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How Do You Make a Living, Auctioneer?

Noah Davis talks to CK Swett, a rising star in the auctioneering world, about the secret to raising millions of dollars, how he lands his gigs, and why auctioneering is a young man's game.
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(Photo: Andrew Einhorn)

(Photo: Andrew Einhorn)

Four years ago, CK Swett was just another guy in his mid-20s, on the grind in an office job he didn't love, seeking something he did. He found it in an unlikely source: auctioneering. He started doing charity auctions on behalf of Christie’s, where he was working at the time, and learned to control a room and get those bidding hands in the air. After the New York Timesfeatured Swett, his phone started ringing, and it hasn't stopped since. A little more than a year ago he quit his full-time job to focus on auctioneering and even has his own protegee. The 32-year-old talked to Pacific Standard about the economics of the business, the secret to raising millions of dollars, and why auctioneering is a young man's game.

How many auctions do you do?

Auctioneering is a pretty seasonal business. I did 12 events in October and November. I did four in September and two in December. I'll do four this month, a few in February, and then if everything goes well, hopefully around 10 a month in March, April, and May.

How do you find gigs?

The barriers to entry are so high in my line of work that it's nearly impossible to become an auctioneer. Because of all the fortuitous breaks that went my way, I don't have very much competition. It's a small market with limited demand, but there's a much more limited supply.

Why is it so hard?

How many auctioneers do you know?

Well, just you.

Right. And let's just say you decided that you wanted to become an auctioneer tomorrow. How would you do that?

I have no idea.

There is an idea of how to become almost anything else from newscaster to consultant to actor, but you can't just start auctioneering. You can't set up a soapbox on a street corner and start selling things.

Nobody does. That's the thing. Everybody knows what an auctioneer is but nobody knows how to get there. There is an idea of how to become almost anything else from newscaster to consultant to actor, but you can't just start auctioneering. You can't set up a soapbox on a street corner and start selling things. You have to have an auction in place. To become an auctioneer, you generally have to work for an auction company. You have to put in five, six years there. And to get a job at an auction company is one of the hardest things to do. The number of art history grads versus the number of art history-related jobs isn't a good ratio.

How did you do it?

In the summer of 2010, a bunch of my friends were getting married and I wanted to give a toast, but I was terrified of public speaking. I was working at Christie’s and the human resources department offered a class. I loved it. It was absolutely exhilarating, the type of thrill I think other people experience when they go on roller coaster rides. I went back to HR and asked about the charity auctioneers. They have a stable of young people who go out and do auctions as ambassadors for the brand. I tried out, and I got an email later that day. It said that I passed and that they were sending me out to Long Island the following Monday. I went out there. I was super stoked and super nervous. It was a disaster. An absolute disaster.

What happened?

All the things that after doing auctions for four years I would never let happen. Some things that I couldn't control. It was on a Monday, following a charity golf tournament that took place in a monsoon. I went up at 9:30 p.m. after four long, long speakers. I had to sell eight things, and there was silence. The first lot sold after just one bid. The second lot was a puppy. They brought it up and put it in my arms. The puppy was terrified. I was terrified. We barely sold that. On lot number three, the microphone broke. Everything was crumbling around me. The auction was out in East Hampton and the whole two- or three-hour ride back, I was thinking about how I failed. But I didn't hear anything bad, and Christie’s sent me out again. I got a little better. Then they sent me out again, and it went a little better.

I watched another young person at my company, Sara Friedlander, who is an absolute star, run an auction. She was incredible. I sat in the back of the room somewhere in Midtown. She had 400 or 500 people eating out of her hand. I took mental notes. The next time I went out and did it was at a Molton Brown cosmetics store. I was behind the cash register, and there were 50 or 60 people there. For the first time I felt like I was a conductor, a master of ceremonies. I was really able to control the small crowd in the cosmetics store. It was awesome.

After that, I just kept saying yes. Christie’s gets so many requests, and most people don't like doing it. Auctioneering is so hard to get good at. You're so exposed. You're up there with a broken microphone and a terrified puppy, and you have 500 people who just want to go home looking at you. You're up there asking them for thousands and thousands of dollars. When it goes poorly, it goes so poorly. But for some reason I liked it, kept saying yes, and inched closer and closer in that Malcolm Gladwellian sense to 10,000 hours.

I'm just another cog in the Philanthropy Industrial Complex.

You were working and auctioneering?

While I had a full-time, 10-6 job, I was doing 60 events a year, pro bono. That was my apprenticeship. I'd go to work, have a tuxedo in a garment bag, do my work, then head off to an event. That's a level of obsession that allows you to continue to get better at what you do. You build your craft. You learn what works.

How did it turn into a career?

When you're at Christie’s, Sotheby's, or Phillips [de Pury & Company], you are an ambassador of the company as an auctioneer. You do it as a point of pride. You don't get paid for it. At Heritage [Auctions where Swett worked after Phillips], because it's bigger and more diverse and not based in New York, it was intuitive for the auctioneers to charge. I had a conversation with a colleague who put it in perspective. Before he started charging, he was actually losing money despite the fact that his skill set was adding so much value. With three years under my belt, I started thinking a little more critically about what I was actually doing. I started to think about it like I was part of the Philanthropy Industrial Complex: caterers, event spaces, DJs, audio. It's a huge world, $40 or $50 billion all told in the United States. It's insane. It's an inefficient model.

At that point, I had raised around $20 million, and it had cost me $1,000 or so. I loved it. But my dry cleaning bills got expensive. In October of 2013, I started thinking about the numbers, and I learned a little more about how much it costs to book a DJ, how much event spaces cost, and then how much value I was adding. Baseball has a concept called WAR (Wins Above Replacement), and I started thinking about what you could call FAR, or Fundraising Above Replacement. Say I'd go do an event with a big-time theater company, and they'd have a goal of $500,000, which was a little more than they raised the previous year. After being on stage for 45 minutes, we'd raise $750,000. My FAR is $250,000. If I charge a fee—a flat fee because I don't charge a commission for ethical reasons—it's worth it for the organization.

Did you just start telling people you were charging?

It was a tough conversation at first, especially with repeat clients. They'd call and ask me to do their fundraiser. I would tell them that I could but that I had started charging for my services.

Did anyone balk at that?

Yeah, totally. At first, it was really hard. Now I don't worry about it or take it personally. It's business. It's my line of work, and I've had the cultural shift. I'm just another cog in the Philanthropy Industrial Complex. My value-add is insane. My FAR is stupid. I probably fund-raise $100,000 or $200,000. Let's say my fee is $2,500. That's the equivalent of two or three bids across an evening where hopefully there are going to be 40 bids or so. If I can just get 10 percent more bids, that flat fee makes sense.

I'm trying to figure it out on my own. I don't have an auctioneer peer group I can go to. How do you figure out a pricing model? I don't know. I just stumble around. Fortunately, what I have been able to do as I transition to this more full-time is spend more time with the organizations. Say I'm doing a fundraiser in Connecticut with the PTA. I'll go up there and work them through the process. Give me a microphone and an audience, and I'm great. But those PTA parents don't know how to throw fundraisers. That's the real value I bring. They aren't professionals. They are really well-meaning and they care, but as a consultant, I know what works and what doesn't.

I went to a school fundraiser while I was still working the full-time job. I showed up early for a sound-check, and an overzealous parent had made table settings with huge feathers. My lines of sight were horribly obstructed. The event went well, but those feathers probably cut my fundraising ability by $20,000. And it added nine minutes of running time because I had to physically move around to see the bids. Now I can help go in earlier and help with these minor, nuanced things that they don't think of.

What's the end game?

I've been a professional only for 14 months, which is not that long. It's a young man's game. It's a night job. I drink a triple espresso before I go onstage at 9 p.m. It's such an adrenaline rush that I'm not going to sleep before 4 or 5 a.m. I'm 32 now. I don't think I want to be doing this kind of work—60, 70, 80 events a year—when I'm 38 or 40.

I have my first protegee. He's 26 years old, really good looking, and has a British accent. He came up through one of the online auction houses. I can do only 60 or 70 percent of the events I get asked to do. I send him all the events that I can't do. His fees are smaller, but I have an agreement with him. But I don't know if that's something that really can scale, and I don't want to be a manager.

My dream is to go even further downmarket. I'm embarrassed to say this, but what I want to become in the next five years is ESPN's Fantasy Football auctioneer. I want Bill Simmons, Tony Kornheiser, Jon Hamm, "Cousin" Sal Iacono, and others to be representing a charity. Take a day, film them drafting, and turn it into a one-hour special. If I can do that, then there's the potential that I can brand my name with the concept of auctioneering. There are 300 million Americans, and most of them can't name an auctioneer. But if I was the Fantasy Football auctioneer, they would know my name. It's the same way that everybody knows what a weatherman is, but Al Roker is America's weatherman. At that point, I don't know what would happen, but if you can get your name synonymous with a concept, interesting things start to happen.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.