How the art auction business works – and how it can work for you

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Art speaks to us on a fundamental level. Whether it’s the swirling flamboyance of the Baroque, with its deep mythic resonance, or the tightly defined lines of Art Deco that speak of perfection through artifice, the art world reaches out to us and demands our attention in the most visceral and immediate fashion possible. No wonder, then, that so many find themselves drawn to buying artwork at auction: the thrill of the chase, the frisson of risk. It speaks to the same vibrant heart of us that art itself does. But how do you buy art at auction?



Bidding at auction bears a strange resemblance to the game of chess; the basic elements are simple enough that anyone can learn how to do it, but true mastery nonetheless requires dedication and a wealth of knowledge. Naturally, we’ll cover the core elements first.

The first thing to remember is that bidding for art at auction follows the same basic rules as any form of bidding. So you and other patrons place bids of increasing value until only one person is left competing for a particular item, having placed higher bids than the other patrons. Simple. There are several ways to bid. Many art-lovers favour bidding in person, which requires advanced registration with the auction house but is the most vital, immediate and satisfying of the various methods, and also the most straight-forward. When you wish to bid on an item, you need only raise your paddle (a standard instrument at auctions) and await acknowledgement from the auctioneer, who will take bids of ever-increasing value until only one person is left (with luck, that will be you), who can walk away with the artwork.

Other forms you can adopt include online bidding (which enables you to participate in the auction in real-time from your own computer, providing a more congenial, comfortable option) and written bidding (in which you provide the auction house with a form indicating your maximum bid and a member of staff attempts to procure your desired item for the lowest possible price on your behalf). This service is also available in an online form from many leading auction houses. You can even bid by telephone: a member of staff will call you from the sales room and quote your bids to the auctioneer for you.

These, however, are merely the rules of bidding, not its strategies. For those we must turn to an acknowledged master in the field, Orlando Rock, who has been working for the auction house, Christie’s, since 1990 and currently holds the position of Deputy Chairman there. In a now-classic appearance in the Telegraph, he shared some sterling advice for potential auction-house art-hunters (John O’Ceallaigh, ‘How to Buy Art at an Auction’, The Telegraph, 24/10/2012). According to Rock, a big part of bidding at auction is the preparation that goes into it and a lot of that is about researching the piece you’re interested in buying. “All specialists love to be able to share their enthusiasm for their subject” says Rock, advising readers to ask for advice from the many experts at large in the art world. It’s good advice. specialists can help you get to grips with the value, provenance and quality of a piece of work you might be interested in, and that can inform the way you bid on it and how high you’re prepared to go. He also advises going to view the work in person ahead of auction to check its condition and quality. Again, this is sound advice. However committed you are to the unpredictable and effusive qualities of art, you don’t want to find yourself confronted by any nasty surprises only on entering the auction house.

As for how you should bid when the moment comes, Rock offers three simple rules that will trump any Machiavellian strategies: “always buy a work because you love it”, “Buy the best that you can afford and don’t compromise on condition, quality, rarity or provenance” and “Never be afraid to ask for advice”. Adhere to that simple regimen, and regardless of the financial worth of the art you purchase, you’ll end up with something you can truly treasure.

Plus, as the expert reminds us, “the most [financially] successful buys have been those bought as the result of a deeply held interest in acquiring art for its own sake”, so fear not… it won’t hurt your wallet in the long run, either!