The Deal With Auctions

The big Spring Auctions are coming up in NY and at our recent team meeting, said team had some questions.  And I had answers that we were all surprised to learn, and I hadn’t previously shared. I spent a few years at Christie’s, went to Sotheby’s institute (which provides a useful window into auction house life) and dealt with the major houses through other jobs, so the way these auctions work is ingrained in me. Here’s how they relate to you, budding and curious art fan:

1. Auctions are glorified tag sales. Almost all of the inventory is “secondary market”, meaning it’s been bought and sold before at least one time, sometimes many times. This differs from “primary market”, in which artwork is coming right out of an artist’s studio and has never before been owned and should be in pristine condition. Neither is better, they’re just different, but if you’re looking for the newest work by a contemporary artist, auction is not your jam. 

2. Not everything is expensive. The average price per item at Sotheby’s and Christie’s is under $10k. People tend to think it’s more because only the outliers ($400m paintings) make headlines. These big sales obviously skew the average, so in conclusion: there is a wide variety of price points for your buying pleasure. 

3. Auctions are public. Anyone can go*. You can also go to the previews that are usually the week before the sale at the auction house. It’s so different from a museum exhibition- there’s a lot of inventory pulled from the warehouse and you can get close, touch stuff, ask questions etc. Fun fact: this is especially fun to do for jewelry sales and there’s one in NY on April 16th (preview starts April 10 and HERE are the details).

*The evening sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s happen twice/year and tickets are required to get into the main room. Tickets are free and generally given to those upon request and with a bidding history, but anyone can go and get into one of ancillary rooms then walk into the main event as the night goes on and spots open up. I’d say the attire is “art world chic”. 

4. There are more auction houses besides Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In fact there are HUNDREDS and some relatively smaller ones that are remotely on brand for my life are Phillips, Bonhams, and Doyle.

5. The Art of the Steal is a great book on the Sotheby’s/Christie’s price fixing a scandal that explains a lot about how the houses work and the MANY regulations surrounding conducting legal auctions

Finally, let us know if you want to come to a preview or sale with us AND if we missed anything here, ask away and we’ll be sure to address!