Art Auction Primer

Selling art at auction

Once an individual has selected an auction to sell their art, there are two other important decisions that the individual must consider. First, is the issue of timing: When you sell the art. The second is setting the reserve price for the art. The reserve price is the lowest price that the individual will be willing to sell the art.


A seller usually more successful in selling their work at auctions that feature the kind of art that they are attempting to sell. Most auction houses will present both generic and specialty or themed auctions. For instance, if the art is a Western Landscape of an historical American painter, then the seller is better off waiting a few months to participate in an auction that features these kinds of paintings than offering the painting in a generic auction.

Generally speaking, spring and fall auctions have greater collector participation than summer and winter auctions. The more people who are there to buy, the higher the prices for the art.

Setting the reserve

Setting the reserve price is one of the most important decisions of the seller. Before setting the reserve price, the seller should know what the auction estimate for the art. For every piece, the auction house will prepare an estimated range of sales prices for the art. That range can be surprising wide. For instance, an auction may estimate a particular piece will sell between $20,000 - $30,000.

Once the seller knows this range, it serves as the basis for setting the reserve price. The reserve price will never be higher than the low estimate. In the above example, the reserve price will have to be some price under $20,000. Setting the reserve price depends on many individual factors. The most important of these is how motivated the seller is to sell the art. For instance, in the case of estate and bankruptcy situations, the seller is highly motivated to sell the art. Thus, the reserve price will be set low, and even in some cases, no reserve is set. Conversely, some sellers may have a strong opinion on the value of the piece, and are willing to forego a sale, if that value is not realized. Most professional dealers fit into this category.


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