Art Market

How Auction Houses Select Artworks for Their Sales

Justin Kamp
Jan 7, 2021 2:00PM

View of the sales room at Phillips on December 7, 2020. Photo by Haydon Perrior. Courtesy of Thomas De Cruz Media.

After a year of tenuous schedules and virtual social gatherings, auctions are one of the few aspects of the art industry that have emerged relatively sure-footed. Though greatly altered in both form and frequency compared to years past, auctions have maintained their proportionate importance to the art market at large, with auction houses around the world engaging in a wide variety of online, in-person, and hybrid sales to keep collectors actively bidding.

While this sudden and unprecedented shift online has added a good deal of transparency to market transactions, with many houses opting to publish their prices as a way to build collector trust, many mysteries still abound in the salesrooms. One particular point of intrigue is how auction houses decide which works go into a particular sale.

According to Amanda Lo Iacono, Phillips’s 20th-century head of auction and evening sales, there’s not much in the way of hard-and-fast rules when it comes to auction curation. Most of the time, the decisions that go into building any given sale arise from a temperature check of the market, with the auction house gauging collector preferences from the house’s previous sale, curatorial conversations, upcoming institutional shows, and important potential consignments in order to start sculpting the next season’s sales. She described the process as “additive,” with the firm both accepting and seeking out consignments in order to build a sale with the right variety of works and contextual consistency.

Lo Iacono pointed to the firm’s fall 2018 New York 20th-century sale as an example of this considered approach to category curation. What might, at first glance, appeared to have been an unrelated selection of works, the sale threaded together art historical conversations, with two works by Joan Miró and Alexander Calder illustrating the pair’s friendship and artistic dialogue, along with reflections on concurrent institutional happenings via a number of Bruce Nauman works coinciding with a retrospective of the artist’s work at MoMA.

Ralph Taylor, Bonhams’s global head of post-war and contemporary art, described a similar process for building the house’s auctions. “Unless it is tied to an exhibition programme, generally themes arise from an early consignment around which we might wish to build a sale,” Taylor explained. “If you have a great work by Frank Auerbach, for example, then it’s easier to build a section of London school artists.” Taylor also echoed Lo Iacono’s point that curation may coalesce around a particularly outstanding result from a previous auction, pointing out that Bonhams’s forthcoming Surrealist sale “The Mind’s Eye” is predicated upon the £8.1 million sale of Salvador Dalí’s Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages (1937) in October 2020.

Both Taylor and Lo Iacono said their firms generally limit the size of their category auctions to a maximum of 40 to 50 lots—the better “tell a coherent story,” according to Taylor. Both auction houses also have the same approximate time frame for building sales. “The planning for the next sale usually starts the day after the previous one closes,” said Lo Iacono. Over the course of six months, curators and specialists will build the sale from the ground up. By three months out, said Lo Iacono, the sale has begun to more concretely take shape, and at six weeks out, marketing materials are sent to collectors, more or less finalizing the shape and size of the sale.

Of course, while high-level curation is important, there is still the technical matter of how individual works end up in a sale. The process by which a consigned work becomes an auction lot requires a dance of negotiation and collaboration between consignor and auction house. Dana Prussian, an art services specialist at Bank of America, described the consigning process as one of weighing proposals.

“We’ll request proposals from multiple auction houses and bring them to the table,” Prussian said. “They all come with a different financial package and a different level of how aggressive they’re willing to go. They will all come with a different marketing strategy and different sales strategies.”

Prussian said that if a client’s consignment has the potential to be a high-value item at an evening or marquee sale, then those negotiations become more detail-oriented. “If a lot is suited for an evening sale, we’ll go in and ask how we can curate this further,” she said. “How can we make this the single-owner sale that kicks off the marquee evening sale? Or is it a matter of making sure the lots are highlighted on the cover of the digital sales catalog?”

For auction houses, Taylor described the consignment bidding process as ranging from strategic to strictly monetary. “Generally speaking, consignors are most keen to know the value of their works,” Taylor said. “That’s a given. Where it gets interesting is when they’re also sensitive to the manner in which a work will be presented for sale and if the legacy of their ownership is important. If it’s just a matter of selling it for the highest price, then it’s a shoot-out between the auction houses. However, if the work was bought from the artist or inherited from a much-loved parent or requires delicate handling in any way, then the level of celebration is important.”

Given the tumultuous changes wrought by the pandemic, one might expect that auction curation might have changed to an equal degree. But according to Lo Iacono, that’s not the case. “The actual process of curation itself hasn’t changed much at all,” she said, discounting any notion that online bidding might diminish the importance of context and cohesiveness in a sale. As virtual auctioneering remains the standard for the immediate future, the importance of curating auctions hasn’t wavered.

Justin Kamp