctioneers to see what I can learn from them.
Freelance writer Michelle Goodman is the author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. She lives in Seattle, where she works from a spare bedroom with her dog Buddy at her feet.
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