Chicon 2000

Art Auctions

Rev. 18-Jul-2000
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Auction, (Auction), Auction/Auction!

Q: How many auctioneers does it take to run the auctions at Chicon 2000?
A: 35, you got a problem with that?

The fannish rumor mill never fails to amaze me. At current report, Chicon 2000 is planning to run either 5 or 8 or possibly 20 art auctions in the five days of Worldcon. Were this true we'd surely need every one of the 35 above-mentioned huckers, not to mention the requisite hordes of runners, Clemmerers , roadies and groupies. We'd replace the Masquerade, the Chesleys, the Hugos, the GoH speeches Bwahahahahaha! (slap) uhhh, thanks. Where was I?

In truth, as much as a single auction at a Worldcon appeals from the logistical point of view, in practice it is painful in the extreme for everybody who participates. The audience gets saddle sores, the kids get cranky, the room gets hot, and the auctioneers run out of gas. The energy and interaction which is necessary to maintain the fun and movement of a Midwest-style auction is pretty well gone after two hours or so; everybody in the room needs a break at that point to do almost anything else.

Chicon 2000 is the first centrally located Worldcon in eight years (Winnipeg having gone north and San Antonio south). We expect that it will be larger than its recent predecessors, with a larger Art Show to match. Given the current robustitude of the economy and the excellence of our participating artists, we are hoping for high-quality art and spirited bidding. One auction will not be enough.

Current plans call for three auctions, but either of the first two auctions may be canceled if there are not enough pieces ready to auction to warrant holding an auction at that time. (We'll make sure that there's plenty of notice if we're canceling an auction.) The first will be Saturday, 02-Sep-2000, at 2:00 PM. This will probably run two hours. We are ready to hold two auctions on Sunday. The early auction will be from Noon to 2:00 PM; the Final Auction will be from 4:00 to 6:00 PM (or until we run out of art to auction). This schedule should allow us to process paperwork efficiently, avoid huge pick-up crowds on Sunday and Monday and keep energy levels high, ensuring the best return possible for our artists.

Questions? Contact us through email.

Bob Passovoy
Chief Auctioneer
Chicon 2000

The Ideal Art Auction

a meditation by E. Michael Blake

[Many Midwestern auctions share a particular style and are established as centerpiece Saturday-night events at their cons. The author has distilled what works in Midwestern auctions, and why, into the following guide, which outlines the principles and politics that will underlie Chicon 2000's art aution (with such adaptations as are needed for the greater size of a Worldcon art show) offered here for comments and so that anybody else can use it, at any other convention.]

Hi. My name is Mike, and I've been involved with art auctions at science fiction conventions for almost twenty years as an auctioneer, an art buyer, a spectator, and an exhibitor. I've observed enough to assemble my model for the Ideal Art Auction.

And so it begins. The doors of the function room open, and we stroll in with dozens of our fellow fen. The room itself is not especially large, but it has enough room to seat everyone comfortably and allow good views of the art. The display area is along one of the long walls of the rectangular room, so that nobody is terribly far from the display area. The chairs have been set so that any piece of art can be brought close to everyone by a runner with a simple trip from one side of the display area to the other, and then down the center aisle.

The room is at a comfortable temperature, and art show personnel now dial down the thermostat to cope with the heat that will presently be generated by the bodies and lights. Art is already present in the display area, on an arrangement of risers, tables, and chairs that makes it visible to the audience even while auctioneers, runners, and others drift around in front of it. Each piece of art is at or above head level, but can easily be reached when the time comes for it to be sold.

The auction takes place on Saturday night, after everyone has returned from dinner excursions but before the parties ramp up. I do not designate one specific start time as Ideal, though a time somewhere between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. would seem to come closest to meeting the criterion in the previous sentence. What is essential for that time to be ideal, however, is that it be the exact time published in the program book and/or pocket program. Also -- forgive me if by inference I let slip a glimpse of a past horror story -- all of the published materials on when the auction begins (program book, pocket program, posters in the art show, hotel schedule boards, etc.) must agree.

[Ed. note: at a Worldcon of course, Saturday night is still mid-convention, and auctions are held on later days.]

We all settle onto our chairs, confident that we won't be missing anything vital, because this convention has not scheduled major event programming or films during the auction. We also know where we stand in the contest about to begin, because the art show -- in keeping with the published schedule -- stayed open after the end of the last Saturday afternoon panels and programming events. We had time to adjust our tactics as needed, making final bids just before art show personnel cleared everyone out and closed the show. We also know how many bids it took for a piece to get to the auction, because we can trust the art show staff not to change the criteria after closing the show, and increase (or reduce) the number of pieces in the auction by lowering (or raising) the number of bids needed for a piece to get to auction. (Okay, that has only happened once, and it may never happen again, but I don't want anyone to think that such a thing would be a good idea.)

The staff has a list of all of the pieces in the art show that received written bids. The list can be on paper or computer screen or both, backed by a simple, cheap database program, so that fen who weren't in the art show at closing time can find out if a certain piece is in the auction, or if it sold on the bid sheet without going to auction. Also, the auctioneers can refer to the list to see whether it is necessary to spread certain artists' work through the night, for the sake of variety (ditto the balance of flat art, 3-D, wearables, etc.). The table staffers can also answer questions on when payment can be made and art picked up.

On the other side of the display area is seating for runners and auctioneers, and such libations as they require to facilitate execution of their tasks. The availability of this refuge keeps the display area itself clear and prevents distractions when art is being run.

The space behind the display area is staffed by clemmerers (a term based on the late Curt Clemmer, who performed this service for many years at conventions in the Chicago area and elsewhere). When an auctioneer pulls a piece from the display area to begin its auction, a clemmerer will move new art into the vacated space, so that plenty of art will always be in view. Tables have been provided behind the display area to accommodate all of the art to be auctioned. Other art show workers are ready to return sold pieces to the art show, for later payment and pickup. They all handle the art carefully, and are alert to potential problems for runners, such as paintings with loose matting or sculpture of extreme fragility. They would never dream, for example, of leaning an unframed illustration board against a wall in front of a heating duct.

The auction has a plenitude of competent, experienced auctioneers and runners -- so many, in fact, that the auctioneers group themselves into teams of three, with each team to work for one hour and then hand off to the next team. An auction can also work well with two or four auctioneers, but three turns out to be the Ideal number for the tasks at hand. While Auctioneer A auctions a piece, Auctioneer B selects a piece and recruits a runner, and Auctioneer C gets whatever breather is necessary, and is available to hear special requests from bidders and con staffers (delivered and dispatched very quietly). As for the runners, they can choose to work in shifts also, or stick to a rotation of everyone for the whole auction; whatever suits their legs. In this respect, runners usually don't pose a problem; for whatever reason, only auctioneers suffer from the tendency to mill around, get in the way, and distract from the art being run.

We also observe that persons of both genders will be auctioning, and persons of both genders will be running. Surely we would never see a situation in which the men do all the talking and the women do all the shlepping, oh heavens no.

The festivities begin with a brief welcome by the chief auctioneer and a brief recitation of the rules of engagement. She tells us that only voice bids will be accepted, in whole dollar amounts, in increments of at least five dollars for any bidding beyond $100. She points out that the taking of photography of any kind, with or without flash, is forbidden, and that anyone who wants to take pictures of art should make separate arrangements with artists; anything else is theft. She cites the acceptable means of payment and the times and place for art pickup. As for the procedural specifics, any number of systems can work well, but in this particular Ideal Auction, the art show staff has chosen the following:

  1. When the auction begins on a piece, the auctioneer hands the bid sheet -- a self-carboning manifold with at least two copies -- to a bid sheet runner.

  2. The bid sheet runner takes the bid sheet to the staff table and hands it to one of the staffers.

  3. The auction proceeds, and when the art is sold, the winning bidder raises his/her hand and calls out name, badge number, or some other unique identifier.

  4. A table staffer writes on the bid sheet that unique identifier, and the amount of money for which the piece sold.

  5. The table staffer separates the manifold and hands the bottom copy of the marked-up bid sheet to a bid sheet runner.

  6. The bid sheet runner takes the bottom copy of the bid sheet to the winning bidder -- confirming, if necessary, the unique identifier.

  7. Later, the winning bidder uses the bid sheet copy to claim the art, and the staff uses its copy to confirm the claim and demand the appropriate payment.

Before the auction begins, the winners of the art show awards are announced. Awards are almost always a component of a good art show, as their very existence lures in art and artists that might not otherwise have graced this convention. This in turn, over time, draws in tasteful and solvent art buyers, which over more time spirals us all into a win-win situation. Some awards offer cash; others offer exposure, which can be far more valuable if the panel of judges includes influential employees of book publishers, "graphic novel" publishers, gaming card manufacturers, animation studios, etc.

Runners bring out the winning works for viewing, when their awards are announced. Those winning artists who are present are called up to receive their awards, backed by appreciative applause. Then, once the winning works have been given their due, they are returned whence they came. Any piece that received enough bids to make the auction is kept in the display area. Any piece that did not receive enough bids -- for whatever reason, such as a minimum so high that the art was essentially not for sale -- is returned to the art show, and picked up later either by the artist (if there were no bids) or by the winning bidder (if there were bids, but not enough for the piece to be auctioned) Auctioning a piece simply because it won an award would break the compact that exists between an art show staff and art buyers, which is simply this: a piece goes to auction with X bids, and does not go to auction with X minus 1 bids or fewer.

As far as an auction is concerned, an award should change nothing. Buyers might be more inclined to bid higher on an award-winning piece, and an auctioneer would be remiss not to encourage such behavior, but only if the piece were in the auction anyway. Consider the following scenario. It is 5:59 p.m., and the art show closes at 6:00. Three bids are required to send a piece to the auction, and a certain painting has only one bid so far, at the minimum of $20. Joe Bidder plays the art show tactical game properly: he goes to that piece, which he really wants, and puts in a second bid of $50. His knock-out bid appears to work, because when the show closes he sees nobody else putting on a third bid. Content, Joe Bidder makes his plans for the evening, knowing that he need not attend the art auction. After closing, the art show staff puts the awards on the works that won them, and -- in keeping with a tradition that has somehow never been written down or made known to people in general -- starts hauling all of the award-winning works into the room where the auction will be held. That night, the piece that Joe Bidder thought he had bought for $50 becomes a bit more appealing to the people who attend the auction, and it sells for $51. The next morning, Joe Bidder presents himself at the art show and is told, in effect, "The good news is that you have excellent taste that puts you ahead of your time. The bad news is that the painting was auctioned last night to somebody else."

There might be a way to make this work, but I very much doubt it. Is it possible to make sure that everyone who sets foot in the art show knows that it takes X bids to auction, unless a piece wins an award, which you might not know before the show closes, so you better go to the auction no matter what, and caveat emptor? The real merit of an award is in exposure and public approbation, and if the award-winning work doesn't sell, the artist should at least be encouraged enough to have prints made for later sale elsewhere. To sum up: auctioning award-winners that didn't get enough bids to be auctioned would never happen in an Ideal Auction.

One of the auctioneers not currently on duty takes up a position at the back of the room to serve as a backup bid-spotter. Even in this room, and with this crew, it is possible that a bid from a soft-voiced person at a remote location might not be heard by the auctioneer. When that happens, the bid-spotter waves to get the auctioneer's attention and points in the direction of the unheard bid, all in silence. The auctioneer then asks for the bid to be spoken again, and the bidder responds. This time, the bid joins the flow of the auction. (I just recently learned of the bid-spotter idea, from Van Siegling. Bid-spotters have since been employed, to good effect, at two cons where I've auctioned art.)

The runners have already received their assignments, either to run the art itself or to move bid sheets. This may seem like a very narrow division of labor, but if each task is left up to who ever happens to be available at the time, things would at least slow down, and at worst lead to a mistake in the bid-sheet paper trail. As a piece is auctioned, the runner first traces the route mentioned above, in a walk slow enough to give everyone a clear enough look for identification of the piece. On the more interesting or sought-after pieces, there are calls of "Runner!" from the audience, and such calls are encouraged. The runner, however, completes one full circuit of the route before responding to any of the calls. Then, the runner brings the piece to callers for longer looks, remaining in open aisles and not trying to walk between close-set rows of chairs. Then, as the bidding progresses to the hardy few who really want the piece, the runner takes it in turn to each of these bidders within reason. The runner is deft and prompt, but does not endanger self, others, or art by shuttling between bidders at a dead run.

There are also some charity items in our Ideal Auction, to support a variety of immensely worthy fannish and SF-related activities. The Ideal Auction welcomes this -- to a limited extent. This is, after all, principally an art auction, and we do not wish to bore or distract the audience. The Ideal Auction operates on a rough ten-to-one rule: one charity item for every ten pieces of art. If there are too many charity items to be accommodated this way, the concom should give serious thought to scheduling a separate charity auction. The Ideal Auction also groups all of the charity items into two or three time blocks, and the charity items are sold by auctioneers specifically assigned to the task. This raises a bit more interest in the charity items, and gives art bidders a chance to take a break or two to pick up art they've already bought. The runners can also get a break here, because many charity items need not be run; anyone who wants to authenticate the signature on a galley proof can walk up to the front and do so.

The auction proceeds smoothly, with each auctioneer team handing off to the next. Around halfway through, a clemmerer puts up for viewing the piece decided in advance by the auctioneers to be the strongest bidding prospect -- a piece which, by its obvious quality and the bids already made on it, should lead to the largest sale of the show. This piece, of course, will be held for the very end, to maintain spectator interest.

Now, there can be different schools of thought on this point, and I won't maintain it as an essential component of the Ideal Auction, but if people are going to hang around for three hours or so, they probably want to see a serious firefight at the finish. It's an open question, though, whether this is the best policy for the artists. On the upside: if the audience is aware that there will be a spending war at the end, more people hang around, and are at least present to try for impulse buys -- potentially forcing up sale prices. The audience is aware, of course, because at least one auctioneer will have called attention to this stunning piece and made it clear that it'll be around until the bitter end. (Yes, I'm usually the auctioneer who does this. Why pass up a chance for cheap dramatics?) The case for the contrary is this: if a number of people know that they'll have to do their biggest spending at the end, they might shy away from bidding on anything else, to save their money -- so, at the end, let's say that six people can spend $500 or more on the last piece, and maybe the winning bidder gets it for $1000, but another $2500 leaves the room unspent, in the checkbooks of the other five bidders.

Each auctioneer has his or her own style and approach, but abides by the rules of proper comportment, which in more or less chronological order are the following:

  1. Have the piece in the runner's hands before saying word one. The runner's moves are on the critical path, and the sooner the runner begins, the better the chances of giving everyone a good look and keeping the auction moving.

  2. Try to know something about the piece, the artist, the medium, or the style, and preferably all of the above. An ideal auctioneer not only enjoys spending time in the art show, looking at the displayed work and chatting up artists, but knows this to be an obligation of the office.

  3. Conduct that crowd-pleasing auctioneer banter and japery only before the bidding begins. It's fine to crack jokes, sustain running gags, threaten to make a certain runner carry a piece of etched slate, etc., because this makes it easier for the audience to sit there for hours on end. But one must have a sense of proportion. A rough time line of things to issue from an auctioneer's mouth: joke; bid sheet info (w/artist or work info, if appropriate); early bid taking (in which the auctioneer says as little as possible and listens for numbers); late bid taking (if it gets down to two people, with gaps between bids, auctioneer can joke once again, but only to abet the process of getting the most money out of the sale).

  4. Speak clearly, in both voice and meaning. If someone bids "twenty", don't just say "twenty" back, say something like "I have twenty," preferably with a look at the bidder to show that he or she is acknowledged. If you want to encourage movement to a higher amount, say "do I hear thirty?" Don't just say a vaguely interrogative "thirty", or the bidders might think that's already been bid. This might inadvertently push someone to a higher bid than otherwise intended, but it's at least as likely to make everyone stop bidding -- and then, surprise, it turns out that nobody ever bid thirty. Also, when possible, if you get simultaneous bids at the same amount (say, forty), accept all of them, and say, "I've got two (three, four, a bunch of) forties. Break it." This isn't a gamble. If two or more people are bidding forty right on top of one another, at least one of them will pony up at least forty-one.

  5. You're not selling tobacco, horses, or cars confiscated from drug lords. We're taking voice bids here. We have to be able to hear them.

  6. Sometimes, despite great promise on the bid sheet, terrific execution by the artist, and extra tidbits of erudition by the auctioneer, there just aren't any more bids, and a piece sells on the bid sheet. That happens. Don't take it personally, and don't go into overdrive, standing there repeating into a vacuum, "Do I hear thirty-six? Come on, it's a great piece."

  7. Listen, always listen. Even frantic bouts of bidding settle down eventually, leading to a clear transition from early bidding to late bidding. When it comes down to two combatants (invariably on opposite sides of the room, the bane of all runners), give them a chance to keep things going, but start counting down. It's customary to announce "Going once . . . going twice . . . going three times . . ." before declaring sold. This is more than enough time for a fence-sitter to decide how far the funds will stretch. Expect to have several countdowns interrupted -- that's fine, as long as the bidding remains active, and it's the accepted fodder of late-bidding auctioneer jokes (Jack Benny takes, etc.).

  8. Never insult an artist or a bidder by ripping a piece in the auction. The most graceful way out is to play it straight -- just read the bid sheet info, take bids, close the sale, and move on. One small exception to this -- once you know, and are known to, the artist involved -- is to razz aspects of the artist that do not reflect negatively on the artist's work. A number of artists have been good sports about this over the years, and some even thrive on it, but we've all got parties to get to, so at least say something original.

  9. Don't hog all the good stuff. Spread yourself out by doing 3-D and flat, large and small, derivative and innovative, big-name and newcomer, heavily-bid and barely-in-the-auction. The way you get asked to do this again is to do the best job overall for the show and for all of the artists.

  10. Don't interrupt while someone else is auctioning, unless you can throw in a tart one-liner without drowning out bids (beginners should wait a long time before trying this). Don't harass, insult, or make light of your runner, who is doing his or her job by moving the art around the room silently. Limit your libations to the non-alcoholic, during and immediately before the auction. Don't shill -- if you want a piece, by all means bid, but don't try to force a price up artificially, because that will make the real bidders very angry. Don't auction or run a piece on which you will be bidding (yes, painfully obvious, but still...). If you make a mistake (as with incorrect hearing of a bid), try to rectify it at once. And remember that you're not here to impress people with your wit, your looks, your clothes, or your dulcet tones. You're here to sell art.

This is the Ideal Auction, and everyone involved is above reproach. Bidders who fall just short of getting certain pieces are introduced to the artists involved (or their agents) and encouraged to commission new works -- an especially good income source for jewelers, sculptors, and others who work in 3-D. Artists, in tutorials and jam sessions earlier in the convention, pass along their expertise to newcomers. Agents and publishers confer on new projects, to help keep the artists' rent money coming in. Con attendees looking for unique gifts snap up goodies in the print shop. And the personnel of the Ideal Auction -- auctioneers, runners, clemmerers, and table-sitters -- bring in the maximum revenue while averaging about two minutes of auctioning time per piece. It's been a fine Ideal Auction, and we stroll out satisfied, and eager for the next SF convention art show.

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