Art Market

5 Tips for Buying Art at Auction

Osman Can Yerebakan
Aug 19, 2022 9:55PM

Auctions, whether online or in person, can offer a level playing field for collecting. Whether seasoned or novice, collectors who set out to buy from an auction may well find themselves the proud owner of a prized possession, or a disappointed underbidder left empty-handed. Winning a coveted work comes down to a mix of targeted research, practical thinking, and mental toughness—plus a healthy dose of optimism.

Luckily, buying art from auctions has become more accessible than ever. In recent years, the tradition of the auctioneer playing ringleader to potential buyers in a packed auction room has been increasingly augmented or replaced by online sales. This trend was accelerated even further due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which turned the digital concept into a norm.


These days, collectors spending tens of millions of dollars online is not uncommon, according to Kelsey Leonard, head of contemporary evening sales at Sotheby’s in New York. “People are just a lot more comfortable bidding virtually,” she said. Indeed, online auctions, including benefit sales, offer collectors an opportunity to access art by emerging and iconic artists alike, and at a variety of price points well below the millions.

To learn more about what goes into bidding, Artsy spoke to four art world insiders who represent different voices in the auctions ecosystem: Leonard, Lisa Schiff, Vivian Brodie, and Amitha Raman. Here, we share five tips (and a bonus) that can help collectors before placing their first—or next—bid.

Pick a work and gather as much information as you can

For collector Amitha Raman, who also co-organizes the podcast Art from the Outside, researching art has an emotional component: “I never just arrive at the work, but rather, once I discover an artist, I have to learn everything about their practice and whittle down to what type of artwork I must own by them,” she said.

If you’re not sure where to begin, Brodie, a private dealer whose résumé includes stints at Christie’s and Paddle8, suggests looking into online auctions during quiet moments in the art world calendar, which can be especially fruitful. “They usually happen in July or right after Art Basel in Miami Beach, when the larger market steps away, so you can pick better pieces,” she said.

In the weeks or months ahead of an auction, zero in on the work (or works) you’re interested in, and take advantage of the information that’s available to you—as well as information that may not be readily available online.

Brodie, Leonard, and Schiff—founder of SFA advisory as well as the eponymous Tribeca gallery storefront—all advise potential buyers to review—or request, if it’s not posted online—a condition report for any work they’re considering bidding on. This detailed description of an artwork’s physical state will include mention of any existing damage, past conservation procedures, time and climate-related deterioration, and reframing history. All of these factors play a role in determining the work’s quality.

Another “crucial” piece of due diligence, according to Leonard, is the authenticity report. “Collecting from auction houses and established dealers makes this stage easier,” she said. She also advises reviewing the provenance to see a work’s previous owners. “The fact that Coco Chanel or Elizabeth Taylor previously owned a painting you’re about to hang in your home is a fun bonus, but also an additional value,” she said.

Brodie suggests going to see the work in person, if possible. However, if it’s not, request as much information as you can from the auction’s specialists “to mimic an in-person experience, including cataloging images, detail shots, and literature,” she said.

Take advantage of price transparency and data

Pedro Victor Brandão
Untitled #34 (Global Military Spending, 1992-2021), 2022
Portas Vilaseca Galeria
José Benmayor
Pc con Paint, 2020
Hoxton Gallery

One of the advantages of buying at auction, rather than at a gallery, is that artworks for sale are always listed with a starting bid and price estimates. Yet often, even more telling is an artist’s past auction results—a key resource for evaluating the value of a work and predicting what it might sell for. Tools like the Artsy Price Database allow collectors to freely review millions of past auction results to get a sense of the market rate for a given artist’s work coming up for sale. This can be especially useful as a collector considers what budget they might need in order to place a winning bid.

Schiff advises looking into whether the work has been sold at auction before. “You need auction history research, which may or may not be provided in the provenance,” she said. This will give you a sense of the work’s value trajectory and can help gauge how it will sell in the forthcoming sale.

As you estimate the total cost of buying the work you’re eyeing, do also keep in mind that additional fees may be added to the hammer price (the winning bid). This may include sales tax and a buyer’s premium—the fee an auction house charges for facilitating the sale.

Beware of the impulse buy

John Ward (b. 1938)
Peter Chance, Christie's Auction, 20th Century
Cross Gate Gallery

You’ve done your research and the work you have your heart set on is coming up for auction soon. Before the sale date, be sure to register for the auction, so that the auction house has your information on record.

The auction begins and the work you’re interested in is on the auction block, or about to open for bidding online. A bidding war breaks out and the price soars past your budget; you’re disappointed, but then another lot catches your eye. Should you try and take that home instead?

Schiff certainly doesn’t think so: She refers to impulse buying as “a disaster situation.” She also pointed out that, especially with online sales, “you may think you will not get the piece and keep clicking, but in the end, you might!” She notes that a last-minute purchase doesn’t allow for the buyer to understand the full breadth of what a work will cost. In the lead up to auctions, Schiff presents her clients with a spreadsheet that breaks down sales tax, her fee, buyer’s premium, and management fee for specific works. But when a collector makes an impulse purchase, “there is no prep time, but you have potential for regret,” Schiff added.

Brodie agreed that “spontaneous acquisitions” are risky, though she noted that “if a similar work with little risk and a modest price point excites you, go for it.” If an artwork does speak to you at the last minute, Leonard advises going to the condition report. “Damage in a work from 2019 is unlikely, but if you suddenly start looking at an older work in a fragile medium, I’d wait to see a condition report before making any decision,” she said.

Be mindful of competing bidders and know your max bid

Brodie admits to having seen various psychological games at play in the auction room, though the ultimate trick might be bidding quickly with caution. “You may really want a specific work, but while rapid-bidding, be aware of how much you’re overpaying or if you’re resetting the market for the artist,” she said. Bidding beyond a certain price point might mean breaking the artist’s auction record—in other words, paying the highest recorded price to date for the artist’s work at auction.

Leonard’s strategy here is to know your maximum bid from the get-go, so that you can bid up until that number without hesitation. “This commitment shows determination and can intimidate other bidders,” she added. But her golden tip is, if you’re bidding in an online auction and the website lets you set a maximum bid, “go ahead and enter the maximum amount you’re willing to pay for a work—this way, you don’t have to worry about technical difficulties or not clicking fast enough.”

Schiff recommends “showing no sign of hesitation even when the bidding slows down.” In fact, the moment there’s a lull in bidding is when she suggests “jumping in with a willingness to increase the price.”

She also suggests paying attention to your competition’s bids: “if the other party is bidding in half increments and the auctioneer is allowing it, they are probably reaching their limit,” Schiff said. On the other hand, raising in half increments can stretch the game and wear other bidders out, “but try not to get caught up with your ego,” she said.

Enjoy the benefits of benefit auctions

By buying from a benefit auction, you can support a social cause while expanding your collection at the same time. Brodie provided an example of the opportunities charitable auctions can provide: “You’ve been eyeing Nicolas Party, who is hard to get, and one of his paintings appears in the New York City AIDS Memorial’s charity auction—go for it; or, you’d love to support this organization, so why not also leave the benefit with an artwork?”

However, as Schiff noted, “Buying from a charity auction is not a donation, so you are not getting a tax deduction.”

Major benefit auctions hosted by museums and nonprofit organizations typically feature some of contemporary art’s most renowned living artists, as well as emerging artists you may not know yet. Schiff, who has organized environment-focused benefit auctions for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, noted that such sales can be an ideal place to discover new artists. “I’ve put Jana Euler or Cassi Namoda in Leo’s sales when they were starting out,” she recalled.

She also pointed to benefit sales as an ideal scenario to buy a lesser known work from a star artist. She noted that a collector once left one of her benefit sales with a Matthew Wong painting that sold for a relatively modest $25,000.

Since works at benefit auctions are donated, rather than consigned, the hosting institution has greater leeway when it comes to setting starting bids. As such, bidding often begins at more accessible price points than you’d find at a commercial auction.

Benefit sales might not always feature a well-known name’s signature, unique works, but they may still offer hidden gems. Raman has found this to be true through being involved with the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture’s benefit auction since joining its board in 2019. At the most recent edition of the esteemed residency program’s annual fundraiser, which includes works donated by its long list of alumni, she acquired a print by painter Katherine Bradford. The benefit sale has shown her that “charity events are ideal for adding prints and works on paper to a collection,” she said.

Bonus: Dress to impress (unless you’re bidding at home)

Louise Soloway Chan
Young Soy Gallery
Louise Soloway Chan
Young Soy Gallery

Brodie recalled one memorable fashion moment at an auction was a collector wearing an Alexander Calder brooch pinned to her elegant sweater. “When in doubt, wear all black,” she said. “And evening sales are really long these days, so have at least a glass of champagne.”

Leonard noted that the attire for online sales can easily be pajamas, while Schiff says her sartorial choices can be jeans and sneakers for in-person auctions and anything comfortable for online.

As a collector, Raman believes in making an impression: “I pick an outfit or jewelry that will stand out.” In the art world’s fast-paced social networking, a bold look helps you be remembered.

Osman Can Yerebakan

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a collector. She is Amitha Raman, not Amitha Rahman.