Art Market

The Differences between Daytime and Evening Art Sales

Christy Kuesel
Aug 29, 2019 8:08PM

Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Auction in London on June 19, 2019. Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images for Sotheby's.

An auctioneer standing behind a wooden podium. A crowded room full of people, raising their paddles to bid on an item. Specialists in the wings with phones glued to their ears. Art handlers with white gloves quietly moving works in and out of the room. These scenes are integral to any in-person auction, no matter the hour of the day. However, whether or not the sun is high may influence some of the more crucial details of an auction. With the help of auction house experts, we broke down the essential differences between day and evening sales.

Some lots and a lot of sums

There are two key differences between day and evening auctions: the number of lots and the value of the works sold. An evening sale tends to have much fewer lots (or works being sold) than a day sale, and these lots tend to sell at much higher price points. For instance, at Sotheby’s contemporary art auctions in London in June, the day sales total came to £14 million (around $17 million) across 204 lots, while the evening sale drew in £69.2 million (around $85 million) with just 42 lots. Due to the sheer number of lots being sold, day sales can stretch upwards of five hours in length, while most evening sales last less than two hours.

There isn’t a formalized price cutoff to determine whether a work ends up in a day or an evening sale—meaning that works sold during the day could be estimated to sell at a higher price than some of the smaller works offered in the corresponding evening sale. Auction house specialists think carefully about which type of sale might best suit an artwork. A work sold at night competing against a star lot could go unnoticed or underappreciated, while selling that same work during the day could garner much more attention, both from the bidders and from the auction house’s marketing apparatus.

“If there’s a fantastic, high-quality, fresh-to-market, $2-million object, it might do best as the cover lot—or the star—of a day sale, rather than another lot in the evening sale,” said David Galperin, head of Sotheby’s evening auctions of contemporary art in New York.

Who shows up?

Evening sales tend to be much more formal affairs, as befits the prestige around the works being sold. Both types of sales are open to the public, but the major auction houses require prospective bidders to register for an evening sale beforehand to get a seat. Since day sales are generally much longer than evening sales, it’s more common for participants to come and go as they please, creating a more relaxed environment.

According to Scott Nussbaum, head of 20th-century and contemporary art for Phillips in New York, evening sales tend “to be much more theatrical, choreographed events where there are discussions that take place in advance on who’s going to be bidding on what.”

Consequently, a day sale might be a more comfortable setting for a new collector to try out bidding at auction. “We have many new collectors participating in our evening sales, as well, but for people who might be bidding at auction for the first time, a day sale perhaps presents a greater degree of accessibility,” Galperin said.

Which is more important?

Day sales give auction specialists the chance to try out artists they think may be ready for auction, but may not be particularly well-known yet, or to focus on slightly more obscure genres of art.

“They allow specialists to have a little bit more experimentation in the works that we offer,” Nussbaum said, recalling a day sale at Phillips last year that focused on contemporary Cuban art.

He added that many world-renowned artists who are now evening-sale fixtures had their auction debuts during daytime sales.

“It’s exciting to see not just the artist develop over time, but the market develop over that period of time, as well,” Nussbaum said, “which all began—at least from the auction side—in a day sale.”

Some art market insiders think day sales show where the “real” art market is, though Galperin disagrees that one type of sale is more representative of the overall market than another.

Recently, artnet News looked at pre-sale data for the annual day and evening auctions held at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips in New York every November since 2008, and the results suggest a pattern weighted toward evening auctions. The analysis found that the values of works at day sales have not actually grown in 10 years; although the average low estimate of contemporary works sold at day sales has increased by almost 70 percent, the number of pieces consigned to day sales has dropped by nearly half, causing the total value of art at day sales to stay stagnant.

However, according to Nussbaum, Phillips’s day sales have tripled in value over the past three years, from around $10 million previously to the $34.7 million earned during the contemporary art day sales held in New York this past May. All three auction houses saw impressive results at their day sales that month, especially for paintings by female artists.

Got me bidding day and night

Day and evening sales exist to achieve the same goal: to sell a work of art to the highest bidder. Collectors are more drawn to particular works of art than to the sales themselves. “Collectors go where the great works of art are,” Galperin said.

As more auction houses’ businesses move online, day and evening sales increasingly aren’t the only sales. Online sales represented 9 percent of the art market in 2018, and the works sold tended to be at lower prices than at in-person auctions, according to economist Clare McAndrew’s 2019 Art Market Report. Online bidders increasingly join the fray during actual salesroom auctions, too. Both Nussbaum and Galperin said that online bidding tends to be more common at day sales than at evening sales, though that may be attributable to the much lower average price points.

In other words, go to the sale at which you feel most comfortable. It can be as low-stakes as opening your laptop or as highbrow as dressing up for an evening sale—but if you’re going at night, don’t forget to register first.

Christy Kuesel