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A peek inside the lucrative life of high-end charity auctioneers

Melody Hahm
·West Coast Correspondent

Last month I attended a gala for The Asian American Federation at The Pierre Hotel in New York City. Five women, including Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) and New York City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, were honored for their contributions to the Asian community.

Halfway through their impassioned speeches, as guests were finishing their dinner rolls and second glasses of wine, an energetic man wearing a sharp tweed suit and glossy leather shoes rushed onto the stage.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” the man began reciting the most recognizable lines of “The New Colossus,” a poem best known for being on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty. (Coincidentally, American poet Emma Lazarus wrote the sonnet in 1883 for an auction to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.) The excerpt jump started the live auction portion of the evening.

This charismatic Caucasian man captivated the entire ballroom. Attendees started whipping out their phones, recording his performance and posting the video to Snapchat and Instagram.

CK Swett hosting a live auction at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Beat the Odds Gala at the Pierre Hotel on February 29, 2016 in New York City (Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
CK Swett hosting a live auction at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Beat the Odds Gala at the Pierre Hotel on February 29, 2016 in New York City (Monica Schipper/Getty Images)

While it may have been a memorable evening for many of us in the room, it was just another Thursday evening for CK Swett, a full-time charity auctioneer, who earned over a quarter-million dollars last year.

The auction was supposed to take place at the end of the evening, but Swett made the executive decision to push it up after speeches that generated intense emotional reactions from attendees.

“My job is to be able to read the energy in the room and understand my avenue. Thankfully, I had that poem somewhere in the back of my head from social studies class from junior year of high school. It’s easy enough to memorize,” he told Yahoo Finance.

“It could have fallen flat, but to me it was the perfect example of my role in the current political environment. It felt like ‘Hey, here’s an outsider that is calling on you for help.’ What am I able to contribute to the Asian American cause? As a white man, it’s making myself vulnerable… and doing my part to help organizations like AAF.”

Auctioneering… full time?

While Swett is helping to raise money for nonprofits, his work is very profitable. AAF raised $23,000 within 10 minutes and Swett received $3,000 for his time, which included a consulting session with the organizers prior to the event.

Just a few years ago Swett, now 38 years old, never imagined he would be compensated for auctioneering gigs. He held his first auction in October 2010, a side gig he got at Christie’s, where his full-time job was putting together pitch books. He left Christie’s in 2011 and ended up working in the proposals departments at other auction houses. But by the fall of 2013, he was doing 60 pro bono auctions on top of his regular 9-to-5 job.

“I was miserable, being pulled too thin… Charity events were my passion projects,” said Swett. “ It took me a while to recognize I could do what I love and actually charge for my time.”

So, in October 2013, he became a full-time auctioneer, exclusively for charities. He realized the real value of his services wouldn’t be performing the night of an event — it would be to participate in the actual planning process.

“I’d show up to events and these nonprofits are so good at helping people, but they have no idea how to throw charity fundraiser parties. I could easily identify the mistakes, but because I was doing it for free, I had no time to consult with them beforehand. I could do a lot more help in the run up to the gala.

CK Swett sports a fur coat for auction at the 2018 New York Live Arts Gala at Irving Plaza (Noam Galai/Getty Images)
CK Swett sports a fur coat for auction at the 2018 New York Live Arts Gala at Irving Plaza (Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Investing in yourself

A few years into transitioning into full-time auctioneering, Swett was swimming laps at a pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when he met Lucas Hunt, a fellow auctioneer who had just moved to the neighborhood from the Hamptons.

“It’s a little bit of a lonely profession, so it’s always great to meet someone who’s on a similar journey,” said Swett. “Lucas is smart and his heart is in the right place. We quickly developed a friendship.”

The admiration was mutual. “CK was incredibly welcoming and warm, and he mentioned there aren’t many of us who know what it’s like,” Hunt told Yahoo Finance. “He started referring gigs to me on dates that he was already booked.”

Hunt, 41, grew up in Dixon, Iowa, a pig farming town of 220 people. Auctioneering was an integral part of his childhood.

“I was around auctions of personal property, real estate, and agriculture in a rural setting for all my young life. The mayor of my hometown was an auctioneer and I assisted him. He was also a master of ceremonies. I would work with him sometimes and I looked up to him a lot,” he said.

After studying journalism and poetry, Hunt landed a job as a literary agent in the Hamptons, where he was asked to help out at an auction in a pinch.

Benefit auctioneer Lucas Hunt calls galas the “theater of giving.” He charges between $1,500 and $5,500 per live auction.
Benefit auctioneer Lucas Hunt calls galas the “theater of giving.” He charges between $1,500 and $5,500 per live auction.

“I had observed auctioneering and events with a very open, fascinated child-like eye that doesn’t blink. I just absorbed it at a young age. I never had any experiences in college or travels that triggered this desire. But when I was actually asked to do it, i jumped up and it was a latent desire that emerged,” he described.

While Swett’s time at Christie’s served as the foundation for his career, Hunt felt compelled to take a course at an auctioneering college to fine tune his skills. In 2016, he returned to Iowa to take a class at the World Wide College of Auctioneering in Mason City, an intensive nine-day program that costs $1,895. Hunt also obtained a Benefit Auctioneer Specialist (BAS) designation from the National Auctioneers Association.

“I spent thousands and thousands of dollars on myself, putting everything on the table. I met a lot of auctioneers around the country who have been doing benefits for 20-30 years. I attended workshops to learn how to better consult with clients,” Hunt said. “Now I have a network of dozens of auctioneers around the country who are the top benefit auctioneers, who are the CKs of other cities… although no one can be CK.”

The high-end of the spectrum

The return on Hunt’s self-investment has been extraordinary. Depending on the organization’s financial standing, he charges a flat fee between $1,500 and $5,500, plus performance incentives, essentially commission, for hitting a certain fundraising target amount.

He does around 90 live auctions per year, but is constantly scouting out new talent, especially during the overwhelmingly busy spring season. He founded Hunt Auctioneers in 2016 and hires three to five contractors at any given time to take on gigs.

“I foresee Hunt Auctioneers growing from 100 to 250 or more events per year, becoming a regional and national provider of auctioneer benefit fundraising,” he said. “If organizations want to work with me and I feel like I can bring consistent, significant value to their event then I’ll make it work. At the end of the day I want to use my talent to benefit society. That’s one of the reasons I’m growing my business…to do multiple events per evening.”

Alec Baldwin and CK Swett at the 2017 National Dance Institute Gala (NDI/YouTube)
Alec Baldwin and CK Swett at the 2017 National Dance Institute Gala (NDI/YouTube)

Meanwhile, Swett is laser-focused on continuing to build his own brand as one of the most sought-after auctioneers in New York City. One of his recent gigs was for the National Dance Institute gala, where he and Alec Baldwin raised $200,000 in one minute.

His starting rate is around $3,000 and the most he ever received was $7,500 plus accommodations to host an auction in Napa Valley, California. He does not charge commission.

“I started at $2,000. I’ve had to raise my rate because I can only be at one place at one time. I got nine requests for the second Thursday of May, and I could only do one of those. So I bump up the price to $3500, but I’m still missing out on eight other events. Think about my opportunity cost,” said Swett.

Hunt and Swett are certainly anomalies when looking at the broad auction industry. According to Payscale, the average annual salary for an auctioneer is $52,435. And certainly, markets like New York City offer more competitive pricing, thanks to the high concentration of glitzier galas and deeper pockets than the rest of the country.

“Lucas is an exception. He’s fortunate enough to be in an area where there’s a large nonprofit community,” said a spokeswoman at the World Wide College of Auctioneering. “The whole point is to be seen buying, contributing to the cause… there’s social capital around that.”

“I call the gala the theater of giving,” said Hunt. “I try to structure it in a way that’s going to create a cathartic experience. Instead of weeping, you’re giving money to overcome guilt and fear of death. For me and everyone in the room, it’s always about reaching deep into your own heart and soul. And pockets.”

Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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