Art Newsletter

Learning About Art Auctions


The art auction is one of the most alluring part of collecting art for many people. Simultaneously it is the most visible market with its splashy headlines and glamourous guestlists and the most mysterious (with its secretive bidders and sellers, and its behind-the-scenes whispering), the world of auctions can be inscrutable.   There's language to be decoded and research to be done and gossip to be to be sifted through (if you've been following the news in the art world lately, you'll know that there are some very juicy things happening in the auction houses of New York).   But once you're in the know, bidding at an auction can be a fun, exciting and satisfying way to collect art (or you may think it's frustrating, vapid and a rip-off.   But that's for you to decide.


A Brief History of the Art Auction

For centuries, auctions were how art was traded among society's elite.  In the first few decades of the 1900's, an emerging class of collectors and dealers began frequenting auctions that were small, private affairs, attended primarily by those that fully understood the market.   They were looking for work they could purchase at low cost for the sole purpose of reselling at a higher price.   It wasn't until the 1970's the auctions entered the larger cultural consciousness and started to really have a impact on the contemporary art market.   This was largely prompted by the record-breaking auction of Robert abd Ethel Scull's renowned collection of Modern and Pop Art masterpieces in 1973.   The fifty pieces in the auction included work by Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg and Warhol, and brought in an enormous profit that had been unheard of at the time, ushering in accusations of profiteering and outcries about the commericalism of art, along with kicking off the auction market as we know it today.


The 80's were particularly good for the art auctions coinciding with the generally bustling, economy and the trend of art collections being seen as hip status symbols.   The major auction houses liquified the market by actively working to increase their client base and bringing auctions to the masses.   Sotheby's in particular was leading the way in changing the role of auction houses in the market thanks to the company being bought by real estated developer Albert Taubman.   On the one hand, he established the Arcade auctions, which sold works at lower prices and drew in hundreds od new clients.  On the other hand he agressively marketed toward the new money of Wall Street, along with expanding their reach to global markets, like Japan that had seemingly endless amounts of cash to spare.   Suddenly, art was a hot commodity and the auction world where people acquired it was the epitome of chic.   Bidders transitioned from collectors and dealers, to CEO's and socialites, the auctions becoming a place of see and be seen and their purchases getting press on PageSix.   Prices soared.


The bubble burst in the early 90's, however and the auction market tanked.   But since then the importance of the market and the price of sales has been steadily increasing, (with an expected dip during the recession).   Global players-particularly in Asia and the Middle East- are driving a lot of the jaw-dropping bidding that you'll see today, but it certainly isn't all lots that sell in the millions.   A beginner collector can definitely find their place in the auction market.


Terms to know:

Here are some terms one needs to know while reading this article and when it comes to auctions:

• Bought-in :   When a lot does not have any bids or the bids aren't high enough to                     reach the reserve price, the lot is left unsold and remains the                                 property of the owner.   Having a piece "burned"(not sold) is a huge                     concern when deciding to put up for auction, since it often puts a                         psychological damper on the market for the work.

• Buyer's Premium :  A set rate that is paid for a work in addition to the hammer                                 price paid by the purchaser of the work.

• Consigner :   The owner of the work.

• Condition of Business :   The terms under which the consigner and the auction                                         house agree to sell the work to the purchaser.   Read                                           this carefully before bidding.

• Estimate :   Before an auction expert determine a low and high estimate of how                      much the work might sell for, establishing a range of value.   This is                        included in the information that is available to the public before the                        auction as a preliminary guide.

• Guarantee Line :   This is the most important information that's included about                                the work in the auction catalogue including the authencity, the                              name of the artist details about the work itself and the origin                                of the piece.

• Hammer Price :  The price the work actually sold for.

• Lot :  The individual object or group of objects viewed as a single unit, that's up              for auction.

• Lot Symbols :  The catalogue may have symbols next to the estimate that                                     indicates further information about the lot.   A key should be                                 provided in the catalogue or other literature provided by the                                 auction house.

• Provenance :  The history of ownership of the piece, ideally going back to its                              creation.   Provenance is a very important factor in determining                            the piece's value in the auction market.

• Reserve (or Reserve Piece) :  The reserve piece is the confidentially agreed                                                       -upon minimum that the consigner and the auction                                               house will sell a work. Unlike the estimate, the                                                     reserve is never publically disclosed. It must be set                                               at or below, the low estimate, and if bidding stops                                                 before the reserve is reached it won't actually be                                                 sold.

• Valuation :  A detailed description of the work and its value.   It is not the same                     as the estimate or the reserve and is used primarily in dealings with                       charitable contributions, estate planning and insurance.


How The Auction Works

As the auction house will tell you, many collectors want sell artwork for one of three reasons:




In times of rising art market prices however, many collectors simply put work up for sale because they think they can make handsome profits.   This contributes to the art world's secondary market - art that's put up for sale not by the artist but by the collector or dealer who has bought the work in the past and now wants to resell it.


Auction houses are one of the primary outlets for the secondary market.   When an auction house acquires a piece, the first step is an appraisal, where the experts employed by the house examines the work and conducts their research to determine its value and create estimates of what it may sell for at an auction.

Groups of works are then gathered together to create an auction.   Every auction has a catalog featuring all of the lots in the sale with important information about each piece, and there is also a presale exhibition that goes on view for the public to come see the works in person before the auction.

At the auction itself, each item is bid on one at a time.   If the item does not haveany bids or if it never reaches the reserve price, it's bought in.   If it's sold the


winner of the item is responsible for the hammer price along with the buyer's premium and any taxes.  The auction house takes a seller's commission which is deducted from the hammer price and the rest of the proceeds are given to the consigner.


How To Buy At Auctions

The first step, as always, is to do your homework.   There is a good deal of research to be done before bidding at an auction.   First, you'll need to see what's up for auction by reading the house's catalog and attending their presale exhibition. If a piece catches your eyes, you 'll then need to do some work to determine what you're willing bid for.   There are three main factors to consider.

1. The condition of the piece. Works at an art auction are almost always sold "as is" but the details of their condition are rarely discussed in the catalog. Be sure to see it in person and if its difficult to tell on your own, talk to someone with the auction house for a full report on anything that may affect its value.

2. You'll also want to research the artist of the piece, as their place in art history and the period that the piece represents has a huge impact on the work's value.

3. Like buying a house you'll want to research some comparables.   Look up what similar works by the artist or from that period have sold for in the past.   A good resource for this is Artnet's Database.


Once you have your range of what you'd be willing to bid in mind, you'll typically need to register for the auction.   Then come auction day, there are usually a few options for how to bid, like in person, online or over the phone.   Look into the house policies and protocols to be prepared.   At the auction, the auctioneer will introduce each lot and start the bidding at a price lower than the reserve.   As people begin bidding they'll incrementally increase the price after every bid.   If you're willing to pay the price If you're willing to pay the price, if it goes above your maximum bid you're willing to pay, stop bidding.   The auctioneer will continue to accept bids and increase the price until only one final bidder is left, and that person will win the item.   If that person is you the auction house will give you information on how to pay for the lot and transportation.


If you're intrigued by the thrill of the auction, the main houses to look at are:

1. Sotheby's

2. Christie's

3. Phillips

4. Bonhams

5. Swann

6. Doyle

This is all the art info for this month. Look for more info next month and have fun creating.








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