Art Tips: Introduction To Auctions

Learn about auctions and what to expect at them. You'll find art at bargain prices and have fun, too.

Auctions are a great way to invest in art that you like and will increase in value. They can be entertaining, a place to meet people, and provide a fun hobby. Here are some tips to make the most of your auction experiences.

TYPES OF AUCTIONS

There are three major types of auctions that regularly feature art: Estate, consignment, and mixed.

Estate auctions sell everything left in a home when a family is cleaning out a former residence.

Most items at an estate auctions have no reserve. A "reserve" is the minimum price at which that item can sell. Since the goal of an estate auction is to empty a home--or, sometimes, a business--to the walls, most items will be sold no matter how low the selling price.

Many estate auctions are held at the home that is being cleared out.

If the property isn't big enough to accommodate the auction, the estate's items are moved to an auction house. But, the auction rules are generally the same.

Consignment auctions are different. They are almost always held at the auctioneer's place of business. The seller often sets a minimum bid that he or she will accept; if nobody bids at least that much, the item isn't sold that day.

Most often, consignments come from antiques dealers who want to get rid of items that aren't selling. Other merchandise comes from people who buy at auctions and yard sales, fix up items, and then resell them.

Mixed auctions are very common. In addition to items from small estates, the auctioneer accepts some consignments. When advertised, these auctions will mention the estate (or estates) being sold, and say, "with additions," or a similar phrase.

You can find art at all three kinds of auctions.

Art may also be included at auctions in storage warehouses, where customers' stored items are sold in lieu of unpaid rent. It's more rare to find art at government and liquidation auctions. But, these can be worth checking. They usually follow estate auction rules: Everything will be sold, no matter how low the prices.

DEDICATED ART AUCTIONS

Some auction houses specialize. They may sell general antiques, but they're best known for one focus. This can be anything from railroad memorabilia to vintage fashions to oriental rugs to Impressionist art.

Some auctions specialize in certain price ranges of goods. At low-end consignment houses with weekly auctions--usually mid-week--you'll find the lowest prices. Expect lots of dust, uncomfortable seating, and joking between the auctioneer and regular bidders.

At least half the audience will be "regulars" who see each other at auctions, flea markets, and even the town dump. For them, auctions are social events as well as business.

Few of these auctions specialize in art, but some have set their sights on moving upscale. If so, their focus may be one kind of art, or--more likely--art and antiques from a certain time period, usually in the 20th century.

A bargain at these auctions can sell as low as $2. It's routine to pick up a no-name oil painting for $15 - 50 at these auctions.

At the other end of the spectrum, you'll find art at specialized, elegant auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's. These auctions are often on weekends, frequently a Sunday afternoon. Their patrons buy pieces for personal collections, museums, or galleries.

Although these bidders may be better dressed than at the low-end auctions, they're usually prepared for some dust and dirt. It's not unusual to see a bidder in a designer suit jacket and dress shirt, also wearing jeans and sneakers.

At an upscale art auction, the auction house provides a list of what's being sold, or may sell an illustrated catalogue with detailed photos and notes.

A bargain at one of these auctions may sell as low as $50 in very rare instances. The more likely bargains are in three-, four- and five-figure ranges. But, this art is usually a reliable investment.

FINDING AN AUCTION

In any online search engine, you can use the words "art," "auction," plus your town or nearest city. This will provide a list of auctioneers near you, especially the upscale houses.

But, not every budget-priced auction house has an online presence. And, some auctions may not be listed in time for you to attend.

To find out about these smaller, sometimes low-end auctions, check your local newspapers. Call the paper and ask on which days the art and antiques auctions are usually advertised, and in which section of the paper.

Antiques dealers and secondhand shops are another resource. Some of them carry free antiques newspapers that include information about regional auction houses.

Many of the best low-end auctions advertise on signs by the side of the road, just outside the auctioneer's door. Watch for these as you drive.

HOW TO PREPARE FOR AN AUCTION

Always confirm the place, date, and time of an auction, in case of typos or outdated listings.

If you're looking for something in particular, ask the auctioneer what's in upcoming auctions. Some will tell you.

Find out when the preview time is. "Preview" is when you can visit the auction house for a close look at what's being sold. Often, you can pick up the item, turn it over, study it with a magnifying glass, and so on.

Some auction houses open their doors for previews several days before an auction. Others open only a few hours before each auction.

It's smart to review buyers' guides to learn about prices and how to spot fakes. If you keep a few price guides in the trunk of your car, you can also do some quick research while you're at the auction house.

AT THE PREVIEW

When you arrive at the preview, find out if you can register as a bidder. The auction house will need your name, address, and perhaps other identifying information.

When you register, ask if there is a premium added to your bid. Many auctioneers add 10% or so to your high bid. Others take their commission from the selling price. Know which policy they use, so there are no surprises when it's time to pay for your purchases.

Also ask if the auction house delivers large items, and how much they charge for this service.

Finally, look for a copy of the auction house's terms, especially which forms of payment they accept, and if you can return an item that was misrepresented.

After you've registered, ask if there is a list of the items being sold. At low-end auctions, there usually isn't.

It's smart to bring a small notebook and pencil with you, to take notes about the items that you see. Many auction houses won't allow you to use a pen for your notes, in case you accidentally get some ink on an item. Pencil can be erased; ink cannot.

Almost every auction house has a "you break it, you buy it" policy. If you damage an item in any way, you'll have to buy it at the highest estimated selling price. For this reason, never bring children or an accident-prone friend to a preview.

As you look at items, take notes. Each item will usually be marked--perhaps with a tag or sticker--that identifies it. During the auction, this number will be announced as part of the item's description. By checking your notes, you'll know which item is being sold. This is important if, from a distance, two items look very similar.

During the preview, note any questions that you want to research. If an aluminum piece is attributed to a sculptor who usually worked in steel, you'll want to find out if the art is a fake or a rare treasure.

If a bunch of small items were tossed into a box, called a "box lot," it's okay to poke through the contents to see what's in it.

Especially when you're new to auctions, note the highest price that you're willing to pay for it. Do not allow yourself to go above that price during the fast-paced excitement of bidding.

If other bidders are at the preview, make your notes in code. It's routine for dealers and collectors to look over your shoulder, hoping to see how high you plan to bid.

AT THE START OF THE AUCTION

Arrive at the auction house at least 30 to 60 minutes early. This gives you time for last minute previewing.

If you haven't already registered to bid, do this as soon as you arrive. Pick up your bidding number. It's usually on a small sign that you will hold up to indicate when you bid.

Select your seat right away. There are several strategies to consider.

If you sit close to the front, you can see details of new pieces that arrived at the last minute, or items that you didn't notice during the preview.

Also, some dealers are notorious for removing items from one box lot and--at the last minute--putting them into a different, less valuable box lot. If you're at the front, you can ask the auctioneer to show the entire lot. (Of course, this also lets other bidders know about the treasure you spotted amid the junk.)

Sitting or standing towards the back of the audience, you can see how many people are bidding against you for a particular item. You can judge their determination to win, and whether it's worthwhile to continue bidding.

If you sit in the middle, you can overhear conversations, and learn things that you didn't know about an artist, possible fakes, the auction house's reputation, and the current market.

Try different seating strategies at each auction, until you decide which you prefer. And, it's okay to move to another seat mid-auction.

THE AUCTIONEER'S STYLE

Remember that the auction house wants to sell as many items as possible in the shortest amount of time, at the highest imaginable prices.

The auctioneer can start bidding low or high. Many auctioneers start bids at about half of the highest estimated value. If no one bids, the opening bid is lowered. Once you know how the auctioneer sets opening prices, you'll also know how much the item is probably worth.

At most auctions, the first items sold are considered the "warm ups." They usually aren't very valuable; the auctioneer is using up time while more bidders arrive.

HOW TO KNOW WHAT YOU'RE BUYING

Listen carefully as the auctioneer describes each item. A painting that is "by Monet" is probably genuine, but be sure that it isn't by Fred Monet instead of the famous Claude Monet.

If the painting is "ascribed to Monet," the auctioneer believes that it is probably real. A painting that is "attributed to Monet" may be a real Monet, but no one has proved that yet. A painting that is "in the style of Monet" or "labeled Monet" is probably by someone else, and may have been painted recently.

When someone talks about "provenance," it is evidence--generally on paper--that suggests proof of an item's authenticity.

If the auction house deliberately misrepresents an item, you can usually refuse to buy it, or return it the next day for a refund. However, if an auctioneer says that all items are sold "as is, where is," use caution when bidding.

If you see "AF" on the item's tag or on its description in the auction listings, this means "as found" and it comes with no guarantees.

Also, be sure to listen to how a group of items is described. If eight chairs are being sold and the auctioneer says, "Bid apiece, and eight times the money," expect to pay eight times what your bid is, and take home all eight chairs. If he says, "One price takes all," he usually means that your bid is for the entire lot, not per chair.

WHEN TO BID AND WHEN TO STOP

Try not to be the first bidder on any item. Wait until bidding slows down, and then leap in.

There is a thrill in bidding. Make a firm rule never to go beyond the price you set for yourself during the preview. If you overbid and win, you still have to buy the item at the selling price.

Don't rely on others' bids to guess an item's value. At an estate auction, two feuding relatives can bid granddad's favorite slippers--worth $1 or less in the open market--into thousands of dollars, simply to keep the other person from winning.

At a consignment auction, you may be bidding against the item's owner and a few of his friends who are deliberately trying to bolster the selling price. Most auctioneers frown on this. Others play along, since they make more money this way, too.

Remember that nobody is your friend at an auction. Never trust a dealer who asks you not to bid on a box lot, and promises to sell you an item in it later, for just a few dollars. That promise is usually ignored after the auction. It's a routine tactic used by dealers who recognize you as someone new.

Bid until you reach a price that feels right to you, or the highest value you'd set on it, whichever comes first. Never, ever bid more.

Always write down the selling price of items that interest you, whether you win them or not. Review these prices later, to spot trends in auction prices.

Once you've won as many items as you can comfortably afford, pay for your purchases, pick them up, and leave. Do not linger; you may be tempted to bid again.

WHEN IT'S TIME TO GO HOME

After you've paid for your items and picked them up, or arranged for delivery of larger items, be sure to get a receipt. This is part of your own "provenance," adding to the history of the item. It may also be useful for insuring the art, or for taxes if you sell it at a profit later.

Once you've returned home, learn as much as you can about what you've bought. Never clean or begin restoration of any item unless you know what makes it valuable. Sometimes dirt, called "age" among collectors, makes an item more valuable.

Before going to another auction, review the prices of what sold at this one. And, if you made any mistakes, especially over- or underbidding, keep that in mind. Adjust your strategies accordingly.

Auctions are great places to find art, no matter what your budget. Keep a cool head and learn the rules and styles of auctions in your area, and you'll have fun while investing in art that you like.

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