Before 1989, only paintings with provenance garnered multimillion-dollar prices.
But in June of that year, Christie’s in New York sold an 18th-century mahogany secretary by John Goddard for $12.1 million. No longer were antiques and collectibles also-rans at auction—they were now blockbuster lots in their own right.
That shift still resonates today. Rather than being reserved for a small cabal of professional bidders, auctions have become everyone’s lot in life, a place where any discerning shopper might snap up an elusive vase, sculpture or even a purse.
Jeff Rabin runs investing firm ArtVest, advising clients on buying and selling art and objets. He’s a seasoned paddle-raiser, often tasked with representing those clients at auction. Before bidding on a lot, he says, research is critical: Find out from the auction house how much interest there is in that lot, and set a fixed budget. Remember, he adds, that “the auction market typically puts an estimate on the lower side, underpricing the work as insurance, since the house only gets its commission if the piece sells.” (So-called “burned lots,” he says, which fail at the gavel, see their future value reduced by 70 to 80 percent.) Don’t be fazed by “chandelier bidding”—a price fabricated by the auctioneer to create the illusion of demand—either, Rabin says. The auctioneer’s rapid-fire patter of numbers is “totally legal, but it’s just theater—a way to get the people in the room excited.” Instead, he says, use it as a clue to the potential “reserve” price, below which the item will go unsold. Consider, for instance, a Warhol painting that has an estimate of $1.4 million. As the auctioneer commences his chandelier bidding—“Do I have 800,000? 850? 9? 950?”—note where he pauses; that final $950,000 is likely the reserve. If there’s silence in the room, a single bidder can snap up that artwork at a bargain price.
To help put those skills to work, we’ve rounded up the world’s eight most bid-worthy auctions coming before the end of the year—from a Nordic design sale in London to a high-fashion Holy Grail in Miami, and even an amateur archeologist’s treasure trove in Dallas.