Buying Art in an Auction – November 2021

What’s the Story?

Charity and nonprofit art auctions can be thrilling and fun (especially after a few glasses of wine or a nice dinner) but ending up with a piece of art that doesn’t fit your collection, won’t fit in your car, and emptied your bank account is never a good time. It’s all well and good to donate funds to a favorite charity but remember you will be living with your art purchase for a long time.

Here are some helpful hints for scoring a great piece at a good price. If it’s in BOLD, remember it.

General Suggestions

Many charity art auctions feature top notch artists who regularly donate gallery worthy pieces; however not all art auctions are the same. Some may feature unknown artists or un-curated works and you may be better off donating to your favorite cause directly. Look for auctions that pay a portion of the sale to the artists, or auctions that have been curated / juried or are invitational.

Well known auctions that have a long history garner better work from better artists, so research before you arrive or place an online bid. Many “big names” may sometimes donate pieces that did not sell in a gallery or are not up to par with exhibition pieces. This means that no matter how little you pay for the piece it may not translate into “I got a great deal!”

Most auctions have some sort of preview – either earlier than the live auction or online. Take advantage of a preview to research and carefully select (and set a price for) the pieces you are interested in owning.

Online or Virtual Art Auctions

Online and Virtual Art Auctions are auctions that you do not attend in-person. Over the years these have replaced many in-person events to broaden participation. While you may not fall trap to “I had too much wine” purchases in an online auction, there are still ways to maximize your advantage as a bidder and buyer.

Most important – avoid bidding until the last moments. Bidding every few hours or days just plays up interest in the piece and raises the price (remember my earlier tip to preview and set a price you are willing to pay – don’t artificially inflate your own price limit). Bidding near the end is also less time consuming and you increase the odds of being the winning bid. Many online auctions systems will allow you to set alerts on pieces you are interested in. Take advantage of these tools to stay informed.

Online auctions also remove the temptation to bid on something because “it’s a good price” resulting in that stack of frames in your garage. If you are participating in an auction, be prepared to bid near the closing of the item. Obviously “Bid High and Bid Often” is not the way to win your piece for a good price at any auction.

Live Art Auction Events with an Auctioneer

Live Auctions (usually accompanied by a paid ticket event and dinner with lots of wine) may result in a good buy because there are fewer people bidding than in an online auction. You also can examine the work up close, which is important if you are looking for investment pieces or important work. At live auctions my guidance is that you hold your bid until the “going once…”, or “jump the bid” (bidding higher than the auctioneer is asking by a good amount) because this often drives other bidders away and solidifies your position.

Many auction events include a “silent” auction component that involves bids written on a piece of paper next to a displayed piece of art and have a defined “closing time” or end of bidding. The same guideline applies to silent auctions as to online auctions – if you really want a piece, wait, and bid at the last minute (do not place any early bids). Stand near the piece and write in your bid a few minutes before it closes, and refrain from using your pencil as a weapon should someone else be doing the same thing.

Insider Tip for New Collectors

If you are new at collecting you can often watch for the pieces that seasoned collectors and art dealers are bidding on. They only buy good work at a good price. Remember that you’re looking for fine artwork, so be discerning in your research and your selections.

Finally, remember you are supporting a charity or nonprofit. Don’t buy something just to support the organization if you don’t really love the piece. You will be much happier making a direct cash donation than staring at that giant fuzzy cat sculpture that you must explain every time someone walks into your home.

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