With the major New York Impressionist and Contemporary sales beginning this week, thousands of works by the past two centuries’ most revered artists will be hitting the auction block. While bidding and buying can carry an intimidating mystique for those new to the process, it can also be an exciting and, in some cases, economical way to acquire new art.

Read on for ten tips to go from auction amateur to paddle-wielding pro:


 Strandszene, a 1909 oil on board painting by Wassily Kandinsky, being sold at Christie’s New York Impressionist & Modern Art Evening auction with a presale estimate of $16 – 22 million USD. Photo courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

1. Visit the exhibitions. Auction houses put all works in their upcoming sales on display the week prior. Seeing art in person (or sending an expert you trust in your stead) is always the best way to get a sense of scale, colour, and vibrancy.

2. Ask for condition reports. When you’ve identified the works that most inspire you, make sure to check into their background. Have they undergone conservation? Is the paint cracking? Any tears or stains? Condition reports can answer most concerns and are available free of charge.

3. Speak with the specialists. While auction house experts do want to ensure sales for their consignors, they are also often very frank and forthcoming. Don’t be shy to ask their opinions about what outside interest has been like, and where they think the bidding might go.


 Alberto Giacometti’s 1948 bronze sculpture, La Place, from an edition of 6. The work is being auctioned at Sotheby’s New York Impressionist & Modern Art Evening sale and carries an estimate of $12 – 18 million USD. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s Inc.

4. Do your research. Check online auction record databases like Artnet for a more thorough understanding of past prices achieved (if you don’t have a subscription, consult an advisor who does).

5. Register in advance. While some auction houses greenlight on-the-spot registrants, bidders new to the sales might require at least a day’s notice to secure their paddles. Make sure to check in ahead of time to avoid day-of disappointment.

6. Understand the Buyer’s Premium. This is the additional fee that winning bidders pay to the house on top of the final “hammer price” called out by the auctioneer. Based on a sliding scale calculated from the sale price, the BP can vary by country and among auction houses.

7. Consider additional costs involved: Make sure you’ve read the auction catalogue carefully, which will contain symbols signifying particular conditions of sale for each work, such as artist droit de suite, and lots being sold without a reserve.


 Current art market darling Oscar Murillo’s 2012 painting, Untitled, estimated between $100 – 150,000 USD at Phillips New York Contemporary Evening Sale. Image Courtesy of Phillips

 8. Prepare yourself to bid. Whether you’re attending the auction in person, over the telephone, or watching online, it is always a good idea to observe another sale beforehand. Lots are sold quickly (often averaging just 30 seconds per piece), and a quick response is required. First-time bidders might be more comfortable recruiting a seasoned consultant to bid on their behalf—something even the world’s most experienced collectors do!

9. Know your limit. Competition in the salesroom is an essential component to a successful sale—great for the auction house, but potentially risky for bidders. Set a mental number that you are comfortable paying for a given work.

10. Don’t be afraid to ignore your limit. Auctions can be great fun, and sometimes it’s worth surrendering to the tide and going a bid (or two) higher than you had prepared for in order to nab that long-sought-after piece.


 Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (You Drive A Hard Bargain), an inkjet print and vinyl work being sold at Christie’s New York Postwar & Contemporary Day sale with an estimate of $80 – 120,000 USD. Image courtesy of Phillips