How to Buy at Auction Like A Pro

November 6, 2023

Bidding at an auction can be thrilling but also daunting. With us as your guide, it doesn’t have to be. We’re here to share our time-tested tips for successful auction acquisitions so that next time you’ll raise your paddle with confidence!

Francis Bacon‘s Self-Portrait, from 1969, sold for $34.6 million with fees at Christie’s on May 11, 2023. Photo by Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times.

Why Buy at Auction?

  • Availability of Rare Works
    Auctions provide access to artworks that are not available in the primary market. This includes historical artworks by deceased artists or from esteemed single owner collections such as Paul Allen, SI Newhouse, and Gerald Fineberg.
  • Competitive Pricing
    Sometimes, you can achieve a more advantageous price at auction. According to Doug Woodham, the former President of Christie’s, artists whose work appears at auction no more than three times a year will likely cost less at auction than an equivalent work at a gallery.
  • Chasing the Thrill
    The dynamic auction atmosphere and the prospect of winning a highly sought-after artwork can create a thrill that collectors find both exciting and rewarding.
  • The Great Wealth Transfer has led to an increase in single-owner auction sales, and a new influx of exceptional artworks coming to the market.

The LSSAA Guide to Buying at Auction

The Gerald Fineberg Collection at Christie’s, May 2023.

1. Buy what you love, wisely Loving the artwork comes first, but be sure to do your research.

  • Confirm the market value by consulting previous auction results for similar works on databases like artnet and checking dealer pricing.
  • Genre, subject matter:  Is a particular subject matter important to the artist’s body of work? Is it significant from an art historical perspective? How sought after is the subject to collectors?
  • Technical skill: Is this a good example of the artist’s work? Did the artist effectively use technical elements such as perspective, precision, color balance etc?
  • Medium: Is there a particular medium for which the artist is known? Does the general hierarchy of art apply: painting > work on paper >print?
  • Complexity: how detailed is the artwork?
  • Rarity: Is rarity a positive or negative effect on value?
    • When an artwork is rare, it becomes more sought after by collectors, increasing its appeal and potential for long-term appreciation.
    • When understanding the rarity of an artwork, it is important to know how this work fits into an artist’s career and if it’s an outstanding example of the artist’s work, which will contribute to the artwork’s value and desirability.

A visitor views a replica of Jean-Honore Fragonard‘s 18th Century painting Young Woman (R) as the original hangs to its left at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, England. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.

2. Don’t buy a fake
— Here are a few ways to confirm that this is the real deal:

  • A Certificate of Authenticity (COA) is like the identity card of an artwork. It’s a document that provides assurance to buyers that the artwork they are purchasing has been created by the artist themselves. A COA should include: name of artist, title of artwork, medium and material, dimensions, edition details if relevant, year created, and the artist’s signature.
  • An artist’s signature is also an effective way to confirm the authenticity. To determine if the signature is from a particular artist, you should first look to other works by the artist to get a feel for the signature style and placement. Is the signature placement consistent? Do the signatures of other works have variations? Is the signature on the work you are authenticating different from the ones on other works?
  • Catalogue Raisonnés are a comprehensive resource detailing all the works created by an artist, they play a crucial role in cementing the origin and authorship of an artwork. Make sure the work you are considering is included in the catalogue raisonné.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907.

3. Know the history of your work

  • Provenance is an artwork’s ownership history. Understanding provenance helps you to avoid issues with bad title and establish authenticity by tracing ownership back to the artist’s studio. After World War II, understanding provenance has become crucial for unearthing artworks looted by the Nazis and restituting them to their rightful owners.
  • Good provenance increases the value of an artwork. 
    • Christie’s success with the Paul Allen Collection ($1.6 billion) in November of 2022 and the following S.I. Newhouse Collection ($177.8 million sales) in 2023 shows that buyers feel confident investing in art that has been vouched for by tastemakers.

Still from a video showing Typhoon Lupit damaging Pumpkin (1994) by Yayoi Kusama.

4. Is the piece in good shape?

  • It is important to understand the physical condition of the artwork. Is there any visual damage such as tears, scratches, discoloration, or the possibility of inpainting (a conservation process to restore missing or damaged parts)?
    • Attention to these factors is crucial as they can significantly devalue the piece.
  • Don’t necessarily trust a condition report issued by the auction house, always ask if there is a third party condition report available. The best case is to have a conservator view the work, or at a bare minimum lay eyes on the piece yourself.

The Louvre in Paris, France has created a guided tour centered around the works of art seen in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Apeshit” video. Photo by Robin Harper.

5.  How culturally important is the work?

  • The artwork’s exhibition history and inclusion in literature, like exhibition catalogues or artist monographs, are positive factors that can boost its value. It signifies that the work has gained recognition from art institutions, experts, and tastemakers while demonstrating that it is worthy of scholarly discussion and analysis.

A good crowd turned up for the NFT auction at Sotheby’s in New York on February 23, 2022. Photo by Dolly Faibyshev for Bloomberg Markets.

Don’t get drawn into the auction room hype, stay the course.

  • Know your maximum bid before you start: What is the highest price you are willing to pay for an artwork? As you set your limit, remember to assess the artwork’s fair market value.  And don’t forget to include the auction’s buyers premium to your maximum bid.
  • Don’t get emotionally invested: While it is tempting to be swept away by the thrill of bidding on your desired piece, getting emotionally attached does not guarantee success in an auction. It can affect your decision-making, potentially leading you to overspend.

Christopher WoolUntitled, sold at Christie’s The Gerald Fineberg Collection Part 1, May 2023.

Checking All the Boxes

See how this LSSAA approved artwork meets our criteria for a successful acquisition at auction:

  • This artwork by American artist Christopher Wool was owned by the art collecting tastemaker Gerald Fineberg. This collection was built by the real estate investor over 35 years. His eye and understanding of contemporary and modern art is obvious when looking at the quality of his blue-chip collection, which includes artworks by Picasso, Alexander Calder, Man Ray, Christopher Wool, and Gerhard Richter. This sale set five new auction records for artists Barkley L. Hendricks, Alma Thomas, and Alina Szapocznikow. This esteemed provenance adds long-term value to the piece.
  • This artwork has been exhibited globally and has been included in exhibition catalogues at the Guggenheim Museum and The Museum Of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
  • This piece is a rare multi-colored example from the artist’s iconic series of word paintings. While most are rendered in thick black text stenciled on a white aluminum ground, Wool painted the letters here in one color before returning to overpaint in a different shade. This is one of the only known multi-colored paintings in the series.
  • This artwork shows Wool’s technical mastery of color blending. In the first ‘C’, a halo of red glows beneath the bright green, and in the ‘T’ below a yellow aura is seen around the dark blue ‘T’, this helps to create a visually dynamic composition that oscillates between being readable as text and image.
  • Over the past five years, Wool’s monochromatic text paintings have consistently sold at auction for prices ranging from $7 to $15.21 million, proving the stability of his market.
  • This May at Christie’s, Wool’s work sold with premiums for $10.07 million, far below the estimated $15 million. This sale was an opportunity to acquire a masterpiece in a softened market.

The Art Market Ecosystem

Exhibition view: Mary Weatherford, I’ve Seen Gray Whales Go By, Gagosian Gallery, New York.

Primary market

  • In the primary market , newly created artwork is sold directly from the artist or their representing gallery.
    • Why are galleries important?
      • They provide a more direct and curated experience for buyers.
      • Serving as the artists’ marketing and sales arm, galleries work strategically to advance the artists’ careers and establish them in the art world both locally and globally.

Sotheby’s sales floor, 19 May 2022.

Secondary market

  • The secondary market involves the sale of artwork that has already been purchased at least once before.
  • Auctions fall into this category and the high end of this market includes artworks that have gained historical and financial value, influenced by factors such as previous owners, exhibitions in museums, and the overall reputation of the artist.