How to buy art at auction.

Oct 26th, 2012 | By | Category: Journal

A Renoir sells at Christie’s.

Orlando Rock, deputy chairman of Christie’s, offered up a detailed guide on how to buy art at auction published in an interview with John O’Ceallaigh in this week’s Telegraph newspaper.  Although doubling as a piece of PR for Christie’s, Rock has done his time at Christie’s, was for many years a senior member of their furniture department, and has put together a considerable amount of useful information.  It is all very reassuring to know that despite any misgivings you may have had about the art world it is in fact a nice cosy place and that the leading auctions are a ‘transparent and fair platform’ that offer goods at fair prices with the, ‘stamp of long term quality and value.’   And that buying art at auction is, ‘accessible, affordable, personal and fun.’  Mmm…I would add, ‘nerve-racking, tense, opaque, confusing and often expensive.’  Buying at auction is a complicated business full of possible pitfalls and only the experienced professionals really understand what is going on. However, as Rock points out it can be a good way to buy and his article does offer many useful insights into the mechanics of the auction world.

Excerpts follow from the article:-

Deputy Chairman of Christie’s, Orlando Rock began his career at the auction house in 1990 and, over the past decades, has observed and participated in innumerable auctions throughout the world. An internationally recognised authority on all matters related to auctions, his in-depth guide to buying art at auction aims to provide all the information any budding bidder might need before raising their paddle – literally or metaphorically – and purchasing their own masterpiece. His key message to members of the public intimidated by the thought of entering an auction house? Million-dollar works of art may make the headlines but, if you know how to go about it, purchasing art at auction can be accessible, affordable, personal and fun.

Why buy art at auction in the first place?
You do not need to be a millionaire to buy at auction. Many leading auction houses cater for all budgets and tastes, offering a wide array of different collecting categories from painting and furniture to wine and collectibles, with prices starting from several hundred pounds upwards. The headlines may often draw attention to the million dollar works of art, but the majority of lots sold at the very best auction houses are far more accessible.

Auctions are exciting and a savvy way to buy a broad range of objects. The excitement of the auction itself coupled with the unique nature of the works offered combine to make the process, once understood, great fun. Auctions are a surprisingly easy way not only to start a collection but also offer a practical and sensible way to buy unique objects for your home – from a 17th century oak kitchen table to a landmark Picasso – that will retain their value over the long term. In the current economic environment, works of art and antiques can be a good place to invest, providing something tangible and enjoyable as well as offering the potential of a good return in the future. Remember, however, that you should really love what you buy as there is no absolute guarantee that its value will increase.

Auctions provide a transparent and fair platform, ensuring that the price paid for a work reflects the true market value which in turn provides reassurance that you are not paying too much. The established reputation of the auction house in question is key, as every item will have been personally vetted by an expert in the relevant field and come with that stamp of long-term quality and value. Items offered at such reputable auction houses will already have an established secondary value: i.e. they have retained inherent value, or even gained in value, over the long term since they were offered on the primary market, so it is more likely that if you wish in the longer-term future to offer parts of your collection again at auction, you will be able to and, more importantly, often for an increased price. This is a marked difference from many modern retail stores that do not have this built into their product offerings.

How can I learn about what artworks are available at which auctions?
If you are absolutely new to buying at auction it is wise to take a little time to not only research and investigate the field or category in which you wish to start buying but also to familiarise yourself with the auction process itself.

• Check the websites of auction houses regularly to see what is coming up around the world – internet and telephone bidding make it easy to participate anywhere.
• Auction catalogues tend to be available about six weeks to a month before the sale, and contain valuable information about the property to be auctioned such as description, artist’s name, measurements, provenance and estimates.
• Some of the best auction houses have online search engines that allow you to browse sale catalogues from their auctions around the world and to search for specific items; some are so refined that you are able to register your interests and will receive an email every time a relevant work is coming up for sale.

A piece has caught my eye – how can I research it further?
The first point to stress is that you should never be afraid to ask for advice from the many experts in the art market. I am a great believer that you shouldn’t jump straight in until you have familiarised yourself with the ‘landscape’. Go to exhibitions, shows and museums; look and, again, ask – you will find that there is so much free advice available.

All specialists love to be able to share their enthusiasm for their subject and, wherever you are in the world, auction-house specialists will be happy to talk about works of art before an auction and answer key questions about the item, its condition and its estimated price.

Utilise the information and expertise available through auction catalogues, which should provide comprehensive research about the work in question, the artist who produced it and their historical context. Catalogues produced by galleries for artists exhibitions can also be a very important reference tool, as can the web, with dedicated sites such as artnet where collectors can view past prices realised by artists at auction.

Leading art dealers and gallerists, most of which specialise in particular areas, have also acquired a huge amount of knowledge which they are happy to pass on. Do not hold back from seeking the advice of established collectors, who are often delighted to share their views on artists in the market.

Whenever the geography enables you to, it is a very good idea to view the item you are interested in, in person. Public viewing normally takes place for approximately three to four days before the sale date. The doors of auction houses are open to everyone, even those who are just browsing; the leading auction houses are like a museum where everything is for sale.

If you cannot view a work in person, condition reports are often available for potentially interested clients. They provide valuable information on the work in question.

What are the most important things to bear in mind when buying an artwork at auction?
Art can significantly enhance your day-to-day life and some key factors to consider are:

  1. Always buy a work of art because you love it.
  2. Buy the best that you can afford and do not compromise on condition, quality, rarity and provenance.
  3. Never be afraid to ask for advice from the many experts in the art market.
  4. Prices can go down as well as up. Traditionally the most successful buys have been those bought as the result of a deeply held interest in acquiring art for its own sake; relatively long holding periods are often necessary to generate significant returns.

Before you decide whether to buy art, be it at auction, from a gallery, or elsewhere, there are a number of important preparatory steps that you should take and factors that you should consider. For example, the artist is clearly of great importance in determining price. Is it an artist who already has a considerable track record at auction, who has already had a significant number of exhibitions and whose works have been purchased or loaned to museums for display? The latter is not essential but is often a very telling indication of an artist’s success. Don’t forget, specialists will always be happy to discuss the current market for specific artists and so this is not something you need to research alone; ask.

However, don’t be dazzled by the fact that a painting, drawing or sculpture is by somebody famous as it is not just about the artist. Other factors come into play, for example the medium of the painting can be particularly important in determining value – in general, oil paintings are more valuable than works on paper, which are in turn more valuable than prints.

The condition of a piece can be crucial in determining its value, and in some categories can affect price more than others. Collectors should look closely at the condition of pieces and ask for condition reports on lots prepared by the auction house, which are available on request.

Consider which period the artwork is from. Ask if it’s from a time when they were at their peak or one when they were not at their best? Is it a type of painting that they are renowned for – a still life for example – or is something they are not usually associated with and so won’t be as sought after? Quality is paramount and it is always better to buy a great work by a lesser known artist than a poor one by a household name.

Freshness to the market is also important – most buyers prefer works of art that have not been for sale for many years rather than those that have been on the market recently. Auctions provide unique opportunities for acquiring rare works of art and what unites collectors around the world is the excitement of a newly discovered work of art that has perhaps been gathering dust in an attic for decades; forgotten about or previously unrecorded.

Another factor to look out for is the provenance of the works of art. This is a history which can stretch back hundreds or, in the case of antiquities, thousands of years. Sometimes the full story has been lost but as much as can be established is published in auction catalogues. A painting may have been sold in London in the late 19th century or New York in the 1950s or perhaps been loaned to an exhibition at a well-known museum. Its owners may have included an 18th century French aristocrat, a 19th century American industrialist or a 20th century Hollywood star. The provenance of a work which has been owned by a famous person should not be factored in to the pre-sale estimate of a work which should be valued for its intrinsic market value. This is because the value that an individual may place on a work owned by a specific rock star, film star or member of Royalty is very personal and subjective.

Comparable information is often important in determining price as past sales by artists can often provide a good benchmark for pricing. Information on this is easily obtainable, either from specialist publications, from internet databases such as Artnet, or from specialists.

These are all considerations and questions that you should ask when thinking about buying a work as they all contribute to the quality of the artwork in question.

Is there any auction house etiquette buyers should be aware of?
Auction houses are far more accessible and welcoming than some perhaps imagine. There are very few auctions, globally, which are by invitation only and buyers should feel at ease when telephoning and entering auction houses. If you are there for the first time, be it to browse or to buy, you can alert a member of staff to this fact and they should make you feel at ease, answering any questions you have and directing you to the location of specific pre-sale exhibitions or the auction itself.

There are no strict rules as to what should be worn, though if you are concerned about this, simply wear something that you feel good in – the last thing you want to do is feel self-conscious: if you wear trainers and this is what makes you at ease wear trainers, no one will be shocked.

If you are bidding on a work, most auction houses you will require you to have pre-registered and will in turn give you a paddle with a number which you can hold up when you wish to bid. Contrary to the concern of many, the auctioneer is very unlikely to think you are bidding if you touch your face, or lift your hand in some unrelated subconscious movement! At the same time, it is important to note that when bidding you do not call out.

Are auctions held in different ways in different countries?
One of the wonderful things about auctions is that the essential format remains the same around the globe, making the process a familiar one once you are aware of the basics. To begin, the auctioneer will introduce each lot and invite bids from the room, online and the bank of telephone bidders – which comprise auction house employees on the telephone to clients and bidding upon their instruction.

The works will either still be on view in the room, following the pre-sale exhibition, shown on a screen, or brought in to the room and held up or put on an easel by a porter. People do not tend to speak during an auction, though they may comment between themselves about certain lots and prices that works achieve. On occasions spontaneous bursts of applause mark the achievement of a stellar price and/or the end of a fierce bidding battle.

In some locations, or for specific types of sales, some auction houses will serve light refreshments: for Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sales dim-sum may be served; for Japanese sales an array of sushi may be available. This is not for consumption in the saleroom but for bidders’ sustenance during a whole auction.

Auctions vary from sale to sale, not only location to location, in terms of one key aspect: the style of the auctioneer. Some may be very brisk and matter of fact, others more conversational and jovial in manner.

Is it better to make bids in person, rather than by phone or online?
There is no one way to bid at auction which is ‘better’ – it is all a matter of finding a way that suits you. The information below outlines how the different processes work.

In person: This is the most straightforward method that lets you experience the excitement in the saleroom first hand. Most auction houses encourage or require people to pre-register by providing your billing information and a bank reference to the Bids Department no later than 48 hours before the auction. On the day of the sale, you should leave yourself sufficient time to present your ID, sign the registration form and receive your bidding paddle.
Raise your paddle when you wish to bid and wait for the auctioneer to acknowledge you. The auctioneer will continue taking ever-increasing bids from each interested party until all but one person drops out. The final bidder is the successful buyer. The auctioneer brings down his gavel on the rostrum and declares the final hammer price.
If bidding fails to reach the reserve (the minimum price the seller is prepared to accept), the item is unsold, and the auctioneer will indicate this by saying ‘pass’ and moving on to the next lot.

Bidding online: Some leading auction houses offer online bidding which enables you to watch, hear and bid in an auction taking place in real-time in a saleroom, from the comfort of your computer. Registration should be easy and the auction house in question should be able to advise you on this.

Written bid: If you cannot attend the auction, you may choose to leave a written bid, also called a commission bid or order bid. A member of the auction house staff will act on your behalf to secure the piece for the lowest possible price. The general practice is to simply print out the absentee bid form, specify your maximum bid amount, fill in all other requirements and fax the form to the Bid Department of the saleroom location at least 24 hours prior to the auction. An absentee bid form is normally provided in the back of the auction house catalogues.

Absentee bid online: Many of the bigger auction houses offer this option to submit absentee bids online up to approximately 24 hours before the day of the sale. There are a number of easy steps to take you through this quick process, at the end of which you will receive a printable confirmation page.

Telephone bid: A telephone bid is a bid made through an auction house member of staff, who calls you from the saleroom and relays your bids to the auctioneer during the auction. Telephone bids are arranged directly through the bid department or client services department. Because telephone lines are limited, telephone bidding may be reserved for the more expensive lots.

How do bid increments work?
Bid increments vary depending on the auction house and also the price bracket of a work. To avoid any confusion you can ask a member of staff before the auction begins.

If I bid successfully on an item will I incur any additional charges?
Auction houses add ‘buyer’s premium’ to the ‘hammer price’ (the amount you bid up to in the room). Buyer’s premium is a percentage of the final bid price of a lot that the buyer pays the auction house in addition to the final bid price. Details can be acquired from the auction house in advance and should be factored in to your considerations as to the price you bid up to in the auction. VAT, if applicable, is also added to the buyer’s premium – but not the hammer price. A further point to be aware of before bidding is import tax which may be added and also droit de suite, which may award a percentage of the sale price to the artist’s heirs. Look for the symbols next to the lot number in catalogues and ask for guidance whenever anything is unclear.

What currency is used for bids and what do I need to know about payment?
Bids and payments are made in the currency of the country where the auction takes place. The bigger auction houses usually have a currency conversion board that displays approximate currency conversions of the bid amounts. A member of the auction house staff can help you learn whether any other taxes are due.

How do I get the item delivered to my home?
Before placing a bid, find out about any import or export licenses or restrictions that may affect the property that interests you.

Most auction houses will have a collection desk or location where – having paid – you can go and collect the work directly. If you are buying works abroad, shipping will be involved at additional cost. It is advisable for prospective buyers to request shipping estimates from their own carriers or from the shipping department of the auction house in question in advance of the sale, so that this cost can be factored in to any purchase. The same is true of delivery within your own country.

Tags: art market, Beginners guide to art auctions, Buying art at auction

2 Comments to “How to buy art at auction.”

  1. All valuable information. But there are many pitfalls at auction. One can pay far more than the piece is worth if one does not know exactly what you are buying including its condition and the expertise behind it. My best client, a captain of industry has said, “At auction only buy what you know”. In other words if you have been collecting a field you may be an expert yourself and know what you are doing. If not, seek outside advice or better yet buy from a dealer you trust. The double sifting by a reputable dealer is worth the premium in the long run

  2. Leonard D.DeMaio says:

    Regarding Mr Lindsay’s,
    “How to buy at auction” It ,is well written and filled with comprehensive information,for all levels of the art buying market !

Leave a Comment