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Interview: Aurel Bacs, Watch Auction's Man Of The Moment

“An auctioneer should never harass the audience.”

Aurel Bacs
He’s perhaps most famous for selling the Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona for US$17.8million in New York at the Phillips ‘Winning Icons’ Auction. But Aurel Bacs is under no illusions that he’s a lucky man.

“I sometimes wonder why is it there are seven billion people on the planet and I was the lucky one who was allowed to sell this watch for $17.8millon,” he muses.

Ahead of the Geneva Watch Auction: SEVEN to be held on 12 and 13 May, we caught up with Bacs to ask what it’s like yielding the hammer in a way that fascinates so many.

After all these years working with some of the finest timepieces, what still gets you excited about watches?

Every morning I get up and I have no clue what I'm going to discover. My job is a little like being Indiana Jones. You don't know what's around the corner. It could be a pleasant surprise; a great discovery, and you just go forward. There's still so much to see and learn. I have hardly noticed that 25 years in this industry have just gone by.

What does it take to be a good auctioneer?
You have to know the property you're selling. I have been asked to sell art and jewellery, and I realised that I was a very different auctioneer because I had much less knowledge of what I was selling. You also need to know the audience. Are they collectors or buyers? Members of the press? Sellers or competitors?

You’re able to determine that?
As someone who's been doing this now for over 20 years, yes. I know most of the clients in an auction room. I know their faces, their names, what they're collecting, and what they're interested in. I think it's like a music band. They are constantly in a dialogue with the audience. And they know exactly when it is the right moment to play which song based on the feedback they're getting.

What other skills do you need?
It is helpful that you don't suffer from anxiety, are not too introverted, and are good with numbers. The rest is improvisation. You do not know when the room stops or continues bidding. You have to know to play like a stand-up comedian. You prepare as much as you can but then you have to play with the room.

How do you know how far to push a bid?
Some auctioneers think being a good auctioneer means to push and push. There is a moment where even the best auctioneer cannot get an extra bid because the watch has already achieved not only its full market price but maybe even 10 per cent more. And then it becomes very annoying for the public if you keep on begging them, insisting, pestering them, for another bid.

How do you avoid that?
By knowing your watches and knowing the audience. If you know that this watch is $10,000 and you have achieved $10,000, and you look at all the faces and they tell you, "No thank you, I'm done", by saying, "Ma'am, one more?" they will say “No, I told you no. Leave me alone.” An auctioneer should never harass the audience. You learn it with time. You just develop a feeling when it's the right moment to bring the gavel down.

What’s the most common misconception people have about your job?
That a good auctioneer can unreasonably influence what’s happening and that we’re in charge. I do not set the record prices—the bidders do. I am a facilitator, a moderator in between two parties. Without their goodwill and intentions to sell and to buy, I can't do anything. I cannot impose on the room to volunteer paying $17million for a Rolex Daytona if they don't want to.

Read the full interview in the June 2018 issue of CROWN. To subscribe, click here.

Ex Managing Editor

Like most people these days, Melissa tells the time with her phone. She considers serious timepieces works of art and thinks the perpetual calendar is the handiest complication to date (pun not intended). She's also a Grammar Nazi but promises not to judge if you can't tell the difference between "guilloche" and "guillotine".