Nail your art auction bidding strategy

How to play it safe at online art sales

Marina Viatkina
Oct 10, 2018 · 5 min read

In my latest article from «Essential guide to becoming art collector» series I promised to give you some tips on how to become confident at bidding floor — online and offline — and make sure you get the desired lot at the best price. So, here are my basic suggestions that came to me personally through joy and tears journey at the art market.

In the right place at the right time

So, let’s assume you have chosen a piece to bid for online, registered for the auction beforehand and connected to their bidding floor system right when the auction begins. I believe it is really important to be there right from the start of the auction especially when you don’t have that much experience with this or that auctioneer or commissaire-priseur as they call these folks in French.

Well, now you have a general idea of how everyone is acting today at this auction and how some really interesting pieces are trading and what are the markers for trash items. It is now your turn to tune up.

Everything is set for the bidding. At Sotheby’s HQ in London

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

I need to place two caveats here before I tell you anything more on how to act when your artwork of interest is at stake.

First of all, note that I share this experience with a good intention and by following these basic tricks you should not end up broke with the invoice for astronomical sum that will drain you dry. However, I cannot be responsible for this or that action of yours that may lead you to unintended consequences.

Secondly, for the reasons above, I suggest that you start practicing online bidding with the lots that would not break your heart that you lost them or sell your house if you win them. «Practice on toy-cats» — as some colloquial wisdom says, meaning warming yourself to the work. Here I suggest that you should ideally pick less sensitive artworks for your first steps on the market.

Pre-auction fuss at Drouot in Paris

Well, here your artwork goes. The auctioneers voices up lot description and his assistants (not always) quickly show it to the public offline and to the camera for those online. And the bidding begins.

  • Wait for 1–2 stakes from other bidders to check out the general interest. If no bids are coming and your are not super excited either — drop it. Especially if this kind of behaviour was common for other lots before. Chances are this item has some serious drawbacks that people present there noticed during pre-auction exhibition and visual examination in flesh. Proceed to the next step only if you know exactly (or convinced enough) that this is the lot you definitely need to secure.
May the best one win! Bidding floor at Sotheby’s HQ in London
  • Place your bid and then there are two strategies. See how active other bidders are and
  1. either be pushy — bid right after their bids (kind of showing that you are determined and gonna take the lot no matter what). This way you will back off general random bidders and dealers who buy lots of staff for under lower estimates if nobody is willing to take them.
  2. or stay hesitant and wait until the last moment (second or third «Fair Warning!» depending on your self-assurance and alertness) to place the next bid. Act like you don’t care actually or have strong doubts. This is a better strategy if you have a strong opponent who has definitely set his eye on this lot just like you did.

If there are more than two active bidders out there you’d surely not better mix up in the fight. Better wait until one of them gives up and then make your unexpected move. Here be prepared to act upon the situation — make the first bid in the last moment but then try to show power and act like in scenario #1.

  • Continue bidding whichever strategy you’ve chosen up until you reach you bidding limit (that you should definitely set for yourself beforehand).

Speaking about bidding limits for lots you are chasing. The easiest but not safest way might be to stick around the high estimate from the auction catalogue. However I strongly recommend that you do your own homework research of each lot’s potential value well in advance. Read about what to pay attention for in my article How not to waste money with your first Old Master here.

Examining lots in flesh before bidding — priceless
  • And yes, try not to show signs that you are reaching your ceiling by extending the pauses between your bids (common and very natural human behaviour — we always want to put off the approaching ultimate deadline). With this you are giving a carte blanche for your counter-bidder to squeeze you out of the deal easily.
  • My congratulations if you finally end up with a deal. You already know how to act further from this article. But please, don’t get discouraged if you missed the mark or the painting sky-rocketed well over its highest estimates (art market players do their homework too and it is highly likely that you are not the only one to spot the hidden gem in the auction list). Even famous art dealers often go away with nothing. You will nail it the next time, I promise.

As a rule of thumb, the more famous action house you go to — the wider the audience would be. Prepare for paying more simply because the general quality of art might be better and the pockets or your counter-bidders are deeper.

However it doesn’t mean that you can’t find a great artwork at a no name auction. On the contrary — that’s what all art market sharks are doing — buying low there and then selling high at world-famous bidding floors.

Behaviour rules for offline bidding are basically the same except for that you have to be way more experienced and confident to hit your target in style.

Hidden Gem: Art Treasures through the lens of History

Short stories on art discoveries of an ever curious art…

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