Ever wondered what exactly happens at an auction? And what exactly is the fuss all about? Just a bunch of rich people buying really expensive things, or is there something more.
Well, it is usually about rich people buying expensive things. But even for those culturally inclined, an auction house is the perfect way to see and immerse yourself in the beauty of some of the most magnificent works of art outside a museum. Let’s be fair – auctions are also rather exciting. Millions of dollars changing hands over a painting or sculpture. There is a certain drama about an auction room. From secret hand signals to the auctioneer to the specific terms and nomenclature, the whole auction process is shrouded in mystery.
Here is the beginners guide to the auction house.
It’s worth experiencing once. Tick it off your bucket list, just take a friend along, or even better tag along with someone actually intending to bid. Simply pick up a catalogue and pretend to take notes when the auctioneer says ‘SOLD” – and you will fit right in!
But if you are more serious about it, first – figure out where your interest lies. Browse the Christie’s or Sotheby’s website. Register your interest so that they can inform you of upcoming sales, send catalogues etc. Once you have zeroed in on the sale, it might be a good idea to find out if they plan to host a sale preview. Obviously it is highly recommended you attend it if you are actually intending to buy as you can see the object in question and figure out condition and provenance. Condition means the state of the object – its restoration history etc, and provenance refers to its back-story – previous owners, sale records. This is key to making sure that the object is real a.k.a. not fake! But usually, the fact that it is in a Christie’s or Sotheby’s sale means that it has been authenticated. And as a buyer, the auction house will reimburse you if you (god forbid) ever end up buying a fake from them! If you do fancy buying something, make sure you register as a bidder before the sale. It’s a longish process, involving bank checks etc – so do it well ahead of time.
On the day, rock up to the registration counter, carrying some ID to pick up your paddle. Find a seat, pick up a catalogue and sit tight till the auction begins. Seasoned auction buyers have their own logic as to where they sit. Some prefer to sit at the back so that they can watch the room and gauge interest. Others sit in the front. I personally sit in the middle – it does not really matter to be honest!
If you are at the auction just to see what it’s all about – you don’t need to register but you might want a catalogue just to keep track of what’s happening!.
The auctioneer is the star of the show – with his colleagues manning phone banks for phone bids and spotters to make sure a raised hand or gestire is not missed. To bid, simply catch the auctioneer’s eye with a nod or gesture. They are pros – you can be sure they don’t miss a single twitch. If you are attending a a Christie’s auction, it might well be conducted by Hugo Weihe. In that case, it will be slow and measured as he extracts every single penny from the room! Sotheby’s Harry Dalmeny is quite the showman, highly entertaining. Choosing the moment you make a bid is crucial. I prefer to wait and watch – till bidding for my target piece slows down. That way you don’t end up driving the price up yourself. Of course, if its something you really want then, some suggest you go aggressively for it – it might dampen the competition’s enthusiasm.
All objects have a printed reserve in the catalogue. Bidding usually stats below the lower end as the auctioneer usually has a minimum reserve he can sell for. Sometimes, despite a few bids, the object goes unsold or ‘passed’ – that’s because the minimum reserve was not met. The auctioneer will quietly say ‘Passed” and carry on as if nothing happened! If you are successful in bidding, raise your paddle when the auctioneer says ‘SOLD” so that your number can be noted. And at the end, do the formalities at the cashier and enjoy your latest acquisition! Bragging rights guaranteed!