Art auctions attract global attention with their glittery A-list collectors, bidding wars and unexpected events such as artworks shredding right in front of bidders’ eyes. But behind the glamour and drama sits a serious business, centuries of history, and practices that consistently set the tone for the art market at large. Here’s your guide to everything that happens before the inevitable ‘Sold!’
What is an art auction?
An art auction is the sale of art led by an auctioneer, most commonly held in auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which have different locations around the world. Art auctions have been a fixture on the art market since the 17th century, and today big names can expect to fetch billions of dollars a year (in 2018, Christie’s made $7 billion.)
An art auction is planned often months in advance, with a fixed line-up of works available for sale; these are presented in an auction catalog that potential collectors peruse before the big day. Then, as in all auctions, registered bidders raise their paddles, call their advisors, and feel their heart rates rise before the auctioneer’s hammer finally hits the block.
What type of art is sold at auction?
Any type of art can be sold at auction, but paintings are far and beyond the most common medium up for grabs. The most high-profile auctions are for famous paintings by well-known artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which sold for an incredible 450 million dollars in 2017. Other common record breakers include Paul Gaugin, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jackson Pollock; the public image of auctions, then, is largely based off superstars of the secondary market.
However, art auctions are not restricted to the sale of big-name artists and big-money clients. Art auctions take place all over the world, and smaller scale auction houses present catalogs with price ranges that mirror this.
Who sets the price?
Guide prices and reserves are the work of expert art consultants. Appraisal is a profession in itself, and major auction houses use teams of specialists who are tasked with contextualizing every artwork on offer within the trajectory of the art market and broader economic climate.
But auction houses can’t control everything. Christie’s and Sotheby’s were forced to confess to criminal price fixing at the turn of the millennium in 2000, prompting major class action lawsuits and a current of paranoia throughout the art market. With all parties held accountable, trust has largely been restored, but it’s safe to say that today’s consumers do their own homework, too.
Price expectations aren’t always fulfilled. A Francis Bacon painting estimated to sell for $79 million at a Christie’s London auction failed to invite a single bid, while other buzz-worthy works have exceeded their estimate by hundreds of thousands of dollars. There’s only so much that can be predicted before the auctioneer takes their place at the block and emotions begin competing with strategy.
How do you think you’d go?