buying art at auction

Art auctions can be extremely daunting, especially if you have never, or infrequently, attended one. But here are some expert tips for successfully buying art at auction and at the right price.

Attend as many auctions as possible before you commit to buying art at auction. The auctions do not necessarily have to be art auctions as all auctions are run along similar lines and will give you a feel for how they work. Get used to viewing items before the sale and checking for defects – you cannot return an item bought at auction if you later discover a fault. Remember that most people with large art collections store many of their paintings in self-storage as they simply do not have enough room in their homes. Self-storage is perfectly fine for storing artworks if it is climate-controlled and if the items have been securely wrapped in acid-free paper and covered with natural fibre covers. However, if you discover that items you are interested in buying have been stored in a self-storage unit be sure to check the canvas or paper as items wrapped in plastic, for example, can deteriorate over time if the self-storage unit was based in an area of extreme weather conditions and was not climate controlled.

A trial buy
When you feel confident that you understand how best to bid, try buying an inexpensive item – it is an exciting experience and you have to learn to control your nerves and excitement, but once you have felt the thrill, you will be hooked. Make sure you set yourself a price limit and stick to it. The auctioneer’s job is to build up a frenzy in the room and try to get a bidding war going between two bidders. Don’t be tempted to go over your price limit – remember that the auctioneer wants to achieve as high a price as possible for the seller – that does not mean that a piece is necessarily worth that price. The old adage that something is only worth what someone else will pay for it is never less true than in an over-excited auction room.

Understanding the catalogue estimates
The estimates given in the catalogue are determined by an expert from the auction-house and by the seller and, in much the same way as house prices are set, they are often optimistically designed to achieve the best possible price. However, be aware that they are also sometimes set at very low and attractive amounts designed to generate a lot of interest from buyers who would not previously have considered buying art at auction. The extra interest generated in this way helps to eventually push the bid price up to a more realistic level. One of the fundamental factors influencing an accurate estimate are previous sales of comparable artworks. But so many factors can change between one auction and the next (not least, the people present with the capacity and intention to buy) so one of the concerns of buying at auction is whether you are paying a fair price for the artwork.

Bargains don’t exist
If the amount being bid for a piece seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Be suspicious and consider what it is that other potential bidders might know that you don’t. Have you checked the artwork for defects and have you checked the provenance of the work – if there is any doubt over the authenticity of the piece then that will seriously affect the achievable price, as will any damage or a work in poor condition. However, it is perfectly possible to pick up an original work of art at a very fair price at auction compared to high-street art galleries.

Overpaying and Underbidding
Seasoned auction buyers always establish a limit that they will pay for each piece on which they intend to bid. And they avoid getting carried away with the excitement of the moment – they know, usually from experience, that the excitement of the hammer falling after your bid soon pales once you realise you have over-paid for the artwork. Also be wary of the possibility of someone bidding on behalf of the seller to push the price up.

It is also important to know when to join in the bidding to ensure you do not lose out to another bidder when your final bid is less than your limit. Remember only two people can bid at any one time. For example, if the bids are going up by £100 and your limit is £1,200 then join the bidding (if possible) with an even bid such as £600 or £800. Then when you make your final bid of £1,200 you will, at least, have bid your maximum amount. If you join the bidding with an odd amount (£700 or £900) then when you reach £1,100 the second bidder may bid £1,200 but you cannot bid again as you would have to bid £1,300 which is over your limit. So the successful bidder buys the item for £1,200 when, in fact, that was also a sum you were prepared to pay.

Online Auctions
Bidding for art at online sites is extremely risky – you cannot check the condition of the artwork or be sure of the quality and authenticity of the piece. The price will have been set by the seller, who is naturally biased towards achieving a high price and who is likely to have set the price without expert advice.

If you are keen to buy art online, because of the huge savings to be made compared to traditional galleries, then check out some of the reputable online galleries. They have money-back guarantees and can supply proof of quality and authenticity.

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