A ballroom of a five star hotel has been booked well in
advance and catalogues given to the invitees to encircle
their choice of bids for a prestigious art auction. The
bidding begins with a mandatory speech regarding the
paintings and the artists. Each auction has a story to tell-
about the masterpiece, the painter, some stolen moments or
an amusing anecdote. Anonymous bids over the telephone,
secret deals, raised eye brows at higher bids, whispers of a
good haul, a hint of scandal have all been a part of many an
art auction process.
Over a period of last few decades, the
bidding process have improvised. For those who have recently
joined the art world and related events, in the social
calendar, an art auction is a highly organized event planned
months in advance. Of the auction houses, actively bringing
down the hammer on high stake bids Sotheby and Christies top
the list. An art auction is a serious event in the most
glamorous settings. Only seasoned aficionados are able to
understand the practical details of a public sale.
Oldest Auction Houses
Auction houses may not be as old as art itself. However, the
concept of art auction has existed since the 17th century.
Genuine masterpieces have passed the hands of curators and
enhanced the price a timeless piece de resistance. The adage
‘old is gold’ applies as well in art appreciation and
collectables has generations of valuable patrons. In the
past, the true connoisseur, bid out of passion to possess a
work of art. Today, auctions have become business
propositions for investors, artists and dealers alike!
Higher the bid, higher the stake of the timeless artwork.
British owned Bonhams Group is perhaps the oldest and today
the third largest auction house, founded in 1793. Today with
an acquisition in the form of Butterflies and merger in the
form of Brooks that has British benefit with Philips
auctioneers makes it a prestigious auction house.
Officially, now Bonhams has also tied up with an Australian
fine art auctioneers three years ago. Now they have the
largest number of sales rooms and auction houses in nearly
Some of the other auction houses that have actively
conducted auctions include:
IN 1744, Samuel Baker, the founder of the premium auction
house began an auction by selling Polite Literature for a
few hundred pounds. After his death, his nephew John Sotheby
expanded the firm’s business to all art and sacred
literature. Now two centuries later the auction house has
branches all over the world. It has also increased its
services. Apart from interest of art collectors, Sotheby is
into exclusive real estate with prime properties worldwide,
trusts and appraisals of antiques, coins, and sculptures.
Their mainstay remains exclusive art auctions. As the
international art mart has grown, so has this pioneering
firm. Apparently, it was the first auction house to have an
auction on cyberspace via eBay Live Auction Services. Of
course, it met with a huge success. Sotheby is at its
innovative best and continues to remain on the art map
through its bids.
In 1766, James Christie launched his auction house with a
powerful tool-his humor and excellent talk. The last two
centuries witnessed some major prices on valuable
collectables. The art of buying and selling is clearly one
of the most helpful areas, which makes Christies a
knowledgeable source of information. Catalogues help in
identifying the painting or collectable that one wishes to
own. They provide many other services- even wine tasting!
Year round auctions events take place in different parts of
Philips de Pury & Luxembourg
Apart from classical paintings, jewelry and contemporary art
specialists based in Geneva conduct auctions in Europe. Even
the de Pury & Luxembourg art galleries in Zurich have
conducted auctions for 20th century photographs,
Impressionist and modern paintings. Some other important art
galleries across Europe include Paris-based Tajan. Both
French and English languages help to appraise bidders to art
works. In 1941 Swann Galleries opened up to auction rare
books and since then it remains the world’s largest in this
sector. They have now extended their services to moving
media, and visual arts. In Austria and Prague, auction house
Dorotheum conducts nearly 600 auctions. They have a huge
employee base of 400 people with over 70 other skilled
experts in collectables. Bowrings is another big auction
house which has conducted an auction recently in Chennai.
Indian Art Auctions
Auction houses in India may be a new concept. However,
thanks to the British who had huge collections of rare
Indian artworks in their possession and various museums
Indian art has a sizable presence in the art world.
Nevertheless, this century seems to have a dubious
distinction of having some high number of fake artworks
making it to the auction scene. The latest fakes made it to
an art gallery in New York and just before the Sotheby and
Christies exhibitions, 12 fakes were removed.
India has its own exclusive auction house called Osian and
the man behind it is enterprising Neville Tulli. He moved
from London to Mumbai after studying from London school of
economics. It was in 1997 he conducted the first
full-fledged Indian auction (until then Sotheby & Christies
held auctions in India occasionally). Neville is in the
process of having not only an auction house but also
collecting to create an archive for future auctions. He has
grand plans to bring his auction house to international art
mart. And with many international art houses as his clients
and several Indian artists under his promotion he is heading
in the right direction.
Buying At An Art Auction
Most auction houses chart out the social calendar for buying
and selling nearly a year in advance. Regular patrons are
given catalogues in addition, about what will be put under
the hammer. Since one has a lot of time of hand it is ideal
to keep a few things in mind if wanting to buy at an
1. Acquaint yourself with all the history connected to the
artwork and artist. Get to know his other works as well.
2. Once you know all that is needed you can safely put your
bid. Consult some art dealers or historians too if need be.
3. Remember that there are others too in the fray for
bidding. Get to know if there are any buyer’s premiums.
4. Sometimes old artworks are restored and it is extremely
difficult to judge if it will be worth its bid. Get to know
the condition of the sale. This will help to assess the
5. Ask in the market what price could it fetch otherwise
(auction house is likely to get better premiums though).
6. Find out if the artwork is authentic, insured and has the
certificate as well.
7. A true work of art should be priceless but not ‘pricey’.
Don’t get carried away in an attempt to posses the artwork.
8. Ideally attend some auctions first to understand how the
price bids work. This will help you to place your bid at the
right time. - N A Nagpal