Going Once! 11 World-Class Auctioneers Tell Us the Stories and Strange Rituals Behind Their Luckiest Gavels

Auctioneers are a superstitious bunch.

Adrien Meyer. Image courtesy Christie's.
Adrien Meyer. Image courtesy Christie's.

Auctioneers can be forgiven for being some of the most superstitious people on the planet. There are enormous pressures associated with the job—standing at the rostrum before billionaires around the world, making split-second decisions worth millions of dollars, and projecting calm while maintaining a sense of theater regardless of whether the sale is going well.

As new hybrid auction models emerged over the past year, auctioneers have also effectively made the switch from stage to screen, learning how to adapt their styles for live-streaming and digital bidding.

Throughout, however, one thing has remained constant: each one has a favorite hammer.

Some of the 84 gavels in the personal collection of Christie's chairman Francois Curiel. Image courtesy Francois Curiel.

Some of the 84 gavels in the personal collection of Christie’s chairman François Curiel. Image courtesy François Curiel.

We surveyed top auctioneers, from Christie’s Europe chairman (and dedicated gavel collector) François Curiel to Phillips photography specialist Sarah Krueger, about their lucky gavels.

Curiel says that for years, he had almost no competition when buying gavels at auction (how meta is that?)—but he has started seeing more demand recently. His own fascination aside, he says he has no idea what type of person collects gavels. We have a few ideas below. 

 

Aurel Bacs, Phillips’ Watches Consultant

Aurel Bacs. Image courtesy Phillips.

Aurel Bacs. Image courtesy Phillips.

The Gavel: It is a rather simple wooden gavel that was a gift from my wife (then fiancée) Livia in 2001, on the occasion of my first auction at Phillips. She acquired it in Geneva in an antique store and, over the years, it has acquired quite some patina!

Good Luck Ritual: Over the last 20 years, I’ve changed my rituals several times. I remember one in particular in the 2000s where, shortly before the auction, a friend of mine and I drank together a glass of milk… to “oil the gearbox”!

Most Memorable Bang: Since 2001, I have always used this gavel—so it has sold some 40,000 watches across three continents. Every watch has its own story and meaning, but Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Rolex at Phillips New York in 2017 must be the most famous “big bang,” when I said “it is history now” when selling the world’s most valuable vintage watch for over $17 million.

 

Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s Chairman, Europe

Sotheby's Europe Chair Oliver Barker fielding bids during the "Rembrandt to Richter" sale on July 28. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s Europe Chair Oliver Barker fielding bids during the “Rembrandt to Richter” sale on July 28. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

The Gavel: My father had my gavel made in cherry wood and it’s the only one I’ve ever used. I have a feeling a gavel chooses you—a bit like a Hogwarts wand. It is ever so slightly chipped from when I used it during a charity auction at the Café de Paris in 2011. I was auctioneering Will Champion, the drummer from Coldplay, and was devastated that it might be irreversibly damaged, but it’s actually given it a sense of character.

Good Luck Ritual: My gavel has been on many foreign trips and always goes in my hand luggage. I’m just scared that one day an overly officious security officer will mistake it for a weapon and confiscate it!

Most Memorable Bang: A recent moment that springs to mind would be taking my first-ever eight-figure online bid for Francis Bacon’s prolific triptych during our first livestream auction in June. The determined online participant in China executed a final historic $73.1 million bid before finally ceding to my colleague in New York after a 10-minute battle.

 

Frances Christie, Sotheby’s Co-Head of Modern & Postwar British Art in London

Frances Christie attends the Harper’s Bazaar at Work Summit in partnership with UBS on November 13, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Harper’s Bazaar)

The Gavel: Michael Bing, one of Sotheby’s longest-serving auctioneers, gifted me my first gavel, which is a very traditional design in black ebonised wood.

Good Luck Ritual: To sleep with the sale catalogue under my pillow the night before the auction.

Most Memorable Bang: My first auction with said gavel. Michael had reassured me that nothing could possibly go wrong as I had his old gavel for luck—but a few hammers in, I smashed it down on a winning bid and the head flew off the handle, nearly hitting the poor lady sitting in the front row! 

 

François Curiel, Chairman of Christie’s Europe

Christie's chairman Francois Curiel conducting an auction at the Grand Palais. Image courtesy Christie's.

Christie’s chairman Francois Curiel conducting an auction at the Grand Palais. Image courtesy Christie’s.

The Gavel: I have abut 84 gavels in my collection, which I have amassed since 1975. I purchased the first one at Portobello Road in London when I took my first sale at King Street.

Good Luck Ritual (or, in This Case, a Stroke of Luck): One evening, I came back to my home from a jewelry auction and parked my car in the garage. I had put the hammer in my pocket. The next morning, I couldn’t find it—I looked everywhere. I’d lost it. Three months later, I happen to go to the garage, forgetting that I had left my car outside [on the street]. What do I find? In the place where the car had driven back and forth over the past three months was the gavel. I could have crushed it. It survived—and I continued selling with it.

Most Memorable Bang: During my first auction, in the mid-’70s in London, the auctions were in guineas. And guineas are five percent more than the pound. So when you hammer something for 100 guineas, you have to write 1.5 in the auctioneer’s book. It’s simple when it’s 100. But try to calculate it at 227.50 plus five percent. The old auctioneers knew it by heart but at my first auction I was tense as could be. I was tracing the rate with my finger on a table and my poor hammer was trembling.

 

Sarah Krueger, Phillips’ Head of Photographs, New York

Sarah Krueger. Image courtesy Phillips

Sarah Krueger. Image courtesy Phillips

The Gavel: When I was training to be a Phillips auctioneer, my coach gifted me one of her old wooden gavels. I like thinking of its history every time I pick it up.

Good Luck Ritual: Pancakes! Always pancakes the night before an auction, preferably from a diner with a side of scrambled eggs. (A loved one gave me a gift after seeing me auctioneer for the first time in person: a ceramic plate with plastic pancakes on it.)

Most Memorable Bang: Immediately before an auction, I take a deep breath, step up to the podium, pick up my gavel, exhale, and give it a bang. It’s what settles me, kicks it all off, and gets me in the rhythm. So the first bang of the auction—that’s always the best and most important.

 

Elaine Kwok, Director, Chairman’s Office, Christie’s Asia

Elaine Kwok auctioneering Christie's December 2 relay sale in Hong Kong.

Elaine Kwok auctioneering Christie’s December 2 relay sale in Hong Kong.

The Hammer: My gavel was made in England, and given to me by Hugh Edmeades (the former Christie’s chairman of auctioneering) when I completed my auctioneer training in 2010. I love it because the handle is removable. It’s made from African Blackwood, and there’s a lovely heft to it. When I trained in Beijing to obtain the official PRC auctioneer license, my fellow trainees were fascinated by my two-in-one gavel, made in England, which is where this style of open-cry ascending auctions originated in the 18th century.

Good Luck Ritual: I get my three children to kiss my gavel good luck before each auction. They love being a part of the action!

Most Memorable Bang: Once, I went up on the rostrum and realized I forgot my gavel! I tried to make my frantic “I need a gavel!!” gestures as subtle and professional as possible. I opened the lot and sold it, and someone handed me a gavel just in time to strike it down.

 

Rahul Kadakia, Christie’s Global Head of Jewelry

Rahul Kadakia's auction gavel. Image courtesy Christie's.

Rahul Kadakia’s auction gavel. Image courtesy Christie’s.

The Gavel: I was based out of Christie’s Geneva office in 1999 when I first started auctioneering at age 25, so I did not get the customary gavel that newly appointed auctioneers receive. I went to François Curiel and asked if I could “borrow” one of his. Twenty-one years later, I still use the same gavel and he now occasionally “borrows” it back from me!

Good Luck Ritual: The ritual is simply to have my gavel for the sale. It would unnerve me if I forgot it for an overseas sale. That, and for luck, I always wear red socks and a blue Hermes tie with elephants on sale days. It’s a nod to my heritage and to Ganesh, the Lucky God of India!

Most Memorable Bang: There have been so many: the Elizabeth Taylor Collection, selling the Oppenheimer Blue and Pink diamonds… but the most memorable was at the end of a long year and even longer sale when it broke in my hand on the last lot of a session. I was totally distraught and spent the entire break having it fixed before the next session.

 

Michael Macaulay, Senior International Specialist at Sotheby’s

Michael Macaulay's gavel bears his initials and an inscription "May The Force Be With You". Image courtesy Michael Macaulay and Sotheby's.

Michael Macaulay’s gavel bears his initials and an inscription “May The Force Be With You”. Image courtesy Michael Macaulay and Sotheby’s.

The Gavel: I was given this gavel by my wife Valerie when I qualified as an auctioneer. Along with my initials, she had it inscribed “May the force be with you,” which so far, I’m pleased to say it has been.

Good Luck Ritual: I’m not superstitious, so on the day, I try to leave as little to luck as possible.

Most Memorable Bang: Despite so many changes in the business of global auctions, the role of an auctioneer has remained remarkably constant for centuries. I’ve been involved in a number of charity auctions both at Sotheby’s and externally, and auctioneering for a worthy cause is always particularly special.

 

Helena Newman, Sotheby’s Chairman, Europe, and Worldwide Head of Impressionist & Modern Art

Helena Newman at Sotheby’s on October 21, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s)

Helena Newman at Sotheby’s on October 21, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s)

The Gavel: Henry Wyndham had my gavel made for me just before he left Sotheby’s in 2016 by the same person who had crafted his own, which was very touching! It was perfectly made-to-measure for my size and weight, beautifully hand-carved in a dark wood. 

Good Luck Ritual: Getting prepared for a sale is all about the right mindset—it’s a combination of being relaxed whilst also having a razor-sharp focus. It helps to be on form physically with lots of exercise and deep breathing. My gavel is always on my desk in the office, so never too far from my thoughts!

Most Memorable Bang: I have been taking auctions for over 20 years, and most recently it was great fun to take to the rostrum for my first fully live-streamed sale this October. A bilingual affair, I was fielding bids in French and English.

 

Jussi Pylkkänen, Christie’s Global President

Jussi Pylkkanen. Image courtesy of Christie's.

Jussi Pylkkanen. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

The Gavel: Whilst I have a large collection of gavels spanning three centuries, I don’t use any of them in the rostrum. Instead, I have one very special gavel which was given to me by close friends at Christie’s more or less at the same time as I was appointed President of Christie’s Europe some 20 years ago. It is made of sustainable black hardwood with a silver band and lead core which gives it its perfect, crisp “report” when the gavel comes down on the aged mahogany of our Chippendale rostrums.

Good Luck Ritual: I have actually been offered a large amount of money for [the gavel] by several people but I could not bear to see it go unused and become a “trophy.” Like me, it needs to work hard to stay happy!

Most Memorable Bang: It has hammered down everything from the record-setting Bacon triptych, to Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, to Giacometti’s Pointing Man, to Modigliani’s Nu couche, to Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi. As a consequence, no other gavel in the world can have sold so much in the history of the art market I suspect… a strange thought!

 

Gemma Sudlow, Senior Vice President, Head of Private & Iconic Collections, Christie’s Americas

Gemma Sudlow. Image courtesy Christie's

Gemma Sudlow. Image courtesy Christie’s

The Gavel: It wasn’t unlike Harry Potter getting his wand—I walked into international head of auctioneering Hugh Edmeades’s office at King Street and there were about 12 gavels laid out on his desk. I got to feel each one in turn and chose the one that was “just right.” My gavel is hand carved and turned in a hard wood with a detachable handle.

Most Memorable Bang: Bringing down the gavel on musician David Gilmour’s Black Strat last June. Estimated at $100,000 to $150,000, it hammered at $3.3 million after a vigorous battle in the room. The gentleman who bought it had been in touch with us since the first press announcement months ahead of the auction. He waited in line outside to enter the building and register and we talked throughout that day as anticipation built. So when I stepped up to the rostrum and later brought the gavel down on that last lot of the sale, I looked to him and said, “This is YOUR moment”—and it was. We are still in touch and talk fondly of that wonderful shared memory.


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