How to buy art at an auction: helpful hints

How to buy art at an auction: helpful hints

Attending an art auction for the first time is both exciting and confusing. Many of us are unsure of how to act or when to place bids on pieces we have fallen in love with. Below are some helpful hints you can follow to make your experience at an art auction easier to navigate.

Figure out what you like

Before you head out to the auction, be sure in your mind exactly what art you like. This is vital as it will save you from simply bidding on a piece because of its popularity among other auction goers or because it is deemed “collectible”.

Head to art galleries that showcase unique art, such as the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town which aims to change African art in the eyes of international and local art lovers. Visiting such galleries will allow you to discover what type of art you enjoy and what speaks to you, making attending an auction less of a confusing experience.

Check the auction catalogue carefully

All people attending an art auction will receive a catalogue at least one week to one month in advance. This enables you to read about which pieces will be on offer and to discover pertinent information about the art and the artists.

For any bibliographies in the catalogue, check the references as thoroughly as possible, looking for the books or online articles mentioned. You should also research all terms used to describe the art, such as ‘Attributed to’, ‘Studio of’, ‘Style of’, ‘Follower of’ and ‘After’. Also, try to find out as much as possible about the seller – while their identity may be confidential, you may be able to find out whether the item was part of an historical estate or collection.

Follow auction etiquette

This is especially important if you are taking part in a live auction online, from the comfort of your on home. It is pertinent to remember that you are taking part in a live event, meaning that online bids are running concurrently with live ones.

You must respect the fact that the auctioneer is managing the online bids as well as a room full of people, and so will need to be patient. It is important to know the bidding increments as well, and to respect the auctioneer’s discretion when it comes to bidding cuts. A painting that is asking for R50 000 will most likely have a bid increment of R5000, but if you do not wish to offer the full increment you may be able to ask the auctioneer to accept an increment of R2000. On some occasions, this will be accepted, but try not to make a habit of it as it will disrupt the auction.

Understand terminology

When buying art at auction, there is certain terminology which you will need to understand before making any bids. The phrases you will need to understand are outlined below.

  • Presale estimate: A presale estimate is the price range that  an auction house believes a work of art will sell for.
  • Reserve price: The reserve price is the amount which the auction house or the consignor is willing to offer the piece for. If the highest bid is lower than the reserve price, the piece will not sell.
  • Opening bid: The opening bid is just that, the opening amount. This is usually set below the reserve price and presale estimate in order to attract bidders.

Once you understand these terms, you will be able to go into an auction house and confidently bid on a work of art you love.

Set a budget

Setting a budget before you go into an auction house is vital for first-timers. If you know which pieces you are interested in, going in with a set budget will put your mind at ease and will allow you to bid confidently.

Remember that your budget will need to include extra costs such as buyer’s premium (a percentage based on the value of the item), VAT, artist’s resale rights which are a royalty payable to the artists on the resale of their work during their lives and for 70 years after death, and to the estates of artists who have died within the previous 70 years, as well as  import and export tax.

Don’t be afraid to act natural

There are many misconceptions that in auction houses, you are unable to raise your hand any higher than your shoulder unless this is seen as a bid. However, you will find that auctioneers are well tuned into such human movements and will not mistake them for bids.

Acting natural at an auction will boost your confidence and put you at ease among the other bidders. Do not feel intimidated by more experienced bidders, each one started out as inexperienced and nervous art lovers, rather ask them for help and guidance if you are unsure. If you follow the steps outlined above, you are well on your way to owning an artwork you will cherish for years.


Authored by: Pete Anderson

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