Going, Going, Gone! Sebastian Clarke is the Affable Auctioneer
By Anne Levin
If you attended a charity auction to benefit McCarter Theatre, Trinity Counseling Service, Princeton Charter School, or any number of other organizations in town last spring, you probably encountered Sebastian Clarke. He’s the lanky, personable guy who runs the show, rattling off the numbers and “filler words” to coax bidders higher and higher—but always with a light touch.
The British-born Clarke even ran a recent auction in Princeton while seated on a mechanical bull. “You want to insert some humor in it,” he says during an interview at Rago Auctions in Lambertville, where he serves as director of Estate Services. “I’m good at yelling at a lot of people. But the Englishman in me stays away from saying anything insulting.”
Those who haven’t attended charity auctions but watch public television might recognize Clarke from the popular Antiques Roadshow, for which he has been an appraiser since 2007. Traveling to six cities a year, he is one of about 100 appraisers who tell people whether their string of pearls from Aunt Gertrude or suit of armor purchased in a junk shop is worth the big bucks.
“The volume of property we see is just huge. About 10,000 items come through the door in one day and about 100 are picked for the camera. So mostly, you’re giving people bad news,” Clarke says. “But it’s such fun, especially when the news is good. It’s an honor to do it. To be a part of this piece of American culture, even though it started as an English show, is so special.”
Clarke, who is 40 and the father of two young children, runs triathlons. He picks his Roadshow cities based on where good racing events are being held, and was leaving for Palm Springs and Salt Lake City the day after being interviewed. Born in Wales and raised in London, Clarke comes by the auction field naturally. “My parents divorced when I was young, and my father moved to the U.S. when I was five or six. He’s in the auction business, based out of Virginia,” he says. “My mother is a textile and couture conservator.”
Clarke moved to the states at 18. “I did badly in high school and needed to get my act together,” he recalls. “My father got me a job moving furniture in an auction house. I filled in for someone who was on maternity leave, and I did everything from driving a truck to packing boxes. It was good training.”
Next on the career path was Manhattan, where Clarke worked for the Doyle and Sotheby auction houses and got his first, up-close look at items that fetched eye-popping prices. “The level of property is just mind-blowing,” he says, citing a Chippendale desk that sold for $2.5 million. “To be able to handle something that is usually behind a velvet rope was amazing.”
It was during those years that Clarke “called” his first auction. “I was so nervous that the pen flew out of my hand and landed in the fourth row,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “Then, I started doing charity auctions. My first one, in Tuxedo Park, was a disaster. But I learned as I went along. They are great practice at crowd control.”
Clarke admits to being a little nervous before each event. “The trick is to have a glass of wine before you start, because everybody else has,” he says. “Ignorance is bliss, so I make it a point to go sort of unprepared. It just works better.”
Clarke and his family have lived in the Princeton area for eight years. He began working for the Rago company three years ago after a fortuitous meeting with fellow Roadshow appraiser David Rago in an airport. “We were both waiting for the same flight back to Newark,” Clarke recalls. “David didn’t realize I lived in New Jersey. So we started to talk. He ended up offering me the opportunity to start a new division as an estate specialist. I jumped at it. It’s been great, drawing on my connections and contacts, and getting a whole department up and running. It’s a wonderful thing and I love it.”
Rago is equally enthusiastic. “Sebastian and I came to know one another as appraisers on Antiques Roadshow,” he wrote in an email. “He was knowledgeable, personable, and experienced. He was fun to hang out with. Add to that the British accent that makes him sound so posh to us Americans, and you can see why we were so glad to have him at Rago. Seriously—his connections, skill set and perspective have made us a better company.” While he does appraisals at Rago’s every Monday, much of Clarke’s time is spent “out there,” he says, seeing clients and meeting with attorneys. “I joke with clients that if I’m in the office, I’m not doing my job. The IRS is coming down a lot harder these days. A lot of what I do, even with attorneys, is educate people. The art market is the largest unregulated market in the world. Public sales are in excess of $60 billion a year.” Clarke serves on the Board of Directors for the Appraisers Association of America. He is also on the Board of Young Audiences. He is not a collector himself, though he admits to having “a very modest watch collection.”
The best part of his job, he says, isn’t the glitz and glamour. Rather, it is the opportunity to have a positive effect on someone’s life.
“One of my favorite stories is not from the [television] show, but from dealing with an elderly couple in Princeton who were moving,” Clarke said. “They had some silver, and some artwork, that they wanted me to look at. But as I was leaving, they showed me these little Islamic fragments of script that they had. The three pieces I estimated at $400 to $600 ended up selling for $28,000. And the best part of it all was that I knew it was going to make a measurable difference in their lives. That’s what makes all of this so fulfilling.”