Auction Catalogue Symbols, Decoded
Entering an art auction for the first time is a confusing and intimidating experience for most. Within those storied halls of Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s exists a very unique etiquette and set of rules, some more obvious than others. This has only been exacerbated by the shift from in person to online—now, there’s no friendly neighbor there to help decipher what’s going on, or queues to take from others in the room. Though one would think auction catalogues might provide some clarity and guidance, they often read like laundry instruction codes. But there are about a half dozen auction catalogue symbols that will let potential buyers know how a certain piece is being sold.
These hieroglyphs are typically featured right beside the presale estimates in a catalogue or online lot description, and along with the piece’s provenance, they are among the most helpful tools in understanding a work’s value. Discovering their true meaning can require flipping to the fine print at the end or beginning of an auction catalogue, or navigating auction house websites’ “frequently asked questions” pages. In the era of more sophisticated digital auction catalogues, discovering symbols’ meanings has gotten a bit easier. But it still pays to get familiar with them—and understand what they can tell you about how a future sale will play out.
No reservations about reserves
A good place to start is with a thorough understanding of what a “reserve” means within the context of an auction. A lot with a reserve means that there is a minimum bidding price that the lot can be sold for, and if bidders don’t meet that minimum, the consignor doesn’t have to give the work to the highest bidder. The reserve price is typically unknown, and it’s generally assumed that there is a reserve on all lots, thus pieces without a reserve are marked with a • symbol, and will be sold to the highest bidder regardless of any presale price estimate given by the auction house.
So, for example, a work with a presale estimate of $100,000 to $200,000 could sell for $50,000 if there is no reserve. But if there was a reserve and it was set, for example, at $70,000, the piece would not sell to the high bidder at $50,000 and instead would go back to the consignor. Having a reserve insures the consignor that they will not part with their work for less than what they and the auction house’s specialists perceive its value to be. So if you look through an auction catalogue and see several • symbols, you can anticipate that the net earnings from the sale could be significantly lower than the house’s presale net total estimate.
Another way to establish security for an artwork’s sale price is for it to have a guarantee. There are two types of guarantees: those that come from the auction house itself and those that come from a third party. A guarantee on a lot simply means that the auction house or the third party has agreed to pay a certain amount for a work, regardless of whether it reaches that price during bidding. A guarantor will assume the risk of a piece not reaching its minimum price guarantee, in which case the piece will be sold to the guarantor. Such lots are signaled by a pair of symbols: Phillips and Christie’s use ° for works guaranteed by the auction house and ♦ for those with a third-party guarantee; Sotheby’s marks all guaranteed lots with ° only. The top lots in a major evening sale will often all be guaranteed, thus ensuring the auction’s total net earnings will at least reach a minimum threshold. Having a guarantee on a given lot is not only a safeguard, but also a gamble. If the piece winds up selling for over its guarantee price, the consignor must split the upside with the guarantor.
Similar to a guarantee is an irrevocable bid. Indicated with the symbol ⋑, an irrevocable bid is an undisclosed bid on a piece agreed on before the auction. The difference between a third-party guarantee and an irrevocable bid is slight but important: If the auction sees bidding push the price past the irrevocable bid, then the party who placed the irrevocable bid will get to cash in on that upside. According to Phillips’s website, “Compensation payable to the irrevocable bidder may be a fixed fee, a contingent fee, or a combination of both.”
So if you see any of these symbols—°, ♦, or ⋑—on a lot’s catalogue entry, it is certain that the piece will be sold, whether it’s back to the auction house through a guarantee, or to a third party that has guaranteed the work or placed an irrevocable bid on it. But why would a third-party guarantor opt to assume the financial risk of setting a guarantee for a work that could fail to sell? Often, these parties are creating working relationships with an auction house, and this is a way to set a precedent for financial reliability.
When auction houses consign
There are other symbols that give hints as to whether a lot is financially backed by the auction house or by a third party. If the house has a financial interest in a piece—meaning it owns the piece either in part or in full—the lot will be marked with Δ. For instance, say a piece guaranteed by an auction house sells for its guarantee price after a disappointing appearance on the auction block. Now that auction house owns it. In a few years, you may see the same piece up for auction again and marked with Δ, because that auction house is now choosing to put it up for sale again.
One practice the three main houses signal differently is when a party with a direct or indirect interest in a lot—and who may have knowledge of its reserve—may be bidding on the lot. Christie’s uses the catalogue symbol ¤ to reflect this; Sotheby’s uses v̲; and at Phillips, the auctioneer announces it at the beginning of an auction. What this could mean is that a beneficiary of the estate selling the lot is bidding on it, for instance, or that a lot’s joint owner is bidding to become its sole owner. The ¤, v̲, and Δ symbols are reliable clues to a lot’s auction history, and what kind of agreements have been brokered behind the scenes about how much a piece ought to sell for.
A final important symbol you may stumble upon if you’re bidding at auctions outside the U.S. and China is the elusive mark of artist’s resale royalty rights (λ at Christie’s, ⊕ at Sotheby’s, and ♠ at Phillips). Also known as droit de suite, this right is not yet part of legislation in the world’s two biggest auction markets, but where it is on the books it provides the artist who created a work with a royalty when it is sold on the secondary market. According to Christie’s website, the house “will collect from the buyer an amount equal to the resale royalty and pass this to the relevant collecting agency.” This royalty is calculated from the hammer price, so the buyer’s premium is not factored into the sum. Christie’s also stipulates that the royalty is not factored into the house’s estimate. As it currently stands, around 80 countries provide resale rights to artists.
There is a steep learning curve for mastering the lexicon of auction house symbols and terms. Billions of dollars move through the art auction system yearly, and how it all gets divided up is far from a clear system. These symbols may seem inscrutable, but they can be a collector’s key to knowing how an auction will play out before a single lot even hammers down.