Art Market

The New Collector’s Guide to Buying Art at Auction

Meredith Mendelsohn
Oct 22, 2015 3:38PM

Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening Auction, 12 May 2015. Works shown: Christopher Wool, Untitled (Riot), 1990; Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Into and Behind the Green Eyes of the Tiger Monkey Face 43.18), 2011; Roy Lichtenstein, The Ring (Engagement); Andy Warhol, Superman, 1981. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

For new or aspiring art collectors, auctions can provide an excellent point of entry into the marketplace. Auction salerooms are open to the public and new bidders are always welcome. And with the increasing number of well-conceived digital auction platforms out there, it has never been easier to bid online. One of the best things about buying at auction is the wealth of information that is made accessible via catalogues and online resources such as this one: details about provenance, exhibition history, condition, and, of course, price. But collecting work via the secondary market also takes some know-how. We compiled some guidelines, with insights from Sotheby’s Contemporary Art specialists Head of Morning Sale Courtney Kremers and Head of Afternoon Sales Charles Locke Moffett, to help auction newcomers act like seasoned collectors.

Portrait of Courtney Kremers, Head of Morning Sales, Post-War and Contemporary; Portrait of Charles Moffett, Head of Afternoon Sales, Post-War and Contemporary.


Know what you’re buying

When you see something you love, it’s tempting to click on a “bid now” button, or even raise a paddle in the air, but a well-researched purchase can be far more rewarding. “Everyone says ‘buy with your heart and not your head,’ but I really do not like that motto,” says Kremers. “An emotional, visceral response is important, but so is understanding what you are looking at, how the artist arrived at this place, and also, where the price tag comes from. Regret seems to happen when any one part of this process is ignored.”

Read the fine print, and don’t hesitate to ask if you need more info

Most of the art you see at auction is being offered on the secondary market, which means it was once owned by someone else. That history can add value to an object, particularly if the previous owner was a prestigious collector or institution. Take, for example, Edouard Vuillard’s 1896 painting Intimité, which hailed from the legendary collection of Paul and Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon, offered at Sotheby’s last fall. Estimated at $500,000 to $700,000, the painting brought $3.41 million. While it can be reassuring to know that someone else shared your enthusiasm and desire for a work, it also means that it has its own personal history. Reputable auction houses research and vet the artwork before it’s offered, but it’s always important to do your homework as well. In the rare case that a work has incurred damage, for example, it’s not likely to be visible in a photograph.

Auction houses will often include condition reports if a work needs one—but it’s up to the buyer to read it. If you don’t see one, don’t be shy about asking, says Kremers. With more historical works, it’s also crucial to know that they have been documented through the proper channels over time. “Get the condition report. Understand the estimate. Review the authentication,” says Kremers. “If the work is not listed in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, does not have a certificate, and is not published in an exhibition catalogue, find out why. Most contemporary artists have no authenticating body. That alone shouldn’t scare you off.  If the work should be authenticated, and isn’t, that’s a red flag.”

It’s okay to act natural

A crowded room full of veteran bidders moving at a fast pace can be intimidating, but don’t let them scare you—an auctioneer knows better than to misinterpret fly swatting for bidding. “One myth I would like to dispel is the idea that you can’t scratch your head or raise your hand higher than your shoulder without registering a bid with an auctioneer,” says Moffett. “This fear shouldn’t make a potential bidder nervous to enter the auction room. If there is any question about whether you are bidding, the auctioneer will confirm your bid with you; you will often hear, ‘Is that a bid, Madam?’”

Tune in to auction etiquette

Even when bidding anonymously in a live auction from your couch (via an online platform), it’s important to keep in mind that you’re still part of the saleroom, participating in a group event. “Some online bids are running simultaneously with live auctions, so respect the fact that the auctioneer has a room full of people to monitor as well as a screen informing him or her of what’s happening online. Be patient,” cautions Moffett. “It’s also important to know the bidding increments and to respect the auctioneer’s discretion when you want to cut bids. That means that if the current bid is $50,000, the next bid would be $55,000, but if you do not want to go the full increment you might ask the auctioneer to take $52,000. Sometimes the auctioneer accepts the cut bid, but do not make a habit of it. This practice can slow down the auction as well as disrupt the pace and flow of the sale.” 

Embrace opportunities to see art 

While galleries and museums offer great opportunities to achieve a seasoned level of familiarity with a given oeuvre, the greater transparency provided by auction houses displays offer an excellent chance to bolster your knowledge and get ready to bid—whether online or off. It’s easier than you might think. There are contemporary art sales several times a year—not just during the major fall and spring auctions—and no appointments are required during previews. “These are the perfect times to come in (anyone can come and it is free!), see the works, talk to a specialist (please do!), and start to get a sense of the market,” says Kremers. What’s more, “whereas museums and galleries do not readily display prices on the wall, every work at auction has a published estimate,” she adds.

Understand that estimates are on your side 

Determining estimates is a tricky game for auction houses. Historical value, market factors, and a docket of other issues go into the process. “The common misconception is that the price database is our only tool and we live and die by it,” says Moffett. “While it undoubtedly plays an important role in our ability to price work, results are just one aspect of how a piece is valued. Condition and secondary market sales also factor into our thinking. Being surrounded by colleagues who hear and see just about everything in the contemporary art world allows us to price works appropriately.”

Overall, though, when determining estimates, auction houses try to be realistic and attract bidders. “I always tell prospective sellers to look at estimates from the point of view of a potential bidder,” says Moffett. “As a buyer, when you review a sale catalogue or scroll through an online auction, the majority of the pieces you view closely, or request more information about, are the works that not only intrigue you, but the pieces you feel are priced appropriately. If something is too expensive, chances are you will dismiss it and never return to it. High estimates can be detrimental to the outcome of a work.” From the collector’s perspective, buying at auction can be more affordable than purchasing a work through a gallery. “The unfortunate circumstances that sometimes result in a consignment—the three Ds, death, debt, and divorce—can mean a substantial discount on the auction block,” says Kremers.

Meredith Mendelsohn