How to buy art at auction?

Act like a pro even doing it for the first time

Marina Viatkina
Sep 18, 2018 · 6 min read

Now when you made up your mind on what to collect and learned how to choose the right item, it’s high time to start your hunt and make your first bid at auction. Here is a simple step-by-step guide that would help you get familiar with the process and make it friendly and transparent (while sometimes it seems anything but that).

1. Monitor the market

It’s quite easy to become an experienced art collector these days compared to how it was even 5 years ago. Almost all of the auctions houses has now gone online. You could literally sit in any part of the world and have the same opportunity of buying a thing at a small auction in, say, Germany as those folks present offline do. Of course, they would still have the advantage of seeing the painting in flesh, but you could narrow that gap by doing your homework right.

The other nice perk is that you don’t have to search for all the individual websites of thousands of auction houses and check them up regularly to see what’s going on. There are now several massive aggregator platforms like Invaluable, Drouot, The Saleroom, Barneby’s, etc. that have done this work for you.

It is similar to a huge department store where you come to a single place and buy from any designer you like, no need to spend your day hopping from one distant boutique to another.

Not only they have assembled all the forthcoming auctions with their catalogues — they make it possible to bid through their system. You can expect to have a live video and audio stream of the auction room and functionality to place your bid along with those competing for the lot on the ground. However, this art world digitalisation is as yet a work-in-progress, so some provincial auctions my have no video stream available. Alas, but it is still quite easy to follow with just an audio track and a respective artwork image transmission available.

Online bidding is a no-brainer today

2. Set up your accounts beforehand

Even before you’ve found your first target to bid for try to set up your account on every major platform and every important auction house that provides its standalone live bidding service.

All these bidding organisers would require to complete a standard background check of the potential bidder (expect to fill in your profile, submit your valid credit card and even sometimes your passport image, prove of home address, delivery details and (imagine that!) provide your previous track record of purchases).

And of course, they will check that up manually. And ask for additional info. And even, my favourite, set you a bidding limit (sometimes a $2000 ceiling).

You should ensure you’ve settled all those formalities way before you spot an interesting lot in the coming sales.

You never know when the opportunity comes about and it would be silly to lose that potential hidden gem by just not being able to sign up for the auction for no serious reason.

3. Sign up for the auction in advance

They usually publish the catalogues with lots’ images, descriptions and estimates sometime from 1 month up to 2 weeks before the auction date. This period may be longer for major Evening Sales with important artworks and shorter for some regular sales of general stuff (which doesn’t mean you can’t find something interesting there).

Pre-sale exhibition

And they close up the registration for potential bidders 24 hours before the kick-off. It is completely free, no obligation to bid or buy anything. I encourage you to sign up for all more or less interesting sales way in advance. Especially if you had no experience with a particular auction house before. It is quite common to suddenly receive a request to submit some additional info that prove you can actually pay if you win. And it may take them days to approve your registration (it is sometimes a manual process too) and you’d better have all this time just in case.

Moreover, that gives you an extra room for making a background check for the lots that you’ve noted.

Request a condition report, additional photos, check their previous sales records if any.

Or just do your own research on potential authorship if the artwork is promising yet unattributed.

Plus, you can leave a so-called absentee bid if you are unable attend the auction neither physically nor virtually. However, I know that it is usually a very tricky thing to do as a beginner so don’t bother yourself with that now, you will nail that later in your art collecting journey.

4. Come in a good time

Be there on time when the auction starts. Check your connection and start watching how the sale goes. It may sound strange to turn on your computer at the beginning of the sale if your lot is, say #88 or #356. But I still highly recommend doing that especially if you are not that familiar with how it all goes out there.

First of all, you will never know the pace of the auction (even if they provide the estimated time frame when this or that lot would appear at huge sales of 500+ items). You’d better connect sometime earlier and observe the bidding floor. How much time does the auctioneer leave for bids to come? How fast he/she decides to skip the lot if no interest is shown? How do the bidders (offline and online) behave? Do they tend to underbid or the sale is quite active and most of the lots exceed their estimates?

On a bidding floor

It is in your interest to be there way before your lot comes out to be able to identify what are the signs of really worthy and drop-it-like-it’s-hot ones. When you have wisely spotted all the behaviour details of potential fellow-bidders you may play smart with your own bidding strategy.

To help you speed up the process of becoming a bidding pro at the auction floor and avoid typical mistakes newcomers make I will draft a dedicated bidding strategy article for you soon. So keep watching this space.

5. You won — come and get it

So, luckily, you are the winner in the bidding race. What’s next? Sometimes you may not receive any notification during or immediately after the sale that it was really you who secured the artwork. Don’t worry, nobody loses their records when somebody owes them money. Usually, you will receive the invoice the day after the auction. Some delays may still occur ’cause it is done (guess how?) manually. Typically you have 15 days to complete the payment.

They will usually store you purchase free-of-charge for a month or so (but always check the auction’s terms & conditions for all the specifics). So, you have enough time to arrange a delivery or pick up your purchase yourself (and they will do some complementary basic bubble wrap of the lot in this case).

And of course, they offer expedition services shall you require a delivery. My experience says their offers are absolutely in line with the general market price level. Moreover they take responsibility for proper packaging and safe delivery. You won’t win much trying to arrange logistics yourself (but will certainly lose time and heck a lot of nerves). So just happily accept their conditions and wait for your piece to finally arrive at yours!

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