I Want Your Job: Auctioneer

'It's an incredible adrenalin rush'
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The Independent Online

William O'Reilly, 32, is an auctioneer and specialist in Old Master drawings at Christie's auction house

What do you actually do?

Essentially, I buy drawings, identify them, put them into a catalogue, then find buyers. Finding drawings often involves putting out feelers over 20 years, building relationships with owners. Even so, half the drawings we auction come to us "off the street" - sometimes, people even bring them in an old plastic bag.

Most drawings aren't signed, so you need to think back through all your experience and knowledge about the period to identify it, and sometimes you need to call in outside experts. Then we put all the information we've gathered into a glossy catalogue, and the week before the sale, we hold an exhibition.

How do you feel during an auction?

It's an incredible adrenalin rush. It's the best free theatre in London - three hours of very concentrated activity. There's a large crowd in the room, several telephone lines open, and an online live video link. You are taught, as an auctioneer, that no matter how nervous you are, the other people in the room are always more nervous, because it's their money - I have seen experienced art dealers literally shaking.

I try not to talk too quickly, because otherwise people don't understand what you're saying. It's more about getting the room with you, lulling them into the rhythm, and getting people relaxed.

What do you love most about it?

It's incredibly varied. You travel the world and get taken round very interesting people's houses to look at beautiful things, and you get to be very nosy. You also get to do a lot of academic research, which tests your brain, and a lot of writing. As head of the Old Master Drawings department, I have a lot of autonomy, plus I get my moment in the limelight during the auction, which is a real buzz.

Are there any downsides to the job?

It involves a lot of work, with masses of library material to get through. The hours can be long, you work weekends, and it can be very stressful. For collectors, art is their hobby, but for me, it's my job. I still go to exhibitions at galleries and the British Museum on my days off, but I just have to get out of the habit of valuing everything I see. In fact, if an exhibition is travelling abroad, museums will call us to value pieces for insurance purposes, so quite often, I will have already done so!

What skills do you need to be a first-class auctioneer?

A lot of it is confidence and thinking on your feet. In terms of qualifications, you need to be enthusiastic and have a good degree. The only place you can learn is on the job. I haven't got an art-history background - in fact, we've had a few people who have done art history and they're not always the best. What you really need is the ability to hold an item in your hand and say who created it. You also need a retentive memory, as it's very specialised so there are lots of tiny details to remember.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to be an auctioneer?

First, do what I did - find out as much as you can about it. We offer internships where you get right in at the coalface and see what goes on at an auction house, and whether it's for you. Then, if you decide that you do want to do it, take whatever is given to you. I started out wanting to do Islamic art, but there weren't any jobs at the time. So I did Old Master drawings instead, and found I loved it.

What's the career path and salary like?

You start by making the coffee, doing the legwork, going to the library and doing basic cataloguing. As time goes by, you build up relations with clients and become known in the art world. You could move into management, go into Academe, or become a dealer, setting up on your own. When I started in 1998, I think I was earning £13,000 a year. Nowadays, people start out on £18,000-£19,000 a year.

For details of training at Christie's: www.christies.com National Association of Valuers and Auctioneers: www.nava.org.uk