Ever since I interviewed BJ Topol last year about her career as an art advisor, I’ve had a fascination with women who work in the art world. There’s a certain sophistication to them that I find quite mesmerizing, and honestly, impressive. Lydia Fenet is no different.
I met Lydia, who is the International Director of Strategic Partnerships at Christie’s, oh and also an auctioneer, oh and also an author, oh and a mom of three kids, a few weeks ago at her apartment and she was the picture of perfection. And I don’t mean she just looked incredibly polished–which she did, I mean that she was warm and welcoming, Southern charm in full swing. And also incredibly candid and honest.
She is also a woman who clearly knows who she is and what she wants, she’s grounded while being a classic go-getter. This month we’re talking all about self-discovery at the Atelier and as you’ll soon find out, Lydia is a woman who continued to re-discover, and re-invent herself within her career to stay engaged and happy.
We chatted about her twenty year career at Christie’s, her side-hustle running some huge charity auctions, her latest project, a new book called, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You (which will be out in April!), and life as a working woman. Meet, the ever gracious, Lydia.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town in Louisiana called Lake Charles. I’m one of four kids and my mother is English, so I had this hilarious hybrid of a Southern/ British upbringing. Pretty much every summer we would go to England and spend time with my cousins, aunts and uncles. So even though I grew up in Louisiana, I had the benefit of seeing the rest of the world through my mom’s eyes. She grew up in England and her dad was a banker in Africa, so she had traveled her whole life and believed it to be so important.
Growing up, what was your dream job?
I always wanted to have my own travel show!
I thought I was going to be the next travel person who would take people around the world and give them an idea of different places – like a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” meets seeing everything in the world…which I feel like everyone does on Instagram now. I was ahead of my time. (laughs).
You went to Sewanee, the University of the South. What did you study in school?
I double majored in art history and history.
When did your appreciation for art come into play?
My junior year at Sewanee, they have something called European Studies where you go to Oxford – you study with a professor at Oxford and travel around Western Europe. We went to France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland and looked at all the major museums in those cities with the professor. That was really where it started. I was already a junior at that point. I came back to college and declared a second major. Senior year was pretty much just art history, period end of sentence.
Did you have internships when you were in school?
I did. I interned for Senator Breaux… my dad was always very into politics in Louisiana… I interned for Julian Brazier in the House of Commons in England, and then I interned at Christie’s and that’s where it all started. (laughs).
Did you come up from New York for that internship?
Yes, I interned here the summer between my junior and senior year of school. At the end of the internship they offered me a job, but I was like I have to go back to school! And so I did.
But then I followed up with them throughout the entire year. At the end of the year I checked in to see if they had an open position and they didn’t, but offered another internship as a way of getting my foot in the door–they had this internship program where you can apply for a fellowship that’ll give you basically living money for three months after college. I know things like this don’t really exist anymore, but at the time internships were unpaid and so it was hugely helpful. It’s hard to say to your parents after you graduated from college that you’re going to a free internship. They’re kind of like let’s figure out a next step here.
My parents were very good about saying we educate you and then you’re on your own, which I think is such a great lesson in life. I speak from such a privileged experience,my parents paid for my education. But, that for me was the biggest life lesson, it was like I want to have a life, how do I figure this out…
I went back to Christie’s and started my internship there. At the end of my internship I had a job offer and it will be 20 years next year that I’ve been there.
That is crazy! Can you speak about your experience being there for that long? I do think that longevity at one company is becoming so rare…
When I started at Christie’s I did not think of it as a career, I just thought of it as a job that I was doing. But at the same time, when I first started people did stay in their jobs for a longer period of time. Though after having been in events for 10 years I was ready for a change…
I feel like I actually am a millennial even though I’m not a millennial because that’s always been my mindset, I’ve always been in love with the idea of a side-hustle!
Even then I didn’t want to leave the company. I liked the corporate culture, I really like the people I work with – they’re very smart, very learned, they educate themselves constantly. Whenever you talk to someone from Christie’s, they’re always going to museums or other cultural institutions to learn more. That constant quest for knowledge in my colleagues was something that I really respected and enjoyed, but I was done with my specific job. So, I sort of took the track of an entrepreneur, which I think is a word that didn’t exist when I first started strategic partnerships (laughs), or certainly one that I hadn’t heard of. I really pushed the company to let me start the department that I now run, which is called strategic partnerships. That has allowed me to stay at Christie’s. I think if they had said, “no we’re not interested in trying anything new and thanks for 10 years of service and goodbye,” that would’ve been it and I would’ve gone somewhere else.
That’s incredible. I do think there’s so much opportunity to develop entirely new careers within a company because things are evolving so much.
I say that even to my team: so much about succeeding in a job is– well, of course there are going to be things you have to do everyday– but what interests you outside the walls of a company and how can we develop a new job here so you can learn more.
I think that is what companies can do. And even that, as a millennial who is thinking about making job hops, start very early having those conversations with your boss. This will keep me motivated to be here, this is what I’m interested in doing because even that shared conversation helps you in your career path.
You mentioned you were in events for 10 years, what were the positions you held within Christie’s before you started strategic partnerships?
My first six months I was doing client advisory. I believe it’s hugely important to acknowledge that there are things I am good at and things I am not good at. I wanted to figure out if there was something I enjoyed doing, that I’d be happy working 24 hours a day doing. Since I’d interned in special events, as soon as a job became available, after my first six months with the company, I went back into special events.
I was in the department for five years. Then, basically everyone above me left over a period of six months. Everyone was gone and they looked to me. I was 26, and they were like do you want to be head of events in North and South America. When you’re 26 it seems like a great idea, even though you really don’t understand what a role entails, especially if the person above you is very good at their job, because it looks effortless.
26 to 28 was a real steep learning curve (laughs), like basically a ladder, a ladder straight to the sky. There were moments where I think my boss said to me, “I don’t know that this is going to work out.” I remember crying, going back home and crying and just thinking to myself, no watch me, I’m going to make this work. And I think you need that. You need that fire because that’s what keeps you there…
But it’s rigorous, that job is no joke. You do 500 events a year with three people. You live at the office, you live there.
What types of events were you doing? What are special events for Christie’s?
Everything. On an average day during the busy season, you’ll have two breakfasts going on at the same time, two seated lunches, two or three receptions, sometimes an auction following it. There could be a seated dinner. AND the thing about entertaining at Christie’s is that you’re entertaining the highest level of client that anyone can access anywhere in the world, and so you know you have to be doing something spectacular. Otherwise, why would they come? In addition to just the pure execution, it’s the conceptualization of the next event.
It was rigorous, but I loved it.
So how did your role evolve?
During the downturn of the market in 2008, they told me I needed to fire someone on my team because we were having headcount reduction. I just laughed at my boss. There were three of us. We couldn’t go from three people doing 500 events per year to two people doing the same amount.
I said to him, what if we didn’t spend any money, what if we just left the budget as is and I didn’t spend any money. He said, “Okay, I’ll give you six months.” I think he knew that if I lost headcount, that I would never get it back. So I said to the two people on my team that we needed to essentially find a way to sponsor every single part of these events. At the end of six months, not only had we done it, we’d actually made a small profit.
I thought, what if the small profit actually pays for the headcount of these departments? We are not a support department, we are a revenue generator. I realized we could make it and make more money. That’s essentially what we do now. We create programs for outside companies to work within the four walls of Christie’s.
No one had been doing that before? Was there any corporate involvement within Christie’s?
No, not really. At the time, when I first started sponsorships–we probably started doing them 15 years ago–they were so small, cash was changing hands, it was a logo on an invitation. But, that was it. There was no expectation of anyone being able to say that x was sold because of this. There was nothing aside from a very basic ‘thanks for having us.’
What does a sponsorship look like now? What are the types of programs you’re creating?
They are 360 degree marketing campaigns. We’re doing everything from content to bringing exhibitions around the world, to events. There is still an event base, but because of the digital world, there is the ability to amplify it to a much larger audience, which is what they all want to do.
Which is a shift you must have really seen span your time there. Can you speak to that influence that you think digital has had on the art and auction world?
I think the art world has benefited from it in such a major way because it’s just opened so many people’s eyes. It was like the great equalizer in many ways.
One thing that Christie’s has always faced is trying to get people to understand that we’re not just always selling Picassos for 100 million dollars. We sell wine, we sell furniture, we sell couches for less than you would sell them at Pottery Barn. We have interior designers come to Christie’s to buy items that they then resell for ten times the amount. So it’s getting people to understand what we do. I always tell my friends, you should never buy jewelry retail, you should really only ever buy it at auction because you’re buying it at 1/3 of the price. You’re not paying for the branding of it. Same with watches. You’re just paying for the piece. I think we’ve been able to help people understand that through our digital marketing, telling that story.
Ten years ago you brought in sponsorships to try to save your department and now it’s turned into…
Now I have a real team, believe it or not. I have 4 people in New York, we have 3 people in London. We do partnerships in literally every country, I think we did 52 partnerships last year. We activated 39 countries around the world. Because Christie’s is everywhere. We’re sort of the roadmap.
Who are some of the brands you’ve partnered with in your time there?
Bugatti when they were launching their new 2.7 million dollar car. Mandarin Oriental. VistaJet, NetJets, BMW, Audi–I mean every vertical. And the fun part about it–people always say, how could you stay at a company for this long–but, its because no two days are the same. The partnerships are never the same.
Since making that transition ten years ago, how has your role and your work evolved?
In parallel with what I do with strategic partnerships, I also run the charity auctioneering department for Christie’s, which I’ve been doing for 15 years. I’ve been running it for about 7. That’s been another part of my career that’s been really fun. When you go back to the question of why would you stay at a place for so long, this has been one of those things that you uniquely do at a place like Christie’s. I always say to people, you have to put in the slog work, you have to understand the basics to be exceptionally good at what you do. When I first started, for the first five or six years I was doing auctions, I was a fine auctioneer, you could put me on stage and I’d do the job. And then about five years in, I really started to own what I did. And understand how to make it work. The past ten years have really been about finding my own way to do things and then teaching it as well.
How did you learn to be an auctioneer? There is such an art to it.
I teach the class for Christie’s now. It’s a survivor-like class. It’s four days and I vote people off the island each day. Never in a mean way. If I felt like someone wouldn’t be comfortable on stage, I would never put them on stage. Charity auctioneering is like public speaking while someone is throwing tennis balls at your face. It is so distracting.
You have to be fearless on stage. That comes from experience. You have to have been through the moment where you’re on stage and your mic doesn’t work or someone is drunk and yelling about something while you’re on stage, you could trip over something and fall down. These are things that have all happened to me so I’m speaking from experience. Or you throw out a bid and no one bids. What do you do? How do you address that and make these things work? That’s what I try to teach in the class. But, then I say to them you have to go out and do this work. You have to be out on Saturday nights, late at night when you’re tired and you don’t want to be, but you have to remind yourself that you’re learning and that you’re raising money for a good cause.
How did you start to learn to handle those situations that were thrown at you?
Experience. Just being out there. You have to dig deep.
Did you volunteer to start auctioneering or did someone push you into it?
When I first started accompanying auctioneers to the auctions, I was the bid clerk in the audience so I could see what was working and what wasn’t. It was a good overview. I kept thinking, I really want that microphone, give me that microphone.
That year, they opened up auditions to the whole company because a lot of people had been sick, missed planes, it was just a mess. A lot of the auctioneers were getting older, people had family commitments, you don’t want to be on stage every night. You don’t want to be in a random city in Kansas in January. They thought, perhaps there is some young 24-year old woman who doesn’t have any friends and who would be super excited to be in Kansas City because she’d be on a business trip! I was that person. That’s how it all started. I tried out. They were like, ‘off you go to Kansas City.’ And I was like, ‘I just can’t wait.’ January, freezing, and I went.
In this day and age you’re only as good as your reputation. You can google anyone. But, if you don’t have a reputation you’re only as good as question marks. I literally got off the plane and went to meet this group of people in their 60s and 70s–I was 24. They just did not know what to do.
I was supposed to be representing my company, but they stuck me at the kids’ table. At the time, I was like, ‘ok, that makes sense, I should probably go to the kids table. I’m a kid.’
But, it’s funny, even recently–two weeks ago I took an auction in Germany and I almost re-lived my book. I was going to Germany where I don’t have the reputation and experience I have here. I really realized, they don’t know me. They’d had a male auctioneer for 15 years. Every call we had was all about how I really needed to command the crowd and Andreas this and how he had done that. I don’t ever question myself because I do believe that I am at a point where I am at the top of my game when it comes to this. So it was very weird to be feeling like I was on my back foot. I was very nervous before got on stage.
I started taking the auction and I kept saying dollars instead of euros. Ten thousand dollars and then I’d pause and be like oh god and I’d see it on the faces of the audience. I went to the second lot and was so nervous, I was like ‘what am I doing.’ I was like, ‘what would I be doing right now if I was in America?’ How do you get the audience on your side? You relate to them. They knew I was saying dollars, they all knew I was American. Why not just tell them and not make it a weird thing? So, I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I feel confident that by Lot #5, this will be a euro only auction, but in the meantime take advantage of the dollar, because you’re going to get more for that.’ And they laughed. I said, ‘I guess I’m a little jet-lagged, I just got here last night. Why don’t you tell me when I say dollars?’ So anytime I said dollar, they’d shout out euro! It became this sort of joke and finally when I did a euro only lot, they applauded. Because they don’t want me to bomb the auction either. Just because I was in Germany, I was like these people are still just people, why am I treating them any different than I would a crowd in New York? It was a good lesson to relearn, I knew it, I just had to relearn it on a stage in Germany.
There are not a lot of female auctioneers. How has it been to be a woman in that space?
No, there are not. Although, there are a lot more now, I think, since I teach the class, women feel very comfortable taking it. At the beginning, it was very tough. You’re facing unconscious bias and people don’t even know that what they’re saying to you is making you feel uneasy. Like when I was made to sit at the kid’s table. None of the male auctioneers who were my age going off to events were ever made to sit at the kid’s table. Even the auction I took in Germany, I was wearing a sleeveless dress and strappy sandals, just as I wear at every auction I take in New York. As I walked in, one of the head organizers said, ‘Oh, you’re not wearing stockings. How very American are you?’ Any time I get something like that, I immediately come back with something, its like water off a dog’s back. And at the same time, what man has ever walked into an event and someone gone, ‘Oh, you’re not wearing wing-tipped shoes?’ I was just like well, this is the way I dress. Why would you say that? But, I don’t think she thought of it as anything other than a comment. And even that conversation we had before, ‘I hope you can be strong enough, I hope you can control the audience.’ Don’t worry. It’s going to be just fine. The one thing I know I can do is control an audience.
Earlier you mentioned your book, The Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You, which is coming out in April.
Yes, I’m so excited!
What prompted you to want to write this book?
The one question I’ve consistently gotten throughout my entire career as a charity auctioneer, well since like 5 or 6 years in, I’ll get off stage and there will be someone standing there like, ‘What are we going to do with your talent?’ And I’m like, ‘Well I just raised half a million dollars. Is that not enough?’ But, I knew what they meant. I enjoy being on stage, I enjoy the performance element of it and I enjoy the inspiring and motivating of people. It was a conversation that had been had. I was approached by Goldman Sachs asking if I wanted to work in their private wealth group. I’ve had these very strange job offers from people who are like what can we do with this?
About five years ago, I started teasing this gentlemen in the front row, making comments about his bottle-rim glasses and his outfit. Just like I do in any audience. I was on stage with Uma Thurman, it was the charity that she started. Afterwards, he came up to me and was like, ‘I’m Uma’s agent, Jason Weinberg. I’m going to find a show for you.’ And he sent me an email that night and said, I want to take you to breakfast with Uma and let’s talk about finding a show for you. So we went for breakfast and I said, I don’t know that it’s a show that I want necessarily, I think I want to write a book. But then, five years passes and I have three children in like four years.
After the birth of my daughter and some time had passed, I had been working on writing a few things and sending them to my best friend’s agent but she was like this book isn’t it. Eventually I called my best friend Mary, who is the Gayle to my Oprah. And I’m the Gayle to her Oprah. We both think we’re Oprah. I was like, I need to do this. She told me I would be crazy if I didn’t get a proposal ready for. I had four plane trips, round trip– three to California and one to Texas. And I wrote the proposal, sent it to her agent. It was weird because everything else I’ve written, I could never quite find my angle. That’s what Meg kept saying, you need to find your angle, you’re missing your angle. I wrote it and I sent it. The night before I sent the proposal, I knew that the introductory chapter was spot on. I knew it was exactly what I wanted to say. I wrote it literally on my way to California, four hours and it was just done. She wrote back in caps, THIS IS IT. And I was like, no, I already knew that. I actually already knew that.
So what is the book about?
This is the book I wish someone had given me 20 years ago, because I wanted to have it all. I wanted to have a career, to do great things. I wanted to travel and see the world and meet interesting people and I didn’t know what I was doing or how to get there. And I have great parents. They’ve always said, you know, you can do it, you can do it. What is it, you know, what is that? I feel like along the way, so much of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from charity auctioneering, from being onstage–learned that life is about selling yourself, totally selling your vision, selling your company is selling yourself, like whatever it is. And women aren’t taught that. When I tell people the names of the chapters, like sell is yourself, you are what you negotiate, network or die–all of these things that I’ve learned along the way, my guy friends were like, yeah. And my girlfriends are like, I’ve got to read your book. Like right now. I think we’re just missing something. We’re being taught something, but there’s something that isn’t being told to us correctly because we’re not hearing it. I’m not alone in feeling this way. Younger generations, like maybe in their early twenties, they’re starting to hear it. I think because of the Me Too movement, there are conversations that are taking place that have never taken place in my lifetime. So it just feels like now is the time to put this book out and I’m so excited about it. I really am.
So along the way, you also got married and had three kids.
I did! I know, I know…
How has it been being a mom and also working full time, basically doing two jobs and writing a book? You’re really doing a bit of everything.
Yeah, the book was, the book was really a lot. I feel lucky. I feel like having been at a company, when we were talking about that earlier, one of the nicest things about having been at a company as long as I’ve been, is that I have a lot of sweat equity built into it.
I feel like I’m an incredibly efficient worker as a working mom. I prioritize my children over everything else. And everyone at works knows that. If my children have something that I want to be at, I’ll figure out a way to be there and make it work around the schedule. I feel like I’m very transparent with them about what my day looks like, when I’m going to be there, when I’m not going to be there. But, I also am willing to be online after the kids go to bed, I don’t really care. I’m online when I’m in a taxi on the way to an auction, I’m online when I’m behind the stage of an auction, if I need to be. Maybe because I’ve been there for so long, the line of working– when I work and when I don’t, it doesn’t bother me. It just makes it easier I think.
It’s a lot of improvisation on both fronts. Do you think that is something that is learned over time? Or do you feel like it’s an inherent skill that you have?
I think the stage part of it is learned over time. Although I do think I am naturally quick. I talk fast, I mean just starting there, number one, I talk very fast. But, I do think that there is something in me that can come back with a retort quickly. But, a lot of what I’ve learned, I have learned on stage. If you had seen the first auction that I took, you’d be like, huh?, you know, but then just think how I was on stage with Bruce Springsteen at Madison Square Garden doing a totally different auction. Why do I feel comfortable having never even met him, but walking out and standing next to him and taking an auction and auctioning off his guitar in front of 5,000 people? Like that is practice. Those nerves go away because I feel confident walking onto that stage.
What is your least favorite thing about your work life?
I mean I really dislike spreadsheets. Like, I don’t know who created Microsoft Excel, but that is not a person that I am friends with.
What’s the best piece of advice you think you’ve ever been given or something that you really hold onto and come back to you?
My dad says it, network or die. It’s just the most important thing in the world. And I don’t mean just network within your company. I mean network at Starbucks, network on a plane, network on a train, everywhere you can. Because people in your life can teach you something if you’re open to hearing it.
What would your advice be for people who are interested in either working in the art world, at Christie’s, maybe in an events role, or auctioneering?
Everyone in the auction world is a lot about the internship and getting into the door of an art house or an auction house. And I think that that’s really the key. A lot of people keep getting degrees and degrees and degrees. Unless you’re a specialist, you really don’t necessarily need a master’s degree. A lot of it really has to be learned on the ground. In the auction world, the art world, the salaries are not high, so you want to be passionate about what you’re doing. I had a woman who came to me a couple of weeks ago, she had two job offers and she was like, I could work at the front desk at this art gallery and meet all these people and it’d be so cool, or I could get this job in partnerships at One Kings Lane. She had job offers from both. And I said to her, ‘Can you afford to work at the art gallery? And she was like, ‘I’d have to babysit.’ And I’m like, ‘sign yourself up for the life you want.’ Why do that to yourself? You can be the person who buys the art. You don’t have to be the person at the front counter. Like they’re going to be other people who are so passionate about art, they can’t do anything else, all they want to do is be at the front counter so they can be around that art. If that is not you, it’s okay. You can come back to it. But like set yourself up for a salary and a life that you want. Don’t wait around for other people to give it to you. That is the truth and as women I don’t know why we don’t hear that. It’s like don’t take a job because it’s fun. Take a job because you appreciate that you are getting paid for that job and the work that you’re doing.
What is an average or typical day like for you?
It sometimes feels like I’m being shot out of a cannon in the mornings with the kids because we have two kids in different schools and then a baby. My husband and I do the drop off. One of us will do one drop off and one will do the other drop off. So if I drop off my daughter, I hop on the subway, take her to school and go up to work from there. And then after I’m at work, I really like doing things in the morning because I feel like people are very fresh. I like to do face to face meetings, if possible, with new partners. After that it’s okay if we don’t see each other all the time, but I just feel like meeting someone is so much more effective than just emailing with someone, and also just getting to know them. It seems like such a lost art. I mean there’s just nothing as strong as meeting someone. I’ve had partnerships that have gone on much longer than they should’ve just because I liked working with the team and vice versa. I always try to do lunches or coffees or things like that. I always have at least two informational interviews a week, even internally with the people I work with, you know, just constantly getting requests. So that’s always fun to meet new people and then it’s really just partnership stuff all day.
If I have an auction, during charity auction season, I usually have at least one charity auction call to go over what an auction looks like. And then I come home, depending on what the kind of day is, I’ll try to squeeze in like a quick run at the gym or something if I have time. If not, then I’ll just try to do it on the weekends or earlier in the morning and I’ll come back. Usually, I get home like 5, 5:30 the latest and the kids are sitting down for dinner. Rea is our nanny. I’ll make dinner and then we’ll bathe them, we’ll play tag team and then she leaves and I put them to bed. And then my husband usually comes home, depending on what time I have to be on stage. The kids go down at seven. Then I basically go back out to the auction and usually I’m home at the latest by like 11, 11:30 and then I go to bed. I’ve been doing the work and the auctions for so long, people are like, I don’t understand. I’m like, this has been my life. I don’t know how else to describe it. It seems totally normal to me to have two completely different jobs.
What’s your dream for your career? You just turned 40 and are juggling motherhood and three jobs that are happening right now with the book side… What do you want to do in the future? What’s next for you?
Well, I mean Christie’s is like my anchor, right? I love it. I love Christie’s and I hope that Christie’s will always be a part of my life. The book for me is such an exciting opportunity to really get this message out there. I really want to do a lot more speaking, which I really enjoy and continuing to do the auctions. But I think, you know, maybe write another book, maybe you know, my friend Mary and I have laughed about writing a book together for our kids. I know my agent was reached out to about film and TV rights, so that could be on the horizon. I feel like the answer is always yes.