Cover A painting by renowned artist Gerhard Richter being sold at an auction at Sotheby’s in London (Photo: Getty Images)

Lusting over an auction lot? We ask the experts how best to achieve success when that alluring item goes under the hammer

Auction houses carry a wide range of items including antiquities, old master paintings, contemporary and modern art, jewellery, watches and wine, with each lot assessed by an in-house specialist. Anything from works by acclaimed artists, to one-off jewels, to items with unsurpassed provenance can come up at auction, as it is a particularly popular way to sell rare items and pieces whose prices are not easily benchmarked or are subject to dynamic changes. The auction process, while appealing and increasingly accessible, can be intimidating, with the possibility of rampant bidding and the smash of the gavel before you’ve even grabbed hold of your paddle. So how do you ensure you know what you’re buying—and that you’re the one to take it home?


Auction catalogues detailing forthcoming lots are published well in advance of sales and are available to view online. But it’s also worth doing extra research. Besides personal taste, the value of a piece depends on a number of factors, including rarity, beauty, condition, historical importance, freshness to market, provenance and fashion.

“Do your homework,” advises Nicolas Chow, chairman for Asia at Sotheby’s. “Request a condition report to gain a better understanding of the work, read the literature on the artist or period and, if possible, go and study similar pieces in museums.”

Francis Belin, president for Asia Pacific at Christie’s, agrees, advocating that bidders for art works consider the artist and their auction track record and interest from museums, which are telling indicators of their success and price. The condition of a piece is paramount, too, and can affect price in some categories more than others. Check whether the item is fresh to market or has been seen before at auction, and what its provenance is. Often it’s not just about the work of art, but also its history. “Good provenance increases an object’s authenticity, collectibility and market value,” says Belin.

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It’s worth attending the preview of an auction, where you can see a piece in person. “For antiquities, works of art, jewellery and watches, the tactile dimension of an object is often an essential part of the enjoyment and it is important to handle it to gain a good understanding of it,” says Chow.

The preview also provides buyers with an opportunity to consult specialists and learn more about a lot.

“You should always try and view in person,” says Jean Ghika, global director of jewellery at Bonhams. When it comes to her area of expertise, she says, “Always ask for the assistance of a specialist who will be able to give you feedback on the quality of the stone, information on any laboratory certificates as well as an opinion of the condition.”

If you are unable to attend a preview, there are alternatives. Christie’s, for example, offers a range of digital solutions that allow potential buyers to interact with an art piece, including 360-degree views, virtual walk-throughs with specialists and online discussion using WeChat.

Additionally, for first-time buyers in particular, it is worth attending an auction or watching one live online to understand the process and pace.

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“Bidding in room is the traditional and possibly the most exciting way of buying,” says Chow. “There is nothing like the buzz.” But if you can’t attend, or prefer to keep a low profile, leaving an absentee bid is an option. This method also allows you set a strict bidding limit. Alternatively, you can bid by telephone or online, both of which allow bidders to react in real time. “Most professionals prefer bidding in the room as there is a lot of information to be garnered about the market from observing the sale, the bidders in the room, the staff bidding on the phone, the pace of the sale and the composure of the specialist in charge,” says Chow.

Adds Ghika: “Before the auction you can take advice from the specialists as to the level of interest in your target piece. Once you have this information you should set your upper limit and jump in.” Always be prepared to react to what happens in the room—and perhaps be flexible with that upper limit. “Sometimes, that one extra bid secures it,” she says.


Your lot is up and bidding has begun. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to get carried away and end up paying more than you intended.

“Room validation works as a powerful aphrodisiac. When 10 people bid against you, it is hard to resist not pursuing. A skilled auctioneer is also often critical, as he will tease a couple of extra bids from even the most disciplined bidder,” says Chow. Always know how much you are willing to spend. And note that auction houses charge a buyer’s premium, which can add upwards of 25 per cent to the hammer price. Delivery and shipping fees should also be considered in advance, as should any import or export licences and restrictions that could mean additional costs.

There are tactics that can be used to put other bidders off. For example, Chow suggests that changing the bidding pace can work effectively. Equally, as Christie’s Belin urges, “Do not let other bidders’ actions affect your decision making and always have your budget in mind.”

Bear in mind, too, that you might be in for the long haul. Chow describes one of his most memorable Sotheby’s auctions, which took place in October 2010. It involved a private collection of nine Qing dynasty works, which he had spent five years tracking down and bringing to market. “As the auctioneer opened the sale, the electricity in the room was insane and it took almost an hour to sell the nine lots,” he says. The low estimate for the nine lots was HK$67 million but after intense bidding they went for HK$327 million.

Not every lot will see such demand, but there is no reason to be put off if you lack validation from the room. The number of people bidding does not correlate to the value or authenticity of an item.

“I bought some of my favourite things on a single bid,” says Chow. “At the end of the day, art is personal and essentially a passion investment, so buy what speaks to your heart.”

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