How Do Art Auctions Work?

Art auctions are critical for keeping an artist’s reputation alive. When a legendary painter or sculptor makes the news for the recent sale of one of their works, it is often in the wake of a record-breaking sale. Auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s are best known for their antiquities and art sales, with pieces going for multi-million dollar sums.

Of course, in more recent years, contemporary artists have played with the tradition and perceived stuffiness of the setting — one need only look to Banksy’s Girl with Balloon canvas, which self-shredded seconds after it was bought for over £1 million at Sotheby’s in 2018. But on the whole, these mysterious rooms full of the rich and famous — or at least, their representatives — are less reported upon than the art sold within them. Here, we’ll explain how the art auction process works and some of the most notable sales in recent memory.

Art auctions are open to the public

Despite their reputation for being purely for the wealthy and elites, art sales at major auction houses like Christie’s or Sotheby’s are very much public events. And although these two are the most well-known and are generally responsible for selling the most famous works, there are countless art auction houses around the world. How else could these establishments be responsible for around one fifth of all art sales — and roughly 45% of the money brought in by those sales — each year?

In advance of each auction, a catalog will be published online, listing the details of every item (or lot) set to go under the hammer. These details include images, a brief history of each item (including where they have been shown to the public), and, most importantly, the price.

It takes a little more work to become a registered bidder

Although anyone can attend an art auction, if you want to have your own paddle to make bids, you will need to register in advance. This will involve undergoing a screening process, during which you will need to give the auction house your name, address, and details of how you plan to pay if yours is the winning bid. In fact, the auction house will even make sure that you have enough money in your chosen account to pay for the lot itself.

Once you have been accepted, you will then have the choice of how you will be bidding on items — in person, via telephone, or online. In-person bidding is straightforward enough, as it is no different from any other auction: Simply raise your paddle when the bidding starts on your chosen lot, and stop when the bids are a little rich for your blood! Telephone and online bidding involves an intermediary, typically a clerk, who will pass your bids on to the auctioneer in real-time as you follow the action elsewhere.

Online auction
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The pros and cons of remote bidding

Online bidding is a relatively recent development in the world of art auctions, coming into frequent use at the turn of the century. While not quite supplanting telephone bidding, it has helped to open up art auctions to a more global audience, with the president of Christie’s describing it to the New York Times as “a quintessential part of the auction, the same as the gavel that auctioneer holds.” 

However, as with phone bidding, there are drawbacks, particularly concerning the anonymity of the bidders and what could effectively be considered insider trading. For example, a 2015 auction at Christie’s saw Nurse, a piece by pop art legend Roy Lichtenstein, sell for a staggering $95.4 million to a phone bidder. The cause for concern? There were no other bidders.

In the years since the sale, there have been some leads on who its new owner could be, including one theory that the purchase was made by the auction house’s owner to “help Christie’s save face on a high-profile lot for which no other bidders had stepped up.” So despite the rigorous background checks, there are still understandable questions around just how transparent this process can be.

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