Art Market

5 Questions to Ask an Auction House before Consigning a Work

Isaac Kaplan
Jul 31, 2017 9:03PM

Photo by View Pictures,UIG, via Getty Images.

Selling an artwork at auction can seem daunting, especially if you’ve never done it before. But the road from your attic to the sale room doesn’t have to be bumpy and dimly lit. The easiest way to smooth the path is to simply ask questions. We spoke with auction house experts on what consignors should ask them; here are five questions to keep in mind when consigning a piece.

What auction will my work go into, and when will that happen?

While auctions usually only last a few hours, they often take many months to put together. Auction houses need lead time to market their sales, print catalogues, photograph the pieces, and even get the works authenticated, if required. As such, the deadline to submit a work to most traditional auctions is somewhere between a month and a half to three months before the gavel is going to fall, depending on the sale and the auction house.

Submitting work well in advance of this deadline can be an advantage. Earlier on, auction houses tend to be “less selective and more open,” said Richard Wright, founder and president of the auction house Wright. “Every auction house builds their auction from zero.”

Scott Nussbaum, Phillips’s head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, New York, notes that consignors generally are not coming to his auction house with the sale they hope to offer the piece in already selected—and that’s okay. Having conversations between consignor and auction house early gives more time to determine if auction is even the best route to ensure a favorable result (sometimes a private sale is preferable), and, if so, which sale the piece will be offered in. Nussbaum said there are plenty of opportunities year-round.

“I think there’s this common misperception that the auctions are only every so often and that if you miss a deadline you have to wait a long time,” he said. “The fact of the matter is we basically have an auction every month somewhere on the planet.”

Indeed, when working with an auction house like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, or Phillips, all with multiple auctions in most categories at their locations across the world, consignors should ask where a work will be put up for sale (London? New York? Paris?) and why. Getting the answer right, as with many of these questions, will ensure the best possible result.

“What we factor in most is where a piece will do the best and where the best returns will be for the seller,” said Scott Niichel, co-head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sales in New York. That is often the location closest to where the work is, but it can sometimes be the location closest to the location of a potential buyer. If an artist has a regional market, then the auction house will make sure it is offered there, for example.

What’s the breakdown of the fees that I’ll pay?

While the fees an auction houses charges buyers are pretty much set, the fees charged to consignors are determined on a case-by-case basis, notes Niichel. “Ultimately, that’s a confidential discussion between us and the consignor and is really based on the value of the material itself,” he said.

Because of their variable nature, it’s possible to have fees lowered or waived, especially if you’re bringing an important lot to an auction house. “Your strongest time to negotiate is before the consignment,” said Wright, before you’ve committed your artwork to one place and while you still have the option to take it somewhere else.

So what are the fees? Along with the vendor’s commission that auction houses charge consignors for handling the work, auction houses can charge storage fees, photo fees, promotional fees, insurance fees, and shipping fees (to name a few). If you don’t want to be taken by surprise, read your contract carefully, advises Wright.

He also noted it’s worth discussing something no consignor wants to think about: what will happen if a piece doesn’t find a buyer? Should a work fail to sell, the last thing a consignor would want is to be hit with an unexpected return shipping charge.

How will the auction house market my piece?

Once a work is in the hands of an auction house, how hard will its team work to sell it? There are several primary tools an auction house has at its disposal when marketing a piece. Works are shown in a pre-sale physical exhibition and are also posted online. But, while it may be surprising given our technology-driven world, Niichel said the “absolute number one tool that we have for promoting our sales” is still the printed catalogue, in which all consigned works are included.

Like most things about the consignment process, what level of marketing an artwork receives depends on its importance and history. If you have a never-before-auctioned Jackson Pollock splatter painting, you might reasonably expect it to wind up as the auction catalogue cover (and you can negotiate with the house to ensure that it happens before agreeing to consign). But while star lots almost always receive more prominent marketing, what constitutes a star lot varies depending on if you’re consigning with a large or small auction house. While it shouldn’t overly sway your decision, a five- or six-figure work is much more likely to receive significant marketing effort at a smaller house than it is at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips.

Along with the quality and history of the work itself, a factor in determining marketing is timing. Wright notes that pieces consigned ahead of an auction deadline are photographed first, and thus are more likely to appear as a banner image for the sale. Though Wright said the house changes that image when needed, it still never hurts to be an early bird.

How likely is it that my piece will sell?

Nussbaum put this question a bit more simply: “How do you compel someone to raise their paddle?”

There is always some element of risk in putting a work up for sale. And as a consignor, it’s easy to quickly get into the weeds when trying to suss out if a piece will sell. You can ask an auction house how similar works—comparable pieces by the same or related artists—have performed recently. But, cautions Niichel, it’s far from an exact science. For example, works that haven’t been sold for generations tend to over-perform similar works that have been sold more frequently.

Then there are also the more intangible aspects of working with an auction house, a process built on relationships, but one that can translate into firm economic results. If you want a sense of how likely it is your work will sell, part of the equation is the specialist at the auction house handling your piece. Just pick up the phone and give the auction house a call.

“You can learn a lot very quickly in speaking with someone,” said Wright. “You can truly understand their level of interest, how knowledgeable they are, and how committed they are to understanding your piece and the market.”

Estimates are also a crucial component of this question, and might come up in a conversation around how an auction house is going to market a work. Consignors may think their love of a piece should translate to an extremely aggressive estimate, but Niichel said “it doesn’t always serve their best interest to push for a higher estimate.”

That is: Aggressively high estimates can often hurt, not help, the consignor’s return. Don’t be afraid to ask about the rationale behind the estimate an auction house quotes you, but also understand that an estimate’s purpose isn’t to reflect a consignor’s personal belief of the value of the work.  

“The more aggressive you get with an estimate, the smaller the potential audience for the art,” said Nussbaum.

Why is this auction house best suited to sell this work?

The auction house landscape is a duopoly, with most of the market share going to Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Phillips is a strong third, and then other auction houses like Wright, Heritage, and Bonhams make up the remainder of the market. There are pros and cons of going with a bigger auction house over a smaller one (and vice versa). So with all the choice out there, which house is best for you? A good place to start is asking why an auction house thinks they’re the best fit for your work and letting them do the explaining. When they compete with each other, the consignor wins out.

“It’s worth someone’s time to get multiple quotes,” said Wright. “There is a fair amount of variability in the commission fees and in these miscellaneous fees.” Wright argues that less-prominent works can be better suited for a smaller house like his.

But lowered fees are different than ensuring a sale. If you have an artist with a deep market and an international following, the global reach of an auction house like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips can be key. To evaluate the best fit for your piece, Niichel advises looking at past auction results to see where comparable works have sold and sold well. If, when looking at past auction results, all or a majority of the works by the artist you’re trying to sell in the expected price range for the work have been sold at one auction house, it’s a strong indication that house has particularly strong relationships that can help sell the piece.

“Auction houses will try to win business but they may not have any track record with the artist,” said Wright. “They may or may not do well with it, but you should at least know that if you decide to go with them.”

Nussbaum said that, ultimately, the best way to know if the auction house is a good fit is to get on the phone with the relevant specialist and gauge their level of interest. If they can’t explain what makes the piece valuable to you, chances are they can’t explain it to buyers.

“It’s not the auction house that sells the work of art, it’s the people,” said Nussbaum.

Isaac Kaplan