5 Rules for Acquiring Art at Auction

Whether you are looking to purchase your very first artwork or hoping to expand an already-existing collection, it is worth treating art acquisition as you would any other considerable purchase—with a mix of research, strategic thinking, and of course, a little bit of “love at first sight.”  Artsy's recent partnership with Heritage Auctions provided the perfect opportunity to share some insight from their specialists alongside highlights from “Trending Contemporary.” Keep these guidelines in mind and you can feel confident growing, curating, and treasuring your collection. 

1. Don’t only think of art as an investment, but always feel as though your money has been well-spent.

While the oft-cited “rule number one” of art collecting is to never treat art as an investment, there are indeed parallels between art collecting and thinking about a considerable purchase or investment. It absolutely pays to do your homework and walk away feeling as though your money has been well-spent. Figuring out how to do this kind of “due diligence” in the art world can be difficult when subjectivity in taste comes into play. Feeling instinctively drawn towards a particular subject matter or use of media is not nearly as quantifiable as a convincing balance sheet. 

That said, the most successful and respected venture capitalists and angel investors would not even think about investing in a startup if they did not wholeheartedly believe in the product, vision, and management team of the company. The idea and execution always go hand-in-hand when passing a personal verdict on quality. Similarly, the most passionate art collectors will not only ensure that they believe in the idea the artist is hoping to bring into the world, but also make certain that they have fallen in love with the way the artist has chosen to manifest that vision. 

Malick Sidibe, Deja des Futurs Amoureux, 1976, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches. Jack Shainman Gallery.

Malick Sidibe, Deja des Futurs Amoureux, 1976, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches. Jack Shainman Gallery.

Work by Malick Sidibé makes this point. His photographs of exuberant post-colonial Malian youth unlock a window into complex decades of socio-political change, and exemplify a unique vision and method of image-making. As the first photographer and African to achieve the Golden Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Biennale, Sidibé has been lauded for the timeless appeal of his powerful works.

Another favorite Eddie Martinez. Martinez draws from a variety of influences ranging from classical still-life traditions, allegorical cave paintings, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, and skateboarding culture—all of which are then distilled through his signature, aggressively coarse brushwork, utilizing mediums ranging from oil to spray-paint to collage materials. What results are paintings that radiate a primal energy.

2. Pay attention to details, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The artist’s life and times: Many passionate collectors find this to be the most rewarding aspect of artwork research and there are many ways to delve in. One way to get a quick overview of an artist is to look at their curriculum vitae (resume), which lists where they went to school, previous group and solo exhibition shows, as well as any awards or grants received throughout their career. Upcoming shows are also wonderful to anticipate and put on your calendar, so that you can see extensions and developments of their practice in new environments. Subscribing to Google Alerts for an artist is a good tactic to stay up-to-date on the newest press, discourse, and mentions. Last but not least, don’t be afraid to ask an advisor questions and perhaps even meet the artist at an opening near you or arrange for a studio visit. Going down a rabbit hole of knowledge and research for artists is highly encouraged—the added depth and layers usually translate into loving the works and appreciating your acquisition that much more. 

Price for similar artworks: Auctions are a great starting point for those who are beginning to collect — the auctions format provides transparency into what the rest of the market is willing to pay for a particular work. Try and find as much information about the selling price and estimates for similar artworks as you can. Write to an art advisor to ask for prices for similar works, making sure to take into account the medium, dimensions, year, and size. Additionally, for artists with an auction record, you can check databases such as Artnet’s Price Database or Blouin Art Sales Index to see what similar works have sold for within the auctions market in the past several years.

Provenance: The provenance is the ownership record of the artwork in question. Uncovering the history of an object can prove to be both fascinating and tricky due to the nature of private sales. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the artwork must, in the end, trace back to its origin—the artist—thus proving the authenticity. If the succeeding history is long, the provenance will illuminate layer after layer of the artwork’s artistic and cultural value. If an artwork was part of an important collection or had been exhibited in notable institutions, this will undoubtedly affect the value (and in turn, desirability) of the work.

In 1997, the world was riveted by the story of Steve Wynn and his elbow, which tore through Picasso's Le Rêve, yet somehow didn't destroy the value of the painting.

In 1997, the world was riveted by the story of Steve Wynn and his elbow, which tore through Picasso's Le Rêve, yet somehow didn't destroy the value of the painting.

What are the different types of provenance? Previous appraisals by a renowned expert, inventory number tied to the de-accession from a museum or collection, inclusion in an auction catalogue, or a receipt/bill of sale are all items that can help establish the history of an object. Labels on the back of an artwork that denote the gallery and year of sale are also important indicators. 

For example, if an artwork includes a label from a gallery, you have an important resource for establishing provenance and authenticity as it usually indicates that gallery represented the artist and sold the work.

Condition: This does not necessarily apply to works that are straight from the artist’s studio or sold through their primary market dealer for the first time. However, if you’re buying at auction, always ask for complete condition reports and images for works that are being resold and re-introduced into the market. 

Condition can be particularly important for photography as the medium is very reactive to human touch and light. Nan Goldin's intimate and luminous works are created with a photographic process called Cibachrome—an important detail to note as a collector. They are incredibly sensitive to the natural oils from human fingerprints and therefore come with special care instructions. 

3. Big names don’t have to break the bank.

Attention-grabbing headlines can make the art world seem inaccessible for the aspiring collector. Do not be discouraged or deterred by the record-setting prices—such as Pablo Picasso’s Femme d’Algiers (which sold for $179.4 million back in 2015) or a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat that crushed previous auction records at $57.3 million last May or Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi with blasted all records out of this world at $400 million last November. You can still collect quality artworks by art world heavy hitters without having to mortgage your life. It’s always incredibly refreshing when art lovers are pleasantly surprised that they can own a work for less than $5,000 by one of the these artists.  

Wayne Thiebaud prints at Crown Point Press, FOG Art+Design 2018.

Wayne Thiebaud prints at Crown Point Press, FOG Art+Design 2018.

For example, George Condo's works have gone for more than $1 million at auction, but you can acquire a limited-edition, signed Condo silkscreen for a fraction of that cost. Another blue chip artist, Wayne Thiebaud, sells works in the millions, but a recent limited edition run of prints of his early works, showing popular recurring motifs and themes that run deep throughout his body of work make this latest production very interesting.

Likewise, William Kentridge has moved viewers across the globe with his meditative prints, drawings, animated films, and opera interpretations. He has exhibited his work worldwide from Whitechapel Gallery in London to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to the Louvre in Paris, yet he is one of the world’s leading artists whose works you can collect for less than $5,000. 

4. Don't forget the logistics.

The price of the artwork is one thing. Don’t forget to include these additional costs in your budget when acquiring an artwork!

Shipping: Always ask the auction house to source an approximate shipping quote, or use shipping calculators to determine approximate costs. 

Art Handling: Especially when artworks are three-dimensional or crafted with fragile materials, professional art handling, crating, and shipping are an absolute necessity to ensure that the piece gets to you safely.

Insurance: Even veteran art collectors learn the hard way that accidents sometimes happen. There have been instances, though rare, where the work gets lost or damaged while in transit. Definitely ask and see what the costs are for insurance.

Buyer’s premium: When buying a work through an auction house, a 12-35% buyer’s premium is customary. Buyer beware and make sure you enquire about the premium.

5. Have fun.

Collecting is gratifying because there is always something new to see and learn. Following your favorite artists, galleries, influencers, art fairs, auction houses, and museums on Instagram is one of the best ways to stay up-to-date on new artworks to collect.

Elmgreen & Dragset. Prada Marfa, 2005 at U.S. Highway 90.

Elmgreen & Dragset. Prada Marfa, 2005 at U.S. Highway 90.

Don’t forget to go out and stay engaged with the physical art world as well, whether you decide to gallery hop locally or take a roadtrip to see art you first discovered on your Instagram feed—like Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains in the Nevada Desert or Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa right off U.S. Highway 90. 

While logistically it may be a a Herculean task to transport and display Ugo Rondinone’s works standing in the Nevada Desert, you could collect one of his early studies for the Seven Magic Mountains that would easily fit into your home. Louise Bourgeois’ Pink Days is a similarly delightful work that speaks to the joy of collecting art that brings color to your life.