Art Auction Primer

Buying art at auction - 2

Choosing the right auction

The reasons for choosing to buy at an auction are opposite to the reasons to sell at an auction. Some auctions are better at selling certain artists and styles than other auctions. Obviously, if you are selling work, these are the auctions you would seek. Conversely, if you are buying work then you seek auctions that are not as successful in selling the kind of art you are interested. For instance, a collector of New England seascapes will find better values at a midwest auction than an auction in Boston.

Also, the major auction houses usually secure higher prices for their sellers than the secondary auction houses. Even with internet auction services, most serious collectors would be reluctant to bid on a piece at a secondary auction house without seeing the work in person.

Buyer's premium (the commission paid by the buyer) can range from 10% to 25% with 20% becoming a standard. However, many of the secondary auction houses have lower rates, some as low as 10%. Some auction houses will offer discounts for cash or check whereas others will add a premium for credit cards.

Other costs that a buyer should be aware include shipping and insurance. For the cost-conscious buyer, contacting the auction house regarding these charges should be something to consider.

Ways to bid


The traditional method of buying at auction is to attend and register at the auction. It is always advisable to inspect a piece of art before purchasing it. It is very difficult to accurately judge a painting or sculpture from a picture in a catalog or online. The pictorial qualities of any piece of work can be enhanced and flaws can be corrected. Once you have purchased the art, you have little recourse if the painting does not match your expectations. Claiming the painting does not look exactly like the picture in the catalog will rarely result in any refund from the auction house.

If you view an auction as a competition in which the winner is awarded the art, you can much better judge the auction activity live than by phone or online. Seeing your bidding competition gives you valuable information on what your prospects are. Are you bidding against one hesitant buyer or are you bidding against a roomful of motivated buyers?


The major auction houses have the staff to allow telephone bidding. In this case, you are dealing on the phone with a representative of the auction house. A regular client of an auction house may have their own specialist on the phone whom they rely on for information. This is more information than you receive when bidding online, but the amount and reliability of information is a matter of trust. It is always in the auction's interest to get the highest bid for their seller, and certainly not the lowest price for the buyer.  

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