How to Buy Art at Art Auctions: Advice for Art Collectors and Art Investors

By Donovan Gauvreau in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

Buying art as an investment can be a lucrative profession as well as an enjoyable pastime. For those of you looking to get into the business (whether as an art collector, investor, or dealer) it’s art auctions that offer the best chance to procure pieces which will appreciate over time.

The following paragraphs explain each type of art auction, as well as three types of art and a few general tips for buying art as an investment.

Types of Art Auctions

Auctions can be broken down into three categories: estate, consignment, and mixed. They can be held at a person’s residence (which is usually the case with small estate auctions), at a person’s place of business (in the case of consignment auctions) or in storage warehouses where items are often sold in lieu of unpaid rent. Interesting art pieces can be found at any one of those events.

The goal of an estate auction is to sell all remaining items of a former residence. An estate auction will normally not place any reserves on items (a reserve is the minimum amount for which an item will be sold). Hence, estate auctions are ideal for finding bargains as everything must be sold no matter how low the offer.

Conversely, at consignment auctions , fixed minimum prices are set on specific items. If an item does not recover its price, it will not be sold at that time. Consignment auctions usually hold weekly sales, with the lowest prices being offered mid-week.

Mixed auctions simply sell items from small estates and accept consignments as well.

How to Find Art Auctions

The easiest way to find art auctions in your area is to search online. Simply type your topic and city into one of the major search engines (Yahoo, Google, etc) and you should be able to find a list of auctions being held in your area.

Another way to find good art auctions is to check local newspapers and dailies, or visit nearby antique stores and art stores as they often carry pamphlets or fliers advertising regional art auctions and sales. Lastly, online auction sites such as eBay will let you purchase art without leaving the comfort of your home.

Preparing for an Art Auction

Before attending an auction, double-check the date, place, and time. Especially savvy art buyers will attend the preview, where potential bidders can examine the items to be sold at their leisure.

Some auction sites will have their previews a few days prior to the auction, while others open their doors only for a few hours preceding the auction. Upon arrival at the preview, register as a bidder and be sure to ask about premiums—some auctioneers add 10% to the highest bid or take commission from the selling price and it’s important to know which policy will be used in order to avoid paying more than you bargained for.

Also, make sure to bring a notepad and pencil with you so you can jot down the details of items that are of interest. Write down each item’s code so you can easily identify it when it goes up on the auction block.

Because of their fast pace, one can easily get caught up in the excitement of an art auction, so decide beforehand what your top offer will be on your chosen items and do not allow yourself to go above those set amounts.

Types of Artwork

Generally speaking, artwork can be divided into three categories: decorative art, collectable art, and investment art.

Decorative art is used to enhance spaces. It is often thematic and will add flair and personality to a setting. Decorative art pieces are rarely originals by famous artists and generally possess little intrinsic value. They do not usually appreciate in value, and therefore are not usually a lucrative investment.

Collectible art refers to art pieces that are bought based on the assumption that there is already an existing market for them because there are other interested parties. It is unwise to hold on to collectible art in the hope that it will eventually become more valuable. If it is a handsome piece, keep it, but if it holds no strong interest to you, sell it. Collectible works are not long-term investment worthy.

Investment art will almost always become more valuable in time. This type of art is recognized for its quality, rarity and uniqueness, and therefore will always fetch a handsome price from an avid art collector, investor, or dealer.

General Tips on Art Auctions

There are exceptions to every rule, but here are a few guidelines to consider when buying artwork at an auction:

1. Horizontal pictures are better-liked than vertical ones.

2. Works featuring women are more popular than those featuring men.

3. Landscapes prove to be more interesting than seascapes.

4. Pictures depicting images of life are more appreciated than death scenes.

5. Domestic animals or those in a docile setting are more desirable than wild animals.

6. Experimental pieces aren’t as valuable as those from an artist’s main body of work.

Donovan Gauvreau is an art historian and art therapy speaker. You can read more of his articles


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