The art of winning auctions

Despite the air of exclusivity, you can often get better deals at auctions than galleries. You just have to know when to sit on your hands.



From the Dec/Jan 2010 issue of the magazine.



Ah yes, the fine art auction, home of the tuxedo-and-caviar set, where old-money millionaires and new-money industrialists battle it out for Picassos, de Koonings and Klimts, each six-figure bid registered with the cultivated subtlety of a Japanese Geisha; the raised eyebrow, the crooked pinky.

It can, of course, be that way. Even now, various Canadian auction houses are advertising works of art with million-dollar valuations. And yet the air of moneyed exclusivity that attends fine art and estate auctions does the general public a disservice, preventing the casual art lover from considering auctions as places where quality artworks can be found at reasonable prices: a $4,000 painting to hang over the mantle, a $3,500 sculpture for the den.

“Even if the catalogues of high-end auction houses include million-dollar paintings, the majority of the items are far more modestly priced,” says Andrew Gibbs, Ottawa representative for Heffel Fine Art Auction House, the country’s most prominent auctioneer of Canadian art. Moreover, while a well-stocked art gallery might feature a couple dozen paintings by a smattering of artists, auction-goers can often choose from hundreds of paintings by scores of artists. “A typical Heffel auction might feature 200 items, many easily within the range of the middle-class art aficionado,” says Gibbs.

“Another advantage is that you’re paying market price. In other words, through the bidding process you’re paying exactly what the market will bear, rather than what a gallery owner arbitrarily decides a piece of art is worth.”

Duncan McLean, president of Toronto-based Waddington’s Auction House, Canada’s oldest auctioneer, concurs. “You tend to get good value buying at auction compared to retail. That’s probably the No. 1 reason auctions are popular with knowledgeable investors and art lovers.” For the uninitiated the arcane, vaguely James Bond-like world of the auction house can still be intimidating. And yet a little research and preparation is all it takes to remove the awe from auction. Here’s how.

What you want (baby I got it)
Keeping tabs on the various auctions taking place throughout Canada used to be a monumental chore, and one reserved essentially for professional collectors. No more, thanks to the Internet. “All reputable Canadian auction houses now list not only their schedule of upcoming auctions, but their entire catalogues online,” says Gibbs. “Photos are higher quality, write-ups are in-depth, all because auctioneers realize that they have to cater to Internet-savvy buyers.”

Estate or fine art?
Estate sales, where private art collections are sold at auction, most often after the death of the owner, can often yield better value than fine art auctions, due to the simple fact that more pieces have to be auctioned off at the same time. “Fine art auctions usually average 60 pieces an hour, or a painting every minute, whereas estate auctions might average 100 pieces per hour,” says Gibbs. “What that means in practice is that auctioneers can’t spend as much time trying to get maximum bids for each individual lot because of time constraints, so pieces can often be had for cheaper than at fine art auctions.”

Knowledge is power
“When you’re considering bidding at auction, the first step is to learn as much as you can about the artist or piece of artwork in question,” says McLean. “Get books from the library, go to museums, galleries and flea markets. Educate yourself. The more you know, the more likely you are to get the item you want at auction without overbidding.”

Says Gibbs: “People often think that because, say, a 1950s painting by [Québécois artist Jean-Paul] Riopelle sold for upwards of $1 million at auction, a similarly-sized Riopelle from 1970 might be worth the same. But it might only sell for $50,000 because it’s no longer from the period where Riopelle was cutting-edge avant-garde. So it’s vital to learn as much as possible not only about individual artists, but their most creative periods, and the styles for which they’re best known.”

Seeing is believing
Before each auction, catalogue items are usually made available for viewing, and despite the increasing popularity of on-line bidding, Gibbs strongly advises potential buyers to attend these previews. “I consider it crucial, actually. You can only learn so much from a photo, and often people will bid on paintings, only to discover that they’re much bigger, or much smaller than they thought. Or that their condition isn’t as good as they thought. There’s no substitute for seeing a piece of art live.” Prior to driving, or flying, to a preview, buyers should phone the auction house to ensure that their coveted piece is actually on display: occasionally, a lot will be withdrawn from auction, or will be unavailable for viewing, and you don’t want a wasted trip.

Adds McLean: “The auctioneer’s in-house experts are usually made available at the previews, and are able to answer questions about a painting’s condition, provenance, restoration, what it sold for in past auctions, and what it’s likely to sell for during the current auction. Don’t be shy. Take advantage of their expertise. That’s what they’re there for.”

Get to the church on time
First time at auction? Get there when the doors open, usually at least a half-hour before the bidding starts. And sit up near the front to get a clear view of the artwork and ensure your bids are seen and registered by the auctioneer.

As for when you bid, that’s up to your individual preference, says McLean. “At the end of the day, the only bid that matters is the last bid, so it doesn’t really matter whether you’re involved in every step of the bidding process, or jump in at the very end,” says McLean. Gibbs agrees, with a caveat: “For some people, there’s a temptation to hold off until the very last second and launch a final bid as the hammer comes down. That’s cutting it too close. If the auctioneer doesn’t register that last-second bid, you might lose a piece you really wanted.”

The sky’s not the limit
Don’t go crazy with the cheque book. Decide in advance the maximum you’re willing to bid on any given lot, and stick to it; don’t get caught up in the excitement and emotion of a heated bidding war. “It’s OK to go one or two bids over your pre-set maximum,” says McLean. “It’s not okay to go 20 bids over. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially if you discover you can’t pay for your purchase. Once you’ve won an item at auction, you own it and you’re legally required to pay for it. There’s no ‘Oops, I didn’t mean it’ in auctions.”

Live to fight another day
“One of the mistakes I see most often,” says Gibbs, “is people succumbing to impulse buying. They take the time to preview a number of items, and carefully select three or four that they want. Then the auction starts and they don’t win any of them. But they don’t want to go home empty-handed, so they end up bidding on items they haven’t researched, and when the items show up at their door, they’re like, ‘Eww, why did I buy this thing?’ Don’t do that. Remember, there’s always another auction.”

The psychology of the bid

Keeping your paddle in your pocket, or suddenly bidding a bundle, can save you big money.

As with the proverbial iceberg, a great deal of what goes on at auction is hidden from view, taking place well below the surface. Buyers who don’t want to get frozen out of the bidding or, worse, hopelessly manipulated into paying more than necessary, should understand a little about the psychology of the bidding process, as well as the various tricks and techniques auctioneers and experienced buyers use to tip the scales in their favour. In his 30-year career, Rock Fournier, owner-operator of Laval, Que.-based Groupe Fournier Auctioneers, has seen it all. Here are a few of his most valuable tips.

Befriend the auctioneer
Knowledge is power, and it behooves the savvy buyer to research not merely the items in the auction catalogue, but the style and reputation of the auctioneer. “If you’re a regular bidder, and you have helped the auctioneer by bidding up lots in the past, he might be disposed to help you win certain items by bringing the hammer down early.”

It’s like the third time you buy a car from the same dealer: your relationship is different from the first time, and you’re more likely to get a deal.

Fools rush in
Usually, the auctioneer will start the bidding low and work toward higher and higher bids. But occasionally he will work in reverse, starting the bidding at, say, $100,000, then dropping to $80,000, then $40,000. It’s a psychological trick designed to establish
a high price tag, after which $40,000 seems like a relative bargain. “Sometimes, though, I’ll be surprised by a hand going up at $80,000, and he’ll make a sale at an unexpectedly high price,” says Fournier. The lesson? Premature bidding—heck, premature anything—is bad. Try not to get too excited.

Jump bids can work
If bids are increasing in increments of, say, $100, and you jump the price up by $500, it sends a clear message to other bidders that you’re serious, and rivals are left with the impression that you can’t be outbid. The end result is that your massive overbid actually ends up saving you money. But here’s the rub: the auctioneer himself might read your jump bid as the sign of a highly motivated buyer. He can then keep the bidding going even in the absence of other legitimate bidders. How? By using a “shill,” or plant, whose role is to bid up undervalued items. Or by pretending to have a phone bid, or an email bid. Which brings us to Fournier’s final lesson: you don’t control the action. Ultimately, the auctioneer does. “So decide in advance how much money you want to spend, and don’t exceed your maximum.”

77 comments on “The art of winning auctions

  1. Magnificent goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you are just too excellent. I really like what you’ve acquired here, really like what you are stating and the way in which you say it. You make it enjoyable and you still take care of to keep it wise. I can not wait to read much more from you. This is actually a tremendous site.

  2. i thought this was a really great post to read. i’ll check back for new posts by you!

  3. Hi my friend! I want to say that this article is amazing, nice written and include approximately all significant infos. I would like to look extra posts like this .

  4. Simply wanna tell that this is very beneficial , Thanks for taking your time to write this.

  5. hey, nice blog… really like it and added to bookmarks. keep up with the great work

  6. I just added this weblog to my rss reader, excellent stuff. Can’t get enough!

  7. This is a great blog. Thank you for all of your hard work and the info you provide here.

  8. Hi my loved one! I wish to say that this post is amazing, great written and come with approximately all significant infos. I’d like to peer more posts like this .

  9. Excellent points?I’d note that as anyone who in point of fact doesn’t write on blogs a lot (in truth, this can be my first publish), I don’t suppose the term ‘lurker’ could be very changing into to a non-posting reader. It’s not your fault the least bit , however in all probability the blogosphere may come up with a greater, non-creepy title for the ninety% of us that enjoy reading the content .

  10. Hey! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone 3gs! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the great work!

  11. Ordinary this publish is totaly unrelated to what I used to be searching google for, nevertheless it was indexed on the first page. I suppose your doing something proper if Google likes you enough to place you at the first web page of a non related search.

  12. Someone I work with visits your blog regularly and encouraged it in my experience to see as well. The writing style is great and the submissions are top-notch. Just knowledge you supply the readers!

  13. Outstanding info once again! Thumbs up.

  14. I reckon something genuinely special in this site.

  15. Nice post . Thanks for, commenting on my blog dude. I shall message you some time. I didn’t realise that.

  16. I seemed to be aware about this already, nevertheless there were a few useful bits which finished the image to me, thank you so much!

  17. Well, that is certainly excellent, but how about the other choices we’ve got here? Would you mind crafting a further article about these also? Thx!

  18. Woah this is just an insane amount of information, must of taken ages to compile so cheers so much for just sharing it with all of us. If your ever in any need of related info, perhaps a bit of coaching, seduction techniques or just general tips, just check out my own site!

  19. great post! i’m bookmarking this!

  20. Hi! Ich bin über AOL zu deinem Internet-Tagebuch gestoßen und möchte auch eine Notiz hinterlassen. Mir gefällt das Aussehen ungemein gut und ich werde selbstverständlich demnächst zurückkommen. Ich wäre geehrt, wenn dir dir auch meine Website zum Thema Ephedrine anschauen würdest. Ephedrine Supplements sind der schnellste Fatburner für fixe Fettverbrennung. Besten Dank und viel Spaß weiterhin mit deinem Blog!

  21. Hey this can be a attractive looking site, is this wordpress? Forgive me for that foolish question – but when so, what theme is this? Thanks! :-)

  22. I constituted purely trying this amazing written content awhile. Right after all day long including uninterrupted Googleing, in the end I got it in your site . I inquire whats exactly the deficiency along the lines of Google regime the actual dont social station this excellent kind of informative articles in elevation of each lean . Typically the top quality content are full much like food waste .

  23. Pretty commendable release. I just slipped up upon your blog and then desired to assert the I’ve relished books the blog information posts. However I’ll represent subscribing in the fact nurture and now I hope the individual put out double soon.

  24. nvr saw a blog like this, relaly impressed. compared to other websites with this article this was definatly the best site. will bookmark.

  25. i’m adding your blog rss feed so that i can see your new posts. keep up the good work!

  26. What i do not realize is actually how you are not really much more smartly-liked than you may be now. You are very intelligent. You understand therefore significantly relating to this matter, produced me personally consider it from so many numerous angles. Its like men and women don’t seem to be interested until it is one thing to accomplish with Lady gaga! Your individual stuffs outstanding. All the time handle it up!

  27. I just want to say I am just newbie to blogging and site-building and actually loved your website. Almost certainly I’m likely to bookmark your website . You absolutely come with excellent stories. Regards for sharing your web-site.

  28. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your webpage? My blog site is in the very same niche as yours and my visitors would really benefit from a lot of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this ok with you. Thanks!

  29. hi there was just seeing if you minded a comment. i like your website and the thme you picked is good. I will be back.

  30. זיקית הינה חברת החוויה האתגרית הגדולה בסביבה המפעילה אטרקציות במרכז הארץ במחירים מיוחדים לארגונים, חברות, קבוצות ולקוחות פרטיים המעוניינים לגשת לימי כייף רוב הדרך לחזקת המסלול .

  31. I loved as much as you will receive carried out right here. The sketch is attractive, your authored subject matter stylish. nonetheless, you command get bought an nervousness over that you wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come more formerly again as exactly the same nearly very often inside case you shield this hike.

  32. i’m adding your blog rss feed so that i can see your new posts. keep up the good work!

  33. Thanks for making the sincere effort to talk about this. I feel very robust about it and want to learn more. If it’s OK, as you acquire extra extensive wisdom, may you thoughts including more articles similar to this one with additional info? It would be extraordinarily helpful and helpful for me and my friends.

  34. What a lovely day for a 3583576! SCK was here

  35. Thankyou a great deal for leaving this!

  36. Hello. remarkable job. I did not imagine this. This is a great story. Thanks!

  37. I was suggested this website by my cousin. I’m not sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such detailed about my trouble. You are wonderful! Thanks!

  38. Pingback: bargain holidays

  39. I wanted to put you one tiny remark to finally give thanks over again with your striking secrets you’ve contributed above. It has been really unbelievably open-handed with you to supply extensively all a lot of folks might have distributed for an ebook in order to make some profit on their own, mostly seeing that you could have tried it if you ever wanted. These tips additionally worked as a fantastic way to know that some people have the identical keenness much like my personal own to grasp a lot more when considering this problem. I think there are millions of more enjoyable instances ahead for individuals who read carefully your site.

  40. Hi there, beautiful weblog with great informational content. This is a really interesting and informative post.

  41. My partner and i definitely have to think much more in that course and see things i can do regarding it.

  42. I really appreciate this post. I have been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Google. You’ve made my day! Thx again…

  43. Great ¡V I should definitely pronounce, impressed with your web site. I had no trouble navigating through all the tabs as well as related info ended up being truly easy to do to access. I recently found what I hoped for before you know it at all. Quite unusual. Is likely to appreciate it for those who add forums or something, site theme . a tones way for your client to communicate. Nice task..

  44. I was studying some of your articles on this site and I believe this site is real instructive! Retain putting up.

  45. I am not sure where you’re getting your information, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic info I was looking for this info for my mission.

    • I’m out of league here. Too much brain power on dpislay!

  46. All right, that is a good start however i’m going to take a look at that a touch more. Will show you just what else i have found.

  47. Great stuff from you, my friend. Ive read your posts before and you’re just Awesome! I love what you’ve got here, love what you’re saying and the way you say it. You make it entertaining and yet you still manage to keep it smart & to the point. I cant wait to read more from you. This is really a great & very well blog!

  48. That seems great although i’m still less than sure that I favor it. At any rate will look a lot more into it and choose personally! :)

  49. You lost me, buddy. I mean, I imagine I get what youre expressing. I have an understanding of what you’re saying, but you just appear to have ignored that you’ll find some other people within the world who see this matter for what it definitely is and may well not agree with you. You may be turning away many of individuals who may have been followers of your site.

  50. All right, this is a nice beginning however i’ll have to explore that a touch more. Will show you exactly what else i’ve found.

  51. Woh I like your content , saved to my bookmarks ! .

  52. You are my aspiration , I have few blogs and infrequently run out from to post : (.

  53. Fantastic beat ! I wish to apprentice while you amend your web site, how can i subscribe for a blog website? The account helped me a acceptable deal. I have been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered vibrant clear idea

  54. I’ve been trying to contact you since 2009. Please, tell me a way to do it!

  55. Excellent goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you’re just too fantastic. I really like what you have acquired here, really like what you are saying and the way in which you say it. You make it entertaining and you still care for to keep it smart. I can’t wait to read far more from you. This is really a terrific website.

  56. Hey i just visited your site for the first time and i really liked it, i bookmarked it and will be back 😀

  57. I’m speechless. This can be a very good weblog and really enticing too. Great work! That’s no longer in reality so much coming from an amateur writer like me, nevertheless it’s all I may say after diving into your posts. Nice grammar and vocabulary. Now not like other blogs. You really understand what you?re talking about too. Such a lot that you made me need to explore more. Your weblog has change into a stepping stone for me, my friend.

  58. Pingback: auto lease specials

  59. Pingback: habits of rich people

  60. Thank you, I’ve recently been hunting for info about this subject for ages and yours is the best I’ve discovered so far.

  61. Nice content, i learned something from this post. Thanks!

  62. Gran post. No se puede esperar a leer los siguientes:)

  63. The awesome fresh pages keep me coming here time and time again. thank you so much.

  64. Hey, thanks for the great blog.I was looking for the information to help me make some important decisions. Thanks for all your information.