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.”