Analysis
Art market

Going, going, gone? Men’s tight grip on the gavel starts to loosen

A growing number of women are appearing on the rostrum and taking senior auctioneer roles

Rising stars of the rostrum: award-winner Georgina Hilton of Christie’s Christie’s

For the first time in the prize’s ten-year history, a female fine art auctioneer won the UK’s Novice Auctioneer of the Year award. In October, Georgina Hilton, who joined Christie’s in 2013 and works in the Old Master paintings department, beat nine male colleagues to take the title, organised by the National Association for Valuers and Auctioneers (Nava). It is the third year in a row a woman has been awarded the prize, although both previous winners were property auctioneers.

The win is a boon to female art and antiques auctioneers, both established and aspiring, who have long been outnumbered in a male-dominated field. But is this a sign that things are finally evening out between the sexes?

Yes, says Catherine Southon, who started out at Sotheby’s in 1996 and set up her own eponymous auction business five years ago, holding sales in Surrey, just outside London. “It was hard going off on valuations on your own as a young woman,” Southon recalls of the early days. “People wouldn’t take you seriously. They would ask to speak to the boss, presuming them to be a man.”

Southon believes television programmes about auctions have helped raise the profile of women in the business; she has worked as an expert and presenter on a number of BBC shows, including Flog It! and Bargain Hunt. However, a recently published list of the BBC’s highest earners shows that Fiona Bruce, who presents Antiques Roadshow, is paid between £350,000 and £399,000, while the newsreader Huw Edwards gets between £550,000 and £599,000.

Nonetheless, Southon detects a levelling of the playing field. “Men used to be promoted from porter to specialist to auctioneer, and women were kept at assistant level. A lot more women are being employed to senior positions,” she says, adding that all four of her full-time staff are women.

However, when it comes to young female auctioneers, dealers often “try and get away with cheeky increments” when bidding, Southon says. “You have to be firm, which comes with experience.” She concedes that “controlling a room with a booming voice” can be difficult, particularly during rowdy charity auctions.

People want to know they're in good hands. They want magic, it is theatre, after all.

At the top level of the art market, the coveted spot of evening sale auctioneer remains elusive for most women. In June 2016, Helena Newman, Sotheby’s worldwide co-head of Impressionist and Modern art, became the first woman to preside over a major evening sale in London since Melanie Clore took her first and last one in 1990, also at Sotheby’s.

Newman acknowledges consignors were a little hesitant to begin with even though she had 20 years of auctioneering under her belt. “If you are a seller, you don’t want to be experimented on. You want something that’s tried and tested,” she says. “But since that moment, people have been incredibly positive and supportive. Male or female—people want to know that they are in good hands. In fact, they want magic. It is theatre, after all.” As a classically trained violinist, Newman is a natural performer, a common trait among auctioneers.

She says that Sotheby’s has a “good track record” of appointing women to senior positions. In 1976, it recruited 24-year-old Libby Howie as its first female auctioneer, prompting the London Evening Standard newspaper headline: “Women’s Libby”. The first female auctioneer at Christie’s, meanwhile, was Anke Adler-Slottke, who took her inaugural stamp sale in 1964 in Zurich and made her debut at the auction house’s London HQ in the 1970s.

Kaeli Deane Phillips

Phillips is also nurturing young female auctioneers. Kaeli Deane, head of the Latin American art department and one of three new recruits to the rostrum (the other two are men), took her first auction in New York last month. She describes Vivian Pfeiffer, the deputy chairman of Phillips in America, as “an incredible mentor” and adds that senior female staff such as Cheyenne Westphal, Miety Heiden and Dina Amin are “all very conscious of making sure that younger women feel supported to try out new endeavours in the company”. Phillips currently has four female and five male auctioneers worldwide—a healthy proportion by any standard.

Figures for previous years were not available, but spokeswomen for Sotheby’s and Christie’s say the number of women taking auctions is on the rise. At Sotheby’s, 32% of its 75 auctioneers worldwide are women. At Christie’s, that figure is 28% (out of 51). Newman says it is only a matter of time before more women move up to evening sales. “Women bring great qualities to auctioneering in terms of that famous female intuition and being attuned to how the market operates,” she says.

As the figures suggest, however, equality is still some way off. The London collector Valeria Napoleone, who only buys work by female artists, says, “From the auctioneer to the people bidding to the artists being bid on, salerooms are totally male-dominated. Across the art market, women deserve equal pay and equal opportunities.”

  • New on the block: Past, present and future
Melanie Clore of Clore Wyndham Clore Wyndham

Melanie Clore Clore Wyndham

Melanie Clore, who left Sotheby’s in 2016 after 35 years, blazed a trail by becoming the first ever woman to take an evening sale in 1990. She left the auction house with Henry Wyndham, her fellow European chairman, to set up their own fine art firm.

Helena Newman taking her first evening sale Sotheby's

Helena Newman Sotheby’s

Helena Newman is today’s role model for up-and-coming female auctioneers. During her first evening auction in June 2016, she sold Picasso’s Femme Assise for £43.3m (with fees), a record price for any Cubist work. Newman now presides over two flagship sales in London and two in New York every year.

Georgina Hilton Christie’s

Georgina Hilton Christie’s

Novice Auctioneer of the Year 2017 is Georgina Hilton, a business intelligence analyst in Christie’s Old Master paintings department. The only woman in the competition, she took her first auction in January at Christie’s.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper, 295 November 2017