5 Tips for Your First Art Auction

You heard about art auctions, but not sure how they work. Let us show you the ropes with 5 easy steps.

While buying at auction can be one of the most exciting and cost effective ways of purchasing art, because it does not come with the familiarity of buying at a gallery, most are often intimidated when doing so. With the tips you find below, you will be able to attend, and successfully buy at your first auction with ease.


Tip #1: Know the lot numbers of each work of art

Know the lot numbers of each work of art in the sale you are interested in possibly buying—each item in an auction is assigned a lot number. Yes, knowing the name of the piece and the artist is helpful, but knowing the exact lot number of the works you are interested in will allow to you to know where in the auction the work will appear—near the beginning, middle, or end. It will also allow you to quickly and effectively request condition reports. This brings me to my next tip.


Tip #2: Request condition reports

Request condition reports for the works you are interested in (online or via phone). Many auction houses have clauses stating that they are selling the works as they are, so after you purchase a work, unless it is something major, you will not be able to return a work based off minor condition issues. A condition report details any unusual characteristics or damage done to a work of art. Sometimes there may be terms used that you don’t understand and for that I recommend this (http://www.artnet.com/auctions/glossary) page on artnet’s website that breaks down terms used in auction condition reports. Condition reports will allow to you to feel informed because you will know whether the work you are interested in is in good shape, or it is damaged to the point where you feel you may want to pass it up.


Tip #3: Know the correct date and time of auction

Know the correct date and time of auction you’re interested in. I know this may seem like a no brainer but this is something you definitely want to double check. Today many auctions are split up into morning and evening sessions or even into two days. You would hate to show up on the wrong day or at the wrong session and have missed the chance to bid on the artwork you want. So make sure to know what date and time the lots you are interested in will come up at auction.


Tip #4:Find out the Buyer’s Premium

If you have never bought at auction before, you may not be familiar with the term buyer’s premium. In auctions, the buyer’s premium is a percentage additional charge on the hammer price (winning bid at auction) of the lot that must be paid by the winner. The buyer’s premium goes directly to the auction house and not to the seller. The buyer’s premium at most auction houses is 25% but you may want your specific auction house to be certain. This is important because when considering how much total you are willing to pay for a work of art, you may want to take the buyer’s premium into account.

Tip #5: Register to bid

Be sure to know the bid registration procedure for the auction house you plan on buying at. For some houses it is as simple as coming and filling out a simple form before your lot comes up–other’s require banking information and some will allow you to register before auction online.

Alaina McEachin

Author: Alaina McEachin

Alaina McEachin has been working in the African-American Fine Art department at Swann Auction Galleries for a little over a year. She received a BA (magna cum laude) from Howard University in Art History, with a concentration in American Modern and Contemporary Art and further emphasis in African-American Art. While an undergrad, Alaina minored in German and took classes at Corcoran College of Art & Design as well as Vanderbilt University through a domestic exchange program.

In the summer of 2012, Alaina served as Director’s Fellow at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where she created interpretive materials in conjunction with the exhibition William H. Johnson: An American Modern. Just prior to joining Swann, Alaina served as an interpretive guide at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian Institution’s museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. In her spare time, Alaina enjoys reading, visiting museums and trying out new restaurants.

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