Auctioneer Is a Wine Festival Tradition and Treasure
Jan. 21, 2015
By: Katie Egan
To hear him tell it, Naples Wine Festival auctioneer, Humphrey Butler, has none of the attributes you’d expect in a fast-talking, high-end seller.
He doesn’t consider himself a natural speaker. He’s not that good at math. He doesn’t think he’s all that funny.
And he’s not really all that comfortable in front of crowds, either.
But put the 57-year-old Brit in charge of getting people to bid on things — as he’ll do this weekend at the Naples Winter Wine Festival — and he’s in his element.
“I am told I have one persona in normal life and I have a different persona once I get up on stage,” he said in his charismatic English cadence.
Butler has been auctioning off expensive cars and flashy vacations at the Naples Winter Wine Festival for 13 years. And at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, he’ll mark his 14th consecutive year at the festival, which started in 2001.
His co-auctioneer, Lydia Fenet, will split the “lots” with him. There will be 60 items for sale, but Butler will only be responsible for auctioning off 30.
Whatever his role, he likes being at the festival — year after year.
“The fact I get invited back is very touching,” he said. “I’ll keep coming if they keep asking. I think the auction is the focal point of the festival.”
The festival crowd, he said, is always very energetic. He prefers a feisty crowd.
“It is almost a perfect storm in terms of auctions. It’s sizable, it is competitive, and it is good-natured. There is an undercurrent of wealth. The lots are outstanding quality. It makes my job easy.”
Still, Butler has to stand in front of a huge crowd and make it happen.
“If you asked me to get up and make a speech in half an hour’s time, I would fret, I would sweat, I would worry,” he said. “And of course it is up to you to write your own lines.”
But he says auctioneering is different.
“The fact when you’re up on an auction stage, you’re being led by the numbers in front of you.”
Still, it’s not just something anyone can stand up and do. Butler starts preparing for the festival a few days before it pops its cork.
“I’m sent all the catalogs in England,” he said. “I will read them for the first time on the airplane on my way over, and then have a four-hour meeting in preparation.”
They talk detail; preparation; expectation; what’s happened in the past with similar lots; what people have paid; and whether people have underbid, or came in second, to see what they might be interested in bidding on again.
For the next 24 hours, Butler will Google the items on the auction block.
“Just for fun facts. I want to touch on things which are faintly ridiculous that people wouldn’t have thought of.”
When the display room is ready, in the wee hours of the morning, Butler will stand on the podium and inspect his notes.
Before the auction action starts, Butler will spend some time talking to donors.
“I’ll ask them to tell me more about their lot. Tell me something that isn’t printed there. Tell me something that’s totally unexpected.”
When the hammer goes down, the music comes on.
“You’ll get anything from Canned Heat to Bruce Springsteen to Roxy Music to Stevie Wonder,” Butler says.
The cars this year will be introduced with the “Knight Rider” theme.
While auctioneering may look fun on stage, but Butler doesn’t think it’s for everyone.
“Christie’s used to have a very obvious, but quite traumatizing system of training. You do the theory first of all and then you do the practice. People might be very good at the theory. I saw people who I thought would be totally natural freeze or slightly panic and just not be able to communicate with the audience.”
But Butler, the self-professed not-very-funny-guy, says humor is the key.
“People get pretty cranky if they miss their bid or you took someone else’s bid when they wanted to bid the same amount,” he said. “But so long as you engage with them and have some empathy and smile sweetly, then you’re OK. And I never found it a problem, but I was surprised with the number of people who did find it a problem.
Butler, who originally wanted to be a jockey, got his start at Christie’s Auction and Private Sales, where he was going to work for three months. But three months turned into 23 years.
“I’ve had a love affair with auctioneering, yes,” he said.
Butler’s favorite thing about the festival is “eating ludicrous amounts of good food and drinking copious amounts of good wine for four days.”
He used to lean toward white wine, but now he says he reaches for a darker hue.
“I blame Naples. I’ve probably drank more red wine at this festival.”