Fancy something up for auction but have absolutely no clue on what to do? Charlotte Nunn, a specialist and head of sale at Bonhams, has some ideas. 

Visit auction websites to ascertain what auction you are interested in. Visit the previews in person (the free ones) whenever possible so you have a chance to examine the work in detail, meet the specialists and learn.

Register to bid in advance of the auction, ideally 24 hours before. It is customary for most auction houses to request a proof of address, photo ID, your full name, address and contact details. Certain high value auctions may ask for a financial reference from your bank or a deposit as a pre-condition of you bidding. Do not be offended by this, the auction has a responsibility to the seller to ensure good practice and is nothing personal!

At the auction, you will understand what’s most in demand. It will also provide you with some flexibility – if you are not successful with one lot, you can have a go at another. Plan to arrive at least 10 minutes before the auction so that you can show your ID and collect your paddle. And if you do not want to sit through the whole auction, you can call and ask what time your lot is expected so that you can arrive a few lots before. When you do bid, ensure that you make your intentions known to the auctioneer by clearly raising your paddle and showing them your paddle number. Also, make sure you are familiar with the auction increments so that you don’t get caught out with the wrong bid.

If you cannot make the auction in person, my next best choice would be to bid via the telephone. A specialist will call you from the sale room and will bid on your behalf. The advantage of this method of bidding is that you can do it from the enjoyment of your own home and keep your identity under wraps. Always provide an alternative number that the specialist can try in the event of connection issues and keep your phone near you. 

Absentee bids can also come in handy should you be away and uncontactable during the auction. Submit your maximum bid in writing before the sale and a specialist will bid on your behalf. In the event you can’t be reached at the time of the auction, we will use the absentee bid as backup.

Bidding online can sometime be a little problematic. Internet connections can be interrupted and this can cause you to miss your lot. Keep an eye on the price increment guidelines so that you know what the next bid is before you click confirm. 

Auctions can be unpredictable, you never quite know what something will hammer for until the moment happens. So beware of getting caught up in the moment and paying more than you intended. Always factor in other applicable charges such as the buyer’s premium, local taxes, shipping expenses, loss and damage liability fees or storage costs. 

Specialists at reputable international auction houses are trained for years in their field. With this comes a certain level of trust that correct due diligence will be carried out. It is more than acceptable to ask the specialist for more information with regards to the provenance of the work. If there is ever any level of doubt with regards to the authenticity of an object, the auction house usually will not offer the work for sale.

When it comes to authenticity, there will always be challenges. When dealing with contemporary art, it isn’t so bad as we can mostly trace back to the artist, studio, foundation or gallery directly. When working with century-old items such as Chinese works of art, it can get tricky. It takes a lot of experience, knowledge and research to know that that a certain glaze, seal, weight of an object is exactly what it should be.

At Bonhams, we obviously only hold auctions for items which are in demand. If there isn’t a market or demand that has been established in that area, it does not make sense to hold an auction.

If you have the winning bid, you are legally obliged to pay for the work. The terms and conditions signed when registering will outline this.

The starting bid is usually chosen at the auctioneer’s discretion, so they could start at $50,000 and move upwards from this. They will never go back on themselves. Most lots have a reserve price on it which is confidential between the auction house and the seller. This means the reserve – i.e. the lowest price the work can sell for – will either be the low estimate or below the low estimate. Some lots are ‘No Reserve’ lots, which means they can be sold for any price, regardless of the estimate .

There have been lots of great moments that I have experienced at auction. For the most part, the best are from when you have worked for months on building a successful sale, witnessing bidding at its most ferocious and seeing the hammer come down on something three or four times its original estimate. It is a very rewarding moment to be able to communicate that level of success to your client.

Auctions are undoubtedly one of the most transparent methods of buying. Everything is laid out before you and is very public. People automatically think auctions are too intimidating, too complicated. That really isn’t the case. Once you have the basics, it’s really very straightforward.

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