In times of incipient recession and rising repossession, the only people who can expect to do well are receivers and auctioneers. So how do you go about honing your hammer skills?
Auctioneers fall into three main categories: those who deal in chattels (movable items such as furniture, antiques and fine art, cars and machinery); those who sell land and buildings; and those who deal in livestock.
If you want to be an auctioneer, says Charles Lucas, you need to have an aptitude for it – rather like acting. "You have to be able to hold an audience, sometimes for long periods, and develop an atmosphere that is conducive to the buyers wanting to buy and come back another day."
Lucas is an auctioneer and partner at Dreweatt Neate, in Chippenham, which specialises in property. Auctioneering was the family business. "I suppose I was always going to follow in my father's footsteps from about the age of 14," he says. "He had a market town practice with a weekly cattle market, a monthly chattels auction and occasional property sales." Lucas's father advised him to go to another firm for training, which he did before qualifying as a rural chartered surveyor.
The most exciting part of auctioneering, says Lucas, is coming across the unexpected. That happens when the seller, and sometimes the auctioneer, is surprised at the price achieved. "It's great when there's a hush over the room, followed by spontaneous applause created by the drama," he says.
The job can also be daunting, particularly when there are no bids. Each auctioneer has a style which suits them and the lots they sell. Livestock auctioneers, for example, tend to be quicker than those in fine art or property, where a missed bid could be very expensive.
There are no formal qualifications for being an auctioneer and requirements vary from employer to employer. It is possible to make a direct approach to a firm of auctioneers.
If you want to work in fine art, a related art degree helps, as do property qualifications if you intend to be a property auctioneer. The major auction houses usually look for a degree in fine or decorative arts but most training is on the job. Once in employment, potential hammer-bangers can work for a Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) diploma in fine art valuation or property valuation through distance learning.
Hannah Hill, 29, from Cheadle Hulme near Manchester, works for Eddisons auction house in Leeds. She says she wanted to be an auctioneer from a very young age and to that end embarked on a degree in fine arts and auctioneering at Sheffield University.
However, it wasn't quite what she wanted, so she took a year out and then did a three-year surveying course at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Because her course was accredited by the RICS, she was able to do all the training for the Young Auctioneer of The Year competition, which the RICS organised.
But jobs in auctioneering are few and far between, according to Hill. So she did property management for a year in Bristol before going back to the North-west. "I worked for the local authority as a surveyor for four years, got married, had a baby and finally got a job with Eddisons as an auction manager."
Her surveying experience certainly helped her get the job but the fact remains that you don't need to be qualified to start your training, she says. The first time you run an auction can be terrifying. "The adrenalin rush is immense," she says. "You have to command the attention of everybody."
Lead auctions can take hours and you can be on the rostrum for an hour at a time, which can be mentally straining, she says. "You have to watch what's going on, try not to clonk the hammer down, keep on top of where the bidding is and where the reserve is, and keep an eye on the vendors if they are in the room."
Hill is one of the very few female property auctioneers in the North-west. "I know of one other in London," she says, "but I don't ever feel discriminated against. I am a working mother with all the responsibilities that brings and I manage very well. Everyone is very supportive. Granted, I stick out like a sore thumb at forums, but everyone's really nice and I quite enjoy being a novelty!"
Where to train
* Southampton Solent University offers a BA in art, design and practices of display – www.solent.ac.uk
* Sotheby's Institute offers private courses, including an accredited degree studying the arts business – www.sothebys.co.uk
* Christie's runs an auctioneers' "school" known as "Auctioneer Idol" every other year for employees who have worked for the firm for more than three years – www.christies.com