Don’t Judge an Art Auction by the Catalogue Cover –

Don’t Judge an Art Auction by the Catalogue Cover –

Have you ever wondered how the major auction houses manage to keep coming up with such fantastic works of art to include in their auctions?. If you haven’t then you should because the origin of that super duper painting on the front cover of the latest auction catalogue may not have come from where you think it came from. Most people assume that every work of art sold at an auction is there because a member of the public has decided that it is a good time to sell. Not so. Most people also assume that just because an auction house has plenty of fantastic works to sell that they are in a good position and performing well. Again, not so. You see, auction houses don’t just sit back and watch the blockbuster works of art fall into their laps. In fact, I am sure that you would be extremely surprised at how much work an auction has to do to secure a work that they want to include in their auction. Auction house staff are constantly making house calls and holding appraisal days in the hope of finding that long lost Rembrandt that grandma forgot she stored under the bed for safety during the war.

Even if an auction house does “find” an extremely valuable work of art there is no guarantee that they will be the ones who are trusted with it’s sale. The mere rumor of the location a valuable work of art is enough to send the auction houses into a frenzy and into the beginning of a bargaining process that can see the owner of said work of art being offered all sorts of guarantees that they will receive a certain amount for their work of art if they sell at a particular auction house. A major work of art can do wonders for the popularity and media coverage of an auction which means that an auction house will do almost anything to convince the owner of a significant artwork to sell through their auction house.

Although the auction houses do an incredible amount of leg work in an effort to have the best works for their auction there is no guarantee that they will actually have a work of art worthy of gracing the front cover of the catalogue come to them from a member of the public. Therefore, it is common practice for an auction house to call on prominent art dealers to either find works for them or to provide works to the auction house to sell. That’s right, an auction house will actually go to an art dealer to get a work that is good enough to be the major draw-card of the auction if they can’t locate one elsewhere. Obtaining works from dealers is not only a more expensive exercise for the auction houses as they usually have to provide a minimum price guarantee or a reduction in sellers premium but it also provides a false impression of the health of the art market. The successful sale of a major work of art provides a good impression of the art market and the auction house and implies that a member of the public has made a significant profit (why else would someone sell a work if not to make a profit) from the sale when in fact this may not be the case at all. Just goes to show that you can’t judge an auction catalogue by it’s cover or an art market by it’s sales.

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications

3 Responses

  1. I’ve come to the conclusion that you contradict yourself often. In one recent topic you suggested that tthe video series by Sotheby’s is a good place to learn about investing. Now you are basically saying that their practice is deceptive and may not reflect the realities of the art market. Which is it?

  2. Thanks for the comment Silvan but before you accuse me of contradicting myself you should make sure you have your facts straight. First of all I did not suggest that all their practices are deceptive just that some of their practices are deceptive. Secondly, to be successful in art investment you need to know about the good, bad, positive and negative which is why I have to present a range of arguments. Thirdly, watching a video series by Sotheby’s that mainly focuses on the works themselves as opposed to art market mechanics is not going to have an effect on people’s perceptions

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