World-Class Auctioneer Lydia Fenet Shares Her Secrets To Commanding A Room

by Stephanie Maida · March 3, 2023

    You don’t need to be a regular at art auctions or charity events to have some image of an auctioneer in your mind. They’re fast-talking, enthusiastic, and persuasive AF. Not only can they hold their own in front of a room full of high-powered VIPs, they can also get those VIPs to write some serious checks in less than a minute. Obviously, it takes confidence, gusto, and an incredible ability to command a room to be master of the gavel. 

    Just ask Lydia Fenet, a Christie’s ambassador and legendary force on the philanthropy circuit who’s helped raise over $1 billion for hundreds of nonprofits at events across the world. Over the past 20 years of her career, she’s sold everything from cars to yachts to Bruce Springsteen’s mom’s lasagna for tens of thousands of dollars. She once even auctioned off the water bottle standing on her podium.

    Her motto? “It’s not what you sell, it’s how you sell it.” And that’s where the confidence comes in.

    With a bestselling book under her belt (which has presently been optioned by Netflix), a hit podcast, and another title on the way this month, Lydia proves that her philosophy for cultivating a powerful presence extends far beyond the auction stage.

    So just what are her secrets to success? Read on to find out!

    How did you first find yourself behind the auctioneer's podium?
    I tried out to be an auctioneer when I was working at Christie’s in my early 20s. I watched auctioneers taking art and charity auctions in my first three years at the company, and it always looked so fun and glamorous. It wasn’t until I stood up at the rostrum the first-time during tryouts that I realized how many things you have to think about when you are onstage: the paddle numbers, keeping the increments straight, making sure that you know where your bidders are so you can go back to them when the bidding slows and the list goes on. When I made the third round of cuts and passed the auctioneering class, I never looked back. It’s been 20 years and there is nothing I love as much as getting onstage and raising money for non-profits.

    What's one (or a few) of the most memorable things you've sold?
    I’m at the point in my career where I can sell anything you put in front of me. I specialize in charity auctions so if you name it, I’ve probably sold it at some point over the course of my career: cars, trips on yachts, vacation homes, and dinner in your home with famous chefs.

    My favorite thing to sell is something that truly has no value except what I can convince someone to pay in the heat of the moment. Some of my favorites that have all sold for over $50,000: a dance lesson with Madonna, dinner with Jerry Seinfeld, Bruce Springsteen, Seth Myers and Jon Stewart at Chipotle, a plate of Bruce Springsteen’s mom’s lasagna, the chance to sit on Jon Stewart’s lawn while you both yell at cars passing his house.

    At the end of the day, the money all goes to charity so as long as people are having fun and can afford it, they will keep bidding. I was doing a speech for a company recently and towards the end of the speech decided to sell a bottle of water to show them what it is like at a charity auction. I asked the audience to name a charity – which they did – and I auctioned off a free bottle of water that was sitting on the podium. I sold it for $1000 and the money went to the charity. It’s not what you sell, it’s how you sell it.

    What are some of your secrets to commanding a room? How do you hype yourself up?
    When I’m backstage, seconds from walking onto a big stage, I remind myself that I need to bring the energy I want from the room. If I want an audience to be hyped up, I have to walk onstage with the confidence of someone who owns the room. Everyone in the audience should feel like I have never been more excited to be onstage in my life. Once I go out there with that confidence, I raise my gavel and slam it down to get their attention and hype up the crowd. I call it the Strike Method – it’s my way of ensuring I am ready to go every single time I hit the stage.

    How can auctioneering skills be applied to finding success in one's personal and professional life?
    You learn to get comfortable getting uncomfortable. My success in auctioneering comes from having been through almost every situation imaginable. There are times when people heckle me from the audience, my microphone doesn’t work, people get on the stage and try to commandeer the microphone...and don’t get me started on virtual auctioneering from my living room during COVID. It’s taught me that I need to expect the unexpected instead of believing that everything is going to go smoothly every time I am onstage. 

    Since I am always expecting a curveball, it never throws me off my game. That applies to both your personal and professional life. Confidence comes from believing that no matter what happens around you, YOU are strong enough to handle it. That is definitely something I learned from 20 years of auctioneering.

    Obviously, you're no stranger to fancy affairs. What are some of your favorite event-dressing tips?
    I am definitely no stranger to dressing up. I am probably in cocktail or black tie 2-3 times a week to go onstage at galas around the country. When it comes to dressing up, I always recommend wearing something that is comfortable, but makes you feel amazing. Even the simplest dress can get a boost from amazing accessories so never be afraid to go big on the sparkle. My foolproof uniform is a pair of oversized sparkly earrings, high heels, and a brightly colored dress.

    What inspired you to write your books and start your podcast? What have been the most rewarding takeaways from them?
    I wrote my first book, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You, because every time I walked off the stage after an auction, there was a woman who asked “How did you learn to do that?” followed by a litany of negative things about selling... “I hate selling, I am bad at selling, I can never sell anything because I feel like they are rejecting me when they say no”. I didn’t start out as someone who loved to sell, but after two decades selling all day and all night, I realized I had a lot of experiences that could show other people how to make it less intimidating, and part of their everyday life. 

    When I was on my book tour and giving speeches I started to hear a different question: “How did you become so confident” or “How can I be more confident”. The answer to that question became Claim Your Confidence. I always write to the white space because where there are questions there is an opportunity to fill that space. 

    I started my podcast Claim Your Confidence because I was living in New York and found myself surrounded with the most amazing women at the top of their careers. It always looks so easy from the outside that it dissuades a lot of people from even trying because they assume the person just magically achieved success. Getting to the top of a career takes hard work with many ups, but likely many, many downs. I wanted to let people everywhere hear about that journey from people who have lived it and held onto their confidence.

    When in doubt, always:
    Listen to yourself first. I hear so many people asking other people what they should do with their life. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. The only person you answer to in life is you, so trust yourself to make decisions for you.

    [Photos courtesy Lydia Fenet]