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.
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
Read the fine print, and don’t hesitate to ask if you need more info
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
Tune in to auction etiquette
Embrace opportunities to see art
Understand that estimates are on your side
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.