A first timer's guide to buying art at auction

more than a year ago
At a Joburg auction you can pick up everything from a million Rand painting by a world-famous South African artist, to quirky contemporary prints, period furniture, rare antiques and collectable books. The open days held before a major auction are also a unique opportunity to view stunning artworks before they disappear into private collections and socialise with the local art and antiques collecting community.

If you are new to buying art at auction and are wondering how it all works, here's our first timer's guide.

Catalogues, pre-auction exhibitions and deciding what to buy

The first step to buying at auction is finding something you have your heart set on owning. Before an auction, the auction house releases a catalogue of all the items included in the sale for buyers to browse. South Africa's leading fine art auction house Strauss & Co release a beautifully printed glossy catalogue weeks ahead of each live auction that is itself a collector's item, filled with extensive background information from curators and academics on the artists and works included in the sale, as well as details on the size of the work and its condition. The catalogue can be ordered through the Strauss & Co website or you can also view it online. You can also view the full catalogues of previous auctions online and see what works exceeded their estimates and which went unsold.

In the days before a live auction auction houses usually hold a pre-auction exhibition where the public can come in and look at the works in person. These lively, social events are a good opportunity to talk to art experts from the auction house who will be able to share more details about the artist, the artwork and its provenance. Pre-auction exhibitions are also a great place to get a feel for the auction world and discover interesting artists that you might not have been familiar with. The more art you see, the more you'll be able to refine your tastes and learn more about the artists you'd like to invest in.

Estimates, reserve prices and buyer's premiums

Auction catalogues list 'estimate prices' for each work included in the sale. The estimate is the auction house's prediction for what the lot can be expected to sell for during the auction. Pre-sale estimates are based upon current market prices achieved at auction for comparable works and also take into account the condition, rarity and provenance of the artwork. Usually any bid between the high and the low estimate should stand a fair chance of success. The 'reserve price' is confidential and is set by the seller as the lowest amount that the work can be sold for.

On top of the final 'hammer price' or winning bid, the buyer also usually pays a premium percentage as well as VAT. Strauss & Co calculate the Buyer's Premium at 12% for lots selling over R10,000 and 15% for lots at and below R10,000.

How to register and bid at a live auction

To take part in a live auction you will first need to register as a bidder. Prior to the sale bidders are required to complete a registration card with the auction house and receive a bidding number. Bids at the sale will then be taken from registered bidders who are in the room, as well as from telephone and absentee bidders.

Forget what you might have seen in the movies! You won't turn up at the auction, scratch your nose at the wrong time and find you've accidentally just bought a million Rand painting. Auctioneers are professionals and know how to size up a room, understand their buyers and follow the sequence of bidding. It is in their interest to be sure who is bidding and for what and they are infinitely more likely to ask "is that a bid sir?" than to exclaim "sold to the man swatting a fly!".

Successful bidders are required to make payment for their purchases immediately after the sale and arrange for them to be collected by the following day.

If you are still feeling nervous about how to join in the bidding and perhaps are intimidated by the more experienced auction veterans, it can be a good idea to build your confidence by attending an auction for the first time and simply sitting at the back and observing what is going on, following the increments in bids based on what you think you would have offered. 

What if I can't be there in person to bid?

If you can't be at a live auction in person, you can still take part either by phone or by submitting an absentee bid. This needs to be done at least 24 hours before the sale. Absentee written bids are written bids from registered prospective buyers that instruct the auction house to bid on specific works up to specific amounts on their behalf. Bear in mind that even with a maximum limit, you may still be successful at securing your lot at a lower figure depending on the demand in the room.  

At its major live auctions, fine art auctioneers Strauss & Co also arrange for bidding by phone with a telephone clerk from the salesroom bidding on your behalf. The number of telephone clerks and lines is limited so it is advisable to confirm your wish to bid by phone in advance with the auction house's bidding department. 

Buying art at online auctions

Online auctions are increasing in popularity across the world and in South Africa Strauss & Co are the leaders in the field. At a typical Strauss Online auction you'll find a broad array of paintings, works on paper, prints, decorative arts, jewellery and even books. These online auctions are a brilliant opportunity for new art collectors to build a collection, with estimates that start from as little as R1,500 stretching up to the tens of thousands.

You can register to join the bidding directly online as soon as the auction opens. Once registered, sign in and click on your chosen lots to submit your bid. You'll receive an email or sms every time you have been outbid on a lot. You can also submit a 'commission bid' which is a maximum that you would like the online system to continue bidding up to on a lot on your behalf. Once the auction closes you'll receive an email detailing your winning bids, payment options and details on how to collect the work or arrange for it to be delivered.

For more details on how to register to bid at Strauss & Co's online and live auctions visit, email or call +27 11 728 8246.



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