How to Prepare for (Buying at) an Art Auction
Art Auctions…thrilling and intimidating at the same time. An art auction has the reputation as being the place to find a true art treasure; it also has the distinction of being the place to lose a lot of money on a worthless piece of art. However, with some preparation, the former can be your experience and not the latter.
It will likely be filled with art experts, catalogues with all kinds of details about the pieces included (like provenance, artist history, estimated sales price), so even if you walk away without a purchase, you have gained a valuable lesson. Whether you are looking for that treasure, or just browsing the art offerings to find a piece you love, you can be successful at attending…and even purchasing at….an art auction!
Preparation Before the Event
Do your research!
- Medium and comparables
- Reputation of the auction house
Have an estimate of the art’s worth based on these factors, including condition. In the case of purchasing by phone or online, your inability to see the work in person makes doing your homework even more crucial. You don’t want your purchase to arrive with damage you couldn’t see! Approach the even with a plan and fully educate yourself on the work(s) of art you have in mind.
Be an observer!
Watch live art auctions online. This will help you understand how fast-paced they can be. A piece can sell in less than ONE minute, and it is better to discover this from afar rather than to be the one who finds out AFTER accidentally purchasing a work inadvertently. There are online auctions held nearly ever day, so take advantage of the opportunity to get some experience without the risk!
Don’t be intimidated!
Art auctions aren’t just filled with wealthy collectors and gallerists vying for six-figure pieces. Deals can be found if you know what you are looking for. You may find pieces from emerging artists and lesser-known pieces by more renowned artist that you are drawn to, all at a price you can cheer about. You can find a real deal and perhaps start a collection!
Edition pieces are different!
If you are looking for an edition piece, be sure it is not being sold at a dealer. It may be overpriced at an auction if there is still inventory in galleries. Most auctions houses don’t sell edition pieces which are currently for sale, especially if the artist is featured in a (or has his/her own) gallery. You may be shocked to learn that the frenzy at an auction can drive the price up two or three times the price at a gallery. NOTE: Galleries are a wonderful place to learn about an artist’s work, previous sales, and popularity—see Do your research! above.
Be financially prepared for an auction!
Auction houses may take cash, but they won’t take your personal check. Most will require you register before the event, providing financial institution information or even a letter of credit or recommendation. Ask what fees might be involved in your purchase, including shipping costs. Don’t wait until you arrive to discover you were not prepared to purchase that five-figure piece!
Preparation at the Event
Understand the value of a phone or online bid. This is a confidence builder and takes away the stress of being in the same room with gallerists, curators, art professionals, and experienced collectors. You will need to understand the risk of not seeing the work in person, but online auctions level the playing field since all buyers are seeing the same thing. If you simply cannot attend, either in person or online/phone, many top auction houses allow you to place an absentee bid. This can also help you gain confidence and prevents you from forgetting what you intended to spend in the heat of the bidding; decide what your top price is and place a bid slightly higher than that.
Estimates—what they are and what they aren’t
In a way, estimates are the auction houses’ research results. They try to determine a “ballpark figure” for pieces, taking into consideration the market, historical prices, and condition. Additionally, they are studying their own market and what their own customers buy. This is the perfect time to study the auction house’s policies, including the reserve and the fine print for purchasing.
Be visible—but don’t be tacky!
If you are new, raise your hand HIGH. At many art auctions dealers will be purchasing there and tend to get plenty of attention by the spotters. You don’t want to be overlooked. However, this is not the time to wave to a friend…it isn’t simply a myth that the wave of a hand could have you bidding on something you have no intention of buying!
Know your limit-and stick to it!
Have a budget in mind, and be prepared for the increments they are bidding in. If you want to bid higher but less than the next increment, you can ask the auctioneer. They usually think in whole numbers (i.e. $1,000 or $5,000 increments) but will consider smaller bids if you ask.
At the drop of the gavel, it is yours!
Sales are final, so think long and hard before you bid. Understand completely what you are bidding on, if an individual piece or sold as a lot (did you plan on buying 4 pieces?). Some auction houses offer rescission rights, allowing you to return the piece within 24 or 48 hours from purchase, but don’t assume that is true at every auction. Once you have purchased your piece, do plan on paying and picking up the item the same day. Many auction houses will store your piece until you can arrange for delivery, but the storage fees can add up quickly. If you do decide later that it simply doesn’t work for you, you can always sell the piece in the future if you change your mind.
Art Auctions=Excitement, Education and Opportunity
An art auction can be an exciting event, complete with experts to learn from, a chance to see a lot of art in all price ranges, an occasion to gain works of art at reasonable prices, and an experience worth becoming familiar with in your journey as an art collector. With a little preparation, you will be comfortable in attending your first (or subsequent) art auction!