Christie’s Auction: Reflections from a Master’s Student 100K in Debt
As a 25 year old graduate student from the United States, I have a little over a $100,000 of debt in my name. It’s pretty much the only thing of value I have if I’m being honest, so walking into a room full of people ready to spend 10x that much in a single night is certainly an experiencing worth chronicling. Sitting in the middle of the room I had a good view of the podium and the potential buyers. I wondered who these people could be. How did they acquire so much money? What percentage of their net value were they about to spend tonight? What did they do when they were not buying priceless jewels? As I pondered these questions the auctioneer walked on stage and announced the start of the auction.
I was able to identify three different types of people in the room; the bidders, the proxy bidders, and the audience. As the lots began to be called, each group played a part in creating an intensely charged atmosphere. The bidders became quiet and focused, studying both the items being auctioned and the other bidders in the room. It was clear that many of them knew each other, as I had seen them greet each other before the auction had began. The auctioneer knew them as well as he called them by name both to ask them to bid and to raise their bid if they had been out bid by someone else. The bidders I realized were studying each other to see how they would bid or what items they would go for; almost like they were studying their opponents’ tactics or plays before a big match. I found this pretty odd given that the goal of a match is to win, but I had always assumed that the goal of an auction was to acquire a particular item that holds value to an individual, and in this case value not meaning monetary. Because if you have a couple 100,000K to spend…do you really want anything because its monetary value is high? I would think, maybe naively that if you were wealthy enough to be a “regular” at an auction, you’re probably not as interested in the price. After a half hour passed, however, I realized that there were bidders in the room who were not serious buyers. They were just there, so it seemed, to drive up the price of particular items. It then occurred to be that a large part of the reason that these people (these top of the top 1% people) wanted to buy these items is because other people wanted them. The function of these “inflating” bids was just a marketing tactic by someone (Christie’s? The sellers? I would love to know) to increase demand among the buyers, and ultimately what the buyers believe the item is worth and how much they are willing to pay for it. Good to know that being ridiculously wealthy does not exclude you from being easily manipulated into overpaying by easy marketing tactics. Kind of reminds me how I got manipulated into paying for graduate school because “that is what you need now a days since everyone has a bachelors and employers want more.”
The proxy bidders were very interesting, constantly on the phone taking direction from their buyers. They would often cover their mouth so no one could hear them or read their lips as they conversed with their buyers. I wondered what they could be speaking about because sometimes their conversations were so long, even in the middle of bids. I thought maybe the proxy was describing the room or the bidders in the room to help them make choices on how much and what to bid on. My main questions for this group were of course; who are your buyers, why are they not here or bidding online, how much commission did they make, and did they need a graduate degree to get that job? One woman in particular caught my attention as she bid on a total of five items, totaling close to 4 million dollars. All I could think is wow, this proxy buyer could have paid my debt tonight and her buyer would probably have never noticed. Instead, she spent 4 million francs in one night on, what I thought, were kind of ugly pieces of jewelry.
The audience, who I myself was a part of, were probably the strangest group of people there for me. Were these people frequenting auctions often too? Did they just like to watch, fantasize about what they do not have or maybe what they hope to have one day? Are they there to find a date perhaps? Certainly an opportune place depending on what you are looking for. It was clear to me, just like a sports match, that the audience was excited and as engaged in the event as the buyers themselves were. When an item was particularly high priced, or there were just two bidders going head to head driving up the price, the whole room seemed to hold their breath, waiting to see who would bring the goal home. The whole experience felt surreal. Until that moment I had never entered a room full of people so willing and excited to watch millions of dollars be invested into pretty minerals that only have value because people said so. I hope my graduate degree works the same way.
Author: Rachna Mehta