How to Find Hidden Gems at Auction
How does one identify a hidden gem, that overlooked work of art that has value that isn’t immediately apparent to others? It is never an easy task, especially at auctions, which are highly curated and competitive spaces. Fortunately, there are readily available resources—from auction ephemera to public-facing events—that will equip even novice collectors in their quest to find artistic diamonds in the rough.
Auction catalogues are a vital resource not only for seeing what is on view in a given auction, but also for immersing yourself in the language and art history of the exhibition. An auction catalogue is the accompanying booklet for the works on sale and will feature the following: newly commissioned, detailed photographs of the works in the auction; the estimates and price range the work has sold for previously; and critical art history about the work for sale. These catalogues have a longevity beyond their specific auctions, as they have proven to be key research objects for curators, researchers, and dealers. This is because catalogues are the rare documents that are transparent with prices, in addition to providing an index of collectors who have previously owned the work.
Most auction houses will allow you to request a catalogue for a current auction. Previous auction catalgoues are available via the auction houses themselves, or libraries like the Thomas J. Watson Library Digital Collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are also resources available for collectors to decode them, such as online articles and special collections staff themselves. And even if a collector does not buy the particular work they wanted in one auction, the catalogue gives them essentially a cheat sheet of artists to consider or be on the lookout for at the next one.
In interviews, prominent directors, dealers, and collectors— including Lorenzo Atkinson, Ebony L. Haynes, and Ann Schaffer, among others—have said museums are a crucial marker for navigating the art market. They identified the museum as a space in which one can build art knowledge and track emerging or overlooked trends. In this way, seeing which work or artists at an auction have been on view at a museum speaks to the broader rich of pieces and their creators, and their accessibility to be translated to the public. This is especially important when editions are put on the market: Tracking which institutions have an edition or part of a series can be a good measure of the work’s longevity and uniqueness at an auction.
The art world is a fluid landscape of curators, tastemakers, trendsetters, etc., and identifying someone that speaks to your interests is going to be a matter of personal preference. Follow the styles, art processes, and topics that attract you the most and seek out leaders in those areas. Consider the speakers at fair- or auction-affiliated events, the writers who collect, and the curators and gallerists who are willing to share their resources on curation and collection.
Collector talks and learning events at fairs and auctions can be especially useful. These events are publicized on the events’ sites in the lead-up to a sale and often overlap with an auction theme. They are great opportunities to gain more knowledge about an area of interest while providing you direct access to a leader in the field.
In a newer trend, public-facing collectors are another resource, and they’re breaking fresh ground in providing direct access to works of art. An example can be seen in Mashoda Tifrere’s foundation ArtLeadHER, which promotes women in the visual arts, creates opportunities for the public to interact with artists and collectors, and curates pop-up exhibitions. (Its most recent show, “To Each, Her Own,” is on view at Urban Zen Gallery in New York and on Artsy through April 18th.)
The auction house
Lastly, the auction house itself will play a role in your discoveries. Following the advice of Doug Woodham, former president of Christie’s for the Americas, always consider the auction house’s relationship with the work it is selling. This can be identified by looking at its past auctions, and auction catalogues are again immensely helpful here to compare and contrast the work that comes into a house’s collection through resale. Some questions to consider: What has its market relationship been with a particular genre? Which genre does it sell best? Who are its experts in house? These questions will enable you to better assess a work that interests you in relation to its current value and its future potential.
Auctions exist on the fine line of accessibility and alienation for emerging buyers. Finding a way to not only navigate that border, but find hidden gems along it can easily take years to accomplish. One has to essentially enter these curated spaces as a curator themselves. However, unlike the profession of a curator which requires access to institutional training and skill, developing a curatorial taste for a beginning collector is readily accomplished with time and dedication. Luckily, the arts thrive on engagement and are inherently social spaces where resources are happily shared. In this environment, and with plenty of effort, an emerging collector will develop the toolkit to be able to more confidently assess works for sale at an auction and eventually find what they know to be an overlooked work of art.
Thumbnail image: Andrew Stevovich, “Contemplating a Sculpture,” 2016. Courtesy of Adelson Galleries.