How to bid at auction

How to bid at auction

I’ll admit it -- the art world is intimidating. 

We’ve all experienced that chilly reception at a white cube art gallery. We’ve been to that museum show that feels like an Art History degree should be a prerequisite. But most of us haven’t even attempted the most intimidating art world experience of them all … walking through the pearly gates of the auction house.

In this post, we’re making the case that, in the famous words of a Nobel prize winning poet, the times they are a changin’.

On many levels, the art world is becoming more accessible. Galleries, including Sugarlift, are taking clues from hospitality leaders like Danny Meyer to make it easier to discover and collect great art. The art world is increasingly excited to share its passion for the visual arts.

Auction houses are no different. If you haven’t experienced the excitement of an auction or haven’t browsed an exhibition before a sale -- yes, they are open to the public, and free! -- you’re missing one of the best parts of the art world. You may even find something you want to hang up and enjoy every day in your home.

We had the pleasure of catching up with David Pollack, who is an Old Masters Specialist and Auctioneer at Sotheby’s, to cover some auction basics, as well as dispel some auction myths.

Let’s start with the basics for those of us who are new to auctions:

"First, make sure to browse the catalogue. Auction houses put together a catalogue for each sale which includes each 'lot' or artwork, the price estimates, and a detailed description of each work. You can view these online ahead of time or you can pick up a physical copy -- they make great coffee table books!

"Then, go see the art! Most people are not aware that the auction houses often display the works up for sale in an exhibition in the weeks before. This allows bidders and dealers to inspect the quality of the work. Whether you’re bidding or not, stop by to see some works that, in many cases, will head back into private collections, not to be seen again for some time.

"If you are intending to raise a paddle, you first need to register for one. You can do so in-person at the auction house, online, or call a specialist. If something catches your eye and you’d like to bid on it, discuss a bidding strategy with your specialist."

how to bid at art auction

Now that we’ve got the basics down, what are some common myths about auctions?

Myth #1: Auctions are only for dealers and art world insiders.

“The majority of our clients are private collectors who are buying something to put in their home, and contrary to popular belief, you do not need to be a multi-millionaire (or billionaire!) to collect art. We are an encyclopedic art business and a huge number of objects that come through our doors ultimately sell for a few thousand dollars. We all start somewhere when it comes to collecting, which is why having a trusted advisor or point of contact at an auction house is important.”

Myth #2: You need to have a paddle and be in the auction room to bid … and what if I accidentally sneeze or scratch my nose?

“There are few things more exhilarating than bidding during a live auction, and the fear of either bidding by mistake or not being prepared should be the least of your concerns. It is easier than ever to bid in a sale, and you now have at your disposal various methods of spending your hard earned money on a new treasure: in person, telephone, online or absentee. Each of these distinct practices gives you plenty of freedom to decide ahead of time how you want to bid, how much you want to bid and from where you want to bid. Most of our clients these days choose to either bid online or by telephone, but I have found that for a beginner nothing can compare to the thrill of sitting in a salesroom and putting up a paddle yourself.

"An auctioneer will always be sure that you are deliberately raising your paddle, no awkward sneezing catastrophe’s allowed…As a new auctioneer with the company, I can say with great confidence that the last thing an auctioneer wants is for you to be angry with your experience. A good auctioneer will always be extremely communicative, make eye contact and be 100% sure that you are meaning to place a bid. Only the seasoned pros have the guts to simply raise their eyebrows instead of a paddle or hand (I assure you this happens!).”

how to bid at art auction

Myth #3: The price estimates are always indicative of the final bid.

“Pre-auction sales estimates offer clients general guidance as to how much we, the specialists, believe an object to be worth. With that said, estimates come in many shapes and sizes and, often times, there are specific reasons why something may seem inexpensive or grossly overpriced. It is always important to speak with a specialist during the exhibition to get an understanding of how an estimate was arrived at.

"Perhaps the seller is an Estate whose sole responsibility is to make sure that an object sells, and so they have intentionally put an 'attractive' estimate on something. Or perhaps someone bought a painting last year and for financial reasons needs to sell sooner than expected. They may put a more aggressive estimate on something in order to recoup their cost price plus interest. A specialist can give you guidance and allow you to plan the best strategy in order to buy that amazing object.”

how to bid at art auction

So if you haven’t been to an auction house or in the auction room, make sure to add it to your bucket list. There are a number of exciting auctions coming up in the next week, so make sure to check one out, and if it’s at Sotheby’s, say hello to David!


All images courtesy of Sotheby's