A First-Timer’s Guide to Online Art Auctions

Photo by gustavo centurion on Unsplash

The pandemic has made art galleries adjust to online exhibits, sales, and auctions. This shift to online has benefited new collectors and those who cannot travel to visit the gallery physically.

For a starting collector such as myself, online art auctions have become an education in art appreciation and valuation. Previously, I would not have attempted to join an auction because of the lengthy registration process and the preference for physical presence. But last month, I joined an online art auction, entered my bids, and found it an interesting and enjoyable experience.

Here are some tips from a first-timer for the fellow beginner at online art auctions:

Set a budget

As this is an auction, the price can go as high as the bidders or time allow. There is only the starting bid as a guide.

The auction that I joined estimated low prices for works of famous artists. It was not reflective of the actual market value, but some auction houses deliberately do this to attract interest and buyers. This worked for me, for as a beginner with minimal budget, it made me feel that I could own an artwork of a famous artist. That possibility alone made me register for the online auction.

You can set a budget for yourself which you can use to bid for one or several artworks, as long as it fits your budget. Read the fine print when you register and place a bid. The auction house may require a certain amount to hold as deposit, whether you win or not. There might also be additional costs above the winning price, such as the gallery’s fee, taxes, and shipping costs. Include these in your budget.

Based on my budget, I started my bids at the minimum price or slightly above minimum, and set a cap for my last price.

Setting a budget is important so you don’t get carried away by the frenzy of the bidding or your emotions. You might end up paying more than you can afford, or paying more than what the art is worth.

Do your research

Speaking of worth — the question of how much an art piece is worth is one that has many answers, depending on whom you ask. In auctions, whether it is for art or another object, the worth is how much the buyer is willing to pay for it. Lucky then the seller who sells a piece for more than its current market price.

Look through the auction house’s catalogue and see what interests you. Research about the artist and prices of previous artworks. People have various reasons for buying art, but the common theme is value, whether it is value to one’s eye, emotion, pride, social status, or investment. Beauty may be its own reason for being, but serious collectors also look at the future financial value of the artwork.

Some think that buying from an auction is more expensive, but if you get lucky — maybe you’re the only one who bid, or other bidders missed the lot, or weren’t fast enough to bid — you can get a good deal from an auction.

If you are concerned about authenticity, note that some pieces may not have a Certificate of Authenticity (COA). A COA is important to ensure the authenticity of the piece. It also makes it easier to resell, if you plan to do that someday. Some works will not have COAs for various reasons, but auction houses assure they have their own ways of seeing if an artwork is authentic. They can also help in getting a COA from the artist, at an additional cost.

Track your lots

Even if you’re not bidding, it’s good to register online for an account at the auction house. You see more information from the catalogue’s artworks, such as how many have bid on it and the highest bid price so far. Yes, you can place a bid even before the online auction date itself.

It’s wise to track lots. Track the lots you have bid on, so you will know when you have been overbid. And track the lots of pieces that you are interested in, even if you’re not bidding on them.

Why? So you’ll know the results and winning bid price. Part of our art education. Auction houses may not release the result of the bidding, but if you track lots, you will see the result right away. Caveat: the auction I joined removed the tracking the day after. So monitor your lots on the day if you want to see the results.

Be there on the auction date

You can place a bid before the auction date, but most of the bidding happens on the day itself. That’s why if you really want to acquire a piece, be there, so you can react right away. Prepare to wait, as each lot will have an allotted time. Or you can estimate the time of your lot’s turn and be ready before then.

Be sure to have a fast and steady internet connection. Move your fingers fast if you want to place a bid. But don’t be careless, as it takes just one click.

Be ready to walk away, or bid to the finish.

If you lose a bid, you can always bid for another piece. That’s why it also helps to track your lots.

Enjoy the experience

I joined the online auction to learn about art and pricing. What I didn’t expect was to have fun and enjoy the experience. It’s like a spectator sport, but since it’s virtual without a host, you’re free to provide your own narration, and wear and eat whatever you want. Or just thrill in the bid amount rising every few seconds for works of established artists, akin to trading in a stock market high.

I bid on three artworks. The most expensive sold for 5.2 times more than the opening price. I didn’t stand a chance as bids quickly rose when it was the lot’s turn. In the second and third pieces, my bid was the last before the winning price.

I didn’t win any of my bids, but that’s all right. Perhaps I didn’t want them badly enough. Perhaps it was enough to join, not necessarily to win.

I like to think my pocket still won, for I avoided spending money — at least in my first online auction. That’s money I save for the next one. Til the next auction then.

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Debbie Rodolfo

Debbie Rodolfo

Writer, mother, book lover, businesswoman, traveler from the Philippines || www.bloomingpen.net