Everyone has seen auctions in movies, where the irate buyer accidentally splurges millions by scratching their nose at the end of a bidding war. For inexperienced art buyers, this may be the only glimpse you’ve ever had into that world.
The fact is auctions are relatively easy, and we’re going to talk you through the whole process.
Where to Find Auctions
Auctions can be held pretty much anywhere. Most notable are the famous auction houses like Sotheby’s which are dedicated to supplying top-tier artwork to the upper echelons of society. But museums, warehouses and even collectors’ homes can all operate as auction “houses”.
Since they’re advertised online and heavily discussed within artistic communities, they’re usually quite easy to locate.
How it Works
Every piece in the auction has 3 “prices”, as it were:
- Presale estimate — The approximate price the house expects the piece to sell for.
- Reserve price — The minimum price set by the consignor (current owner) or the auction house in order for it to sell. If the high bid doesn’t reach the reserve price, it is not sold.
- Opening bid — Usually set below the low presale estimate, this is the starting price announced by the auctioneer. This is your chance to snap a bargain!
Before the auction kicks off, you can read the condition report of each piece (i.e. details of any damage) and their history. This context is crucial for setting your budget. For traditional auctions, you’ll be seated in the main room with an auctioneer and your fellow bidders, raising your arm to clearly indicate a “bid”.
Online auctions have predictably skyrocketed in popularity, too. Fortunately, they work in exactly the same way.
What surprises many new buyers is that auctions can be the most affordable means of starting a collection. It takes a bit of luck (i.e. few rivals with interest in the same piece) but paintings are frequently sold just a hair above the reserve price — not all auctioned artwork is a $179 million Picasso, after all. You can also see the recent auction history of the artist and use this information to control your budget.
For new buyers and veterans alike, participating in auction is also a fun and totally unique experience.
For the uninitiated, art dealers can appear shrouded in mystery. It’s part of their marketing, creating that air of intangible power and the ability to conjure up exactly the piece of art you’ve been looking for. In reality, they’re very well-connected, well-informed people who know a lot about the art world.
How They Operate
Once you’ve located a dealer, and decide to work together, it’s a fairly simple process. You talk to them! If you’re looking for a new piece for your lounge, you’ll describe the room, your tastes and expectations. If there’s a specific genre or style of painting, you need to make your desires clear and trust the dealer to do their job.
After a little while — anywhere from a few hours to several weeks — they’ll get back in touch with some options. Fingers crossed, they’ll hit the nail squarely on the head, first time, and leave you delighted.
The trouble with dealers is that taste is subjective, and they might not understand exactly what you’re after. It’s a risk, but if the dealer has a good reputation, they’ve likely earned it the hard way.
You tell the dealer your requirements, and then they get back to you with a selection of artists or specific paintings. The leg work on your end is minimal, and the results (if you’ve used a talented dealer) should be on the money.
Buying from an art gallery is the simplest and most intuitive of the three options: you walk into the room, you enquire about a piece you like, and you pay for it.
How They Operate
Galleries work as a middle man between the artist and the buyers. All artwork on display is the result of a deep, fruitful relationship between the gallery and the artist — you know the artist is the real deal. Basically the gallery will set a price for a piece of work, and there’s no haggling involved: either you pay the asked price, or you look for a different piece. It’s comfortingly black and white.
In a gallery, you’re never rushed; never forced to make a fast decision. You are the master of your own choices. In a gallery you can be completely selective. If nothing is perfect for you, leave the gallery and head on to the next.
There’s no perfect option, of course, but most individual buyers have their own preferences. Buying art can be a thrilling, satisfying journey, and we hope this short overview of the main buying methods will help you take your first steps as an art collector!