It"s quite possible that a dispute may arise over which profession can be considered to be the oldest, but there is no doubt which profession is the rarest. It"s the profession of the auctioneer. There are only two people conducting auctions in Saint-Petersburg. Despite the fact that auctioneers are the personification of all businessmen"s dream of `selling things they"ve got for nothing at a high price" it"s easy to explain why we have so few auctioneers. There are no Christies and Sotheby"s auctions in our northern capital and the city doesn"t have its own popular auctions either. Due to this local auctioneers are selling fur-pelts instead of paintings and candelabra.
The number of auctioneers who are dealing with pelts both, not only in Russia, but all over the world can be counted on one"s fingers. Furthermore, over 95 percent of raw furs are sold at auction.
Therefore, an auctioneer is really important for a company dealing in furs; he or she is a sort of brand, the prestige of which rises with each auction conducted. Victor Chipurnoy has already been conducting auctions for almost 25 years (what"s more he"s the vice-chief of "Sojuzpushnina").
The first thing he does is shatter some popular myths. To begin with he hasn"t got a hammer. He"s got just a little wooden ball, ("it"s more respectable and more comfortable for the hand") which is called a "beetle" by professionals.
Secondly, they don"t call themselves auctioneers. "In Dahl"s dictionary a person who conducts an auction is called an auctioneer. But we"re used to calling ourselves auctionators. I have no idea where this word comes from. My teachers used this word. We"re trying to use the correct word but still use "auctionator" sometimes. It has become a habit", - sighs Victor Chipurnoy. In his vocabulary there are other words, which are usually used only by auctioneers. For example "dropat", it means to lower prices. This word comes from the English "to drop". Auctioneers should speak English fluently to do their job.
When asked whether he could sell a mangy cat skin, at first, Victor Chipurnoy flatly denies such a possibility: "We don"t sell mangy cat skins. We are a world-famous company after all." But then he adds: "An auctioneer doesn"t really care what he sells. Sometimes you are selling something and keep thinking that you won"t get anything for it. But, then you try to cheer up the buyers, tell some jokes, and the price starts going up."
Working at an auction is hard. The auctioneer can have perspiration dripping from his forehead like a runner and have his blood pressure sky-rocketing. Auctioneers alternate with one another at the auction after 1.5-2 hours. And if one has a cold or a soar throat - it is considered a disaster. But, Chipurnoy doesn"t need to eat chicken yolks for his vocal cords. He drinks strong tea to keep him lively, sometimes with a drop of cognac.
People aren"t born auctioneers - they have to become them. "There was a tradition in our company of raising auctioneers from managerial positions. We don"t invite people from different areas. Though old-timers say they took experts from Germany for the first auctions, which were held in the 1930s. Our people were afraid then to bring shame upon themselves - it was a new business, we had no experience and nowhere to gain it. But, gradually we began to train our own people. We had many extremely talented auctioneers. There was even competition between the managers - everyone wanted to host auctions."-Victor Chipurnoy says.
Now there are two auctioneers and one probationer at "Sojuzpushnina". That"s not many: in the golden years "Sojuzpushnina" had up to six auctioneers. Victor Chipurnoy himself doesn"t immediately remember in which year his first auction took place. "It was at the end of the 1970s" - he says - " They began attracting young people to this profession. And so I became one of those people, who was offered the chance to try their hand at this. Come out into the hall is almost the same as going on stage. I got accustomed to it quickly, although I had studied neither in the theatrical studio, nor in artistic circles."
The first thing that a newcomer could sell was lynx. "There were many buyers, the goods sold very quickly and the auctioneer-trainee had the opportunity to prove his worth. And the management was observing from a distance to see whether he would become embarrassed or not. "It was with lynx that we had our basic training" - Chipurnoy recalls. Having had success with lynx, the young employee of "Soyuzpushina" went up in the world quickly. But lynx didn"t become his favourite fur. "As an expert, I started my career with the quality control of astrakhan fur. At the same time it occupied the entire floor. But, after that astrakhan fur left our market. It"s a pity. It was a beautiful kind of fur."
Holding an auction is a kind of "social obligation". The host gets neither extra money, nor a percentage. As a reward the auctioneer can get a bonus.
There are only four auction centers in the world, which sell fur- in Denmark, Finland, North America and Russia.
"Only fur and horses were sold at auctions in our country during the Soviet time. But horses are single-items of trade, and there were only a few dozen customers. And in contrast fur auctions are always big enterprises with a few thousand participants. In the golden years goods were sold during the week from morning till evening", - Victor Chipurnoy says trying to defend the honor of his profession.
Though the auction is only the tip of the iceberg. " The training starts a few months before this performance. Goods-dealers deliver pelts to the storage area and experts from the auction company sort them into lots. Every lot is compared with goods, which are similar in quality. The lots, which are similar in quality, are usually close together to form rows - the strings. The second stage of the process is when clients inspect the goods - this starts approximately one week before the auction begins", Victor Chipurnoy answers this FAQ for the uninitiated. As for the auction itself it now takes 2-3 days and resembles more a play involving a single actor than an exclusive business proceeding.
The knock of a knocker means hundreds and thousands of dollars. Responsibility is great. If a host is delayed, he loses $5. It might seem like a trifle but as a result this sum becomes huge. At the last auction Chipurnoy and colleagues "knocked" their way up to $10 million.
The auction is a constant struggle. The most terrible situation is when demand is low. Then customers pull back and everyone tries to lower the price. An auctioneer must struggle for every dollar. "If on the contrary, the market is good, there are still problems. Everybody wants to buy one lot and you have to define honestly, who was the last bidder" - says Victor Chipurnoy. "But, can you imagine: three hands go up at the same time! The final decision rests with the host. If arguments flare up - you must react immediately, suppress the objections and tell a joke. The most dangerous situation is when the auction becomes a bear-pit and chaos breaks out. The auctioneer must restore order. Sometimes it happens that an auctioneer irritates the public: he is too slow, he stammers, or makes mistakes. This is also impossible."
Customers compete among themselves. They don"t want to reveal exactly who bought a lot. Customers signal their "agreement" to buy a lot with a raise of a hand or a pencil, or with a nod of the head.
"An auctioneer who works for a long time knows all the client"s habits and their mimic signs" - Chipurnoy explains. "An incompetent person would never understand who had bought a lot. But, to tell the truth, sometimes you have to ask again - so you "spit out" a client. As a rule, an auctioneer rarely makes mistakes and there are few returns. But, sometimes a customer says that he has not bought the lot in question. But, these are often not the mistakes of the auctioneer. It"s just that the client has calculated and decided not to buy the lot and so, blames the auctioneer for the error.
A curious case at the St-Petersburg auction was connected with a customer from Japan. "He came to us for the first time and he had been ordered by his bosses to buy a lot, which consisted of 10 sovkhoz sable pelts. This was too small a number to create a fur garment from, but the pelts were of excellent quality and could be used in advertising. The Japanese representative probably missed something. And there are "sharks" sitting at the auction, who were goading him. This lot had a start price of either $50 or $70 and could possibly sell for $300-400, but they knocked the price up to $8 000. People in the hall were furious. Something like that has never happened at our auctions. That representative never came to us again; they say that he was fired from his job.
"Delovoy Peterburg" - 06.02.2003 //Elvi Usmanova