Art Appraiser & Art History Writer and Editor
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How to Buy Art and Antiques at Auction

Buying Art and Auction

Picture yourself walking into a local auction house. There are chairs, tables, lamps, bronze sculptures, clocks, porcelain figures, rugs, silver tea services and art glass piled from floor to ceiling. On the wall hang paintings, drawings, and prints. It is overwhelming. Where do you begin? 

Or, imagine walking into Sotheby's for an evening contemporary sale. The oversized paintings hang on the sparse white walls while stylishly dressed men and women walk around whispering in hushed tones. Occasionally one piece is taken down and into a back room to be viewed privately. 

The environments of an auction house can differ greatly – whether you are in a local auction house that handles estates or a larger prestigious auction house in New York City. However, the steps you take to purchase a work of art in each location are the same. Here are the four steps you should take to buy a work at auction. 

1. Do your homework

Familiarize yourself with the auction house and their terms and conditions. Visit their website and read their auction catalogs. Different auction houses have different terms of sale, and charge a fee called a buyer's premium. This fee varies from auction house to auction house, but is roughly around 25%. The buyer's premium also depends on how much a work sells for. If the work sells for a very high price sometimes this commission is less. 

There may be other additional costs to buying at auction. For example, some auction houses have different rules for shipping. Some may provide it, while others require outside shippers. Know how to pay, whether they accept checks, credit cards or wire transfers. Ultimately, before bidding you should know what the purchasing process is, and what the additional fees might be ie. tax, buyer's premium and shipping so you take that into account when you bid. 

2. Assess condition

Once you find a work you are interested in go and view the piece in person. Each auction house will have a preview lasting approximately three to four days before the sale. Nothing can compare with assessing a work in person to look for damage or other condition issues. If you can't see the work in person request a condition report from the specialists either through their website or by calling. In the condition report specialists will outline any issues. You should also ask for additional images so you can get a better sense of the work. Remember to take into account what type of work the item you are bidding on is, and ask questions surrounding what typical condition issues it would have. For example, if it is a work on paper, look at it outside of the frame, ascertain if there is lightstain or matstain. If you are interested in a porcelain figure, look at the bottom for the marks and check to see if there are any chips. 

3. Sign up to bid 

If you find a piece you love then bid on it! There are four ways to bid – absentee, telephone, in person or online. Each will require you to register with the auction house beforehand. For an absentee bid, you list the maximum amount you would bid on the item, and the auctioneer will bid on your behalf. To bid by phone the auction house will call you five lots before your requested lot is up for sale, and while on the phone with you will tell you where the bidding is. Or, if you bid in person or online you can moniter the bidding yourself. The bidding increments should be in the terms and conditions for the auction house, but are ultimately at the discretion of the auctioneer. 

4. Shipping

Congratulations! You have purchased your first work at auction. A few days after the sale you should receive your invoice. Now what? After you pay most auction houses will ask that you arrange shipping. Ask for their preferred shipping list, and be sure that you have the proper insurance through the shipper in case any damage occurs during the shipping process.

Sarah McMillan