Category Archives: Auction culture

How Do I Sell this Painting/Print/Drawing My Mom Gave Me?

You know it’s worth something and yet the art dealer won’t take it and it hasn’t sold on craigslist. What do you do with the painting that was given to you that you’d rather have the cash value for?

The last two weeks we’ve received quite a few inquiry calls about selling works that were given to them so I decided to answer some of the most common questions. (This is a general overview and not to be taken as professional or legal advice. Every situation is exclusive of any other and we’d prefer you call us for your specific needs)!

My mom told me she paid $3,000 for the painting. What can I sell it for? 

Unless it’s a “known artist” (this does not have to be a household name, but I consider this a person that has an auction and/or private retail record. Or, someone that has been “discovered” by a dealer or curator and has been deemed academically relevant), the likelihood of a piece appreciating is very slim. That doesn’t mean that paintings you bought for a few hundred dollars can’t grow in value, but the seemingly long list of artists you see becomes very short when you talk about resale. And more realistically, the painting is not worth what you paid for it and in some cases, worth less.

It’s worth less than we paid for it? How is this possible?

If your mom bought it from a dealer or art fair, and it’s a contemporary (living) artist, it’s hard to gauge in one lifetime what the piece will be worth. It all depends on demand for that particular artist’s work. If there’s little competition and the works are easily accessible, the work is worth what the dealer and artist agreed to split the sale for and what it  covered –  a lot of overhead such as utilities, travel, insurance, publicity, marketing and general costs. Those are the facts behind selling works at a gallery. It is after all, a business.

I found a dealer that sells this artist’s works but they wouldn’t accept the painting for consignment. Why?

There are many reasons a dealer may not accept the work. But the most common one is that they don’t believe they can sell it. Dealers know what their clients will buy and they have to protect their investments as well. By the time a dealer takes on the cost of insuring, shipping and (if required) framing or having the work cleaned/repaired, it may not be worth the trouble to take on the consignment. Sometimes they may ask you to take on a part or all of these costs and you could see how this could add up and possibly deter you from the transaction as well.

Also, remember that if you’re in a hurry to sell your piece, this is a lengthy process. Rarely do dealers buy the piece from you outright. They will hold the painting under terms that if and when the work sells, they will send you a check for your share. A dealer’s cut can be any percentage you’ve agreed to but generally it’s 20-50 of the retail selling price.

Where else can I look to sell it?

Auction houses are a great resource for buying and selling works and would be my next suggestion for clients. Keep in mind you have to show proof of ownership whether it be a receipt or legal paperwork bequeathing the work to you (a will, notarized document) and provenance (a list of who the work has belonged to since it’s creation) only helps to make the piece more sellable.

Auctioneers have the same responsibility as a dealer has to represent, market and sell your work to the highest bidder so they also get to decide whether they will accept your piece for sale as well. This can also be a long process since sales may occur seasonally or bi-annually.

The auction house won’t accept it either. What do I do now?

A client asked if they could sell the piece on ebay themselves. I told them that it was a possible avenue but they should remember that they take on all liability of the sale. Meaning, if they advertise the work by a particular artist and it’s authenticated later that it’s not, they can be sued or have the price of the piece demanded by the buyer. That said, there are many successful sales on ebay. I just simply remind people to be wary and protect themselves.

None of the above worked. Why won’t anyone buy this??

It would be simple enough to say that in a low market, art isn’t selling. But that’s not the case for high end collectors as a recent contemporary sale proved for Sotheby’s and Christie’s earlier this month. So why hasn’t anyone bought your painting?

Let’s say you have a 1,000 people in a room. Only about 10% of those people are “art collectors”, or people that actively seek art from artists, dealers and fairs on a regular basis. Of those 100 collectors, perhaps only half of them may like the painting of flowers you’re offering but how many of them will actually want to buy it for the $3,000 that your mother paid for it? Unless it’s a known artist or they truly, truly love it, the percentage will be very small – maybe 2 or 3 people.

I wish I had better news for everyone that needs the extra holiday cash this season. But I wanted to give some realistic advice to help you better understand the daunting task of fine art collecting and selling. It’s not simply slapping on a price tag, unfortunately. It’s actually easier to sell a multi-million dollar work than a low or middle market one and this is true at almost any time in art collecting history. I’m always here for questions so please feel free to email me. Best of luck with your collection building!

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A Must-Do: Our Upcoming Class on Collecting Art

I’m really excited about the course I’m teaching at Washtenaw Community College this Fall. “Collecting Art: Deciphering What It Is and What’s It’s Worth” is going to be an engaging and interactive look at what the differences are between a giclee versus a painting versus an etching.* We’ll also look at the primary, secondary markets and auction house culture. Students will have the opportunity to bring in examples as we decide which ones might be worth money, why they are and what to do if you strike the jackpot on a great find.

Lithograph or etching? What’s the difference?

How do you tell the difference between an oil or acrylic painting? Or if it’s a painting at all…

Ask all the questions you want and learn about how to insure, maintain and start your own collection. Sign up is now open and only $39 for the two-day course. See you this October!

*If you want to find out the answers, come take the class!

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10 Questions About Art, Design and Photography That You Always Wanted to Ask but Never Thought You’d Get the Straight Answers To

1. Why does it cost so much?

The answer depends on where you’re looking at the piece you’re considering. Are you in a gallery? Consider the industry practice of 50% that goes to the dealer, the cost of framing, installation that’s sometimes taken out of the artist’s cut, sometimes the dealer covers, marketing and advertising, overhead (electric, rent, phone bill, etc). Are you at an art fair? Consider the insurance premiums, travel, hotel cost, shipping materials, gas/airfare for the artist and the blood, sweat and tears. You’re going to pay a premium but in this case, you may feel a personal connection to the artist and you have an opportunity to meet and learn about his or her work ethic, inspiration and vision. And that’s priceless.

If you’re buying a piece by a “known artist”, which I personally define as someone that has an auction record, studied in academic realms and is being shown in museums, or represented by a reputable gallery, you’re going to pay a premium because they’re sought after no matter what the subject matter, even if they’re considered a conceptual artist. Art prices driven into seven figures has to do with precedent set at auction and high end private transactions. Since auctions account for about a quarter of the art market, you can imagine how much it influences numbers.

If you’re vacationing and in a tourist gallery, you’re going to pay a premium whether the artist is known or unknown. Do not buy things based on what you’re hearing or what returns the dealer tells you are possible in the future. If you go to Hawaii and buy a $5,000 painting of a dolphin jumping out of the water, you better love the hell outta that dolphin. For a long time.

Painting by Jeff Wilkie

2. Do you shoot Canon or Nikon or something else? And does it matter?

People almost always ask this. Since its origin photography continues to be made more accessible to consumers. Does this mean there are more photographers out there? No, just more people that can take pictures. Photography literally breaks down to “light writing” meaning the ability to control or work with light to capture a scene or moment. Those that feel what you shoot with makes a difference are the same that thought Dippin Dots revolutionized ice cream. Cameras cost different prices so that camera companies can establish multiple markets. Sure, some cameras generate much larger files and/or capture repeatedly much faster than others, and if you have that need then that’s your answer, but realistically the entry level dSLR can achieve the same results, given the knowledge of controlling light.

3. Should I buy that painting?

If you love it/want to support the artist/know that you’re buying it to enjoy yourself and not impress anyone, then yes.

4. Where should I hang it?

Measure the height of the piece and make a note of the midpoint. That mark should hang 60 inches up from the floor. This is general rule of thumb and widely practiced by professionals in the field. If it’s larger than say, 20 inches in any direction, don’t hang it in a hallway where you can’t stand far away to get the full effect. Most people hang art too high and generally on a wall that’s not proportional to the piece. An 8 x 10 inch frame will look awfully lonely on a large wall by itself. A piece that size is better housed on an accent wall, nook or with other pieces around it.

Also consider humidity, how much direct sun and the amount of air conditioning that is directed at the piece. Oil paintings are extremely delicate to extreme changes in temperature and photographs should never be hung in direct sun. If you have the opportunity to, work with a professional framer so they can advise you on what kind of glass each piece should be housed under.

5. Why does the one on top cost more than the one on the bottom?

Eames Molded Plywood Chair at Design Within Reach, $840-$1,398

Plywood Lounge Chair at Totally Furniture for $122.55

In an era when upholstery was king in the household, husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames’s collaboration in answering a previous design flaw (from a competition that Charles had entered with architect and designer Eero Saarinen) resulted in the ubiquitous Eames Lounge Chair Wood or what is known in the industry as LCW. With two separate pieces and particular construction of separate molded wood and rubber mounts, the technology used to create this multi-layer chair was cutting edge at the time.

It was eventually noticed by George Nelson at Herman Miller at continues to be manufactured to their specific material and design plans today. The reason the chair on the top costs so much is because it’s a piece of art even though it’s been replicated many times. It can be resold, although some versions of LCW may resell for more than others depending on demand, quantity of that particular model and condition of each piece. On top of the quality and materials, you’re also paying a premium for the licensing namesake.

The chair on the bottom is a knock-off of the Eames LCW, looks about the same (although the variation in the plywood on the bottom is not nearly as marbled or visually interesting as the Eames), but the construction and design will not be of the same caliber. It will also not resell or appreciate over time.

6. How long should I linger at a piece when I’m at the museum?

Image via History Lines

There’s no simple answer to this but generally, I believe that most people don’t look long enough. Find the ones that speak to you and try to figure out why. What elements draw you to the piece. How do the colors make you feel? Will this stick with you after you leave? Are you intrigued to do some research about this artist after you leave? I hope these few questions may spark your viewing experience the next time you visit a museum.

7. When will it be worth more?

If you’re buying a work by a “known artist” (see #1), generally a decade will yield some sort of return higher or at least slightly higher than what you bought it for. That is, unless you overpaid for it in the first place (again, refer to #1 for a definition of where you might over pay for something). If you’ve been given a certificate of authenticity or promised it’s limited edition, I can sell you the chair I’m sitting in and give you certificate of authenticity for that too…

8. Why can’t I shoot/design/make it myself?

You can! All the credit to you if you do and do it just as well as the professionals!

9. Can I try to negotiate a lower price?

Sometimes you can. But I ask that if you’re at an art fair where you’re dealing with the artist directly, please don’t offend them. They work very hard to travel, create work, pay the booth fee, lug all their work there, sit/stand all day.  Maybe ask them to throw in a studio visit or deliver the piece if they’re local. If the piece is less than $500, I urge you not to negotiate at all. A dealer, go for it. But keep in mind they may take the loss out on the artist’s cut.

10. Who should I talk to if I want to buy art?

You should talk to us! We’ve dealt and handled everything from William Merritt Chase to Alexander Calder to Jen Stark. We’ll do the research to make sure that you’re buying what you can’t live without from a reputable source.

Photo of brokered work by Jen Stark, courtesy Carol Jazzar Gallery

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Event: Art Lecture at Ann Arbor District Library

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Ann Arbor District Library last night about the ins and outs of starting a collection and what to look for when purchasing paintings, prints and drawings.

Collecting should be an art unto itself, pieces thoughtfully chosen for their content rather than for their complementary qualities to the furniture in the room. My main points included looking at genre (style) of art, mediums, value and how to make collecting relevant for you. Attendees had great questions and seemed to have a firm grasp of the direction of the art scene. We also got to speak with a few collectors about the things they were wondering about in their home.

By the end of the evening, I was happy to share my personal collecting mantra:

Thank you, Ann Arbor District Library and Cecile for your partnership and efforts!

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How to Bid at Auction, the Fun Way (part 2)

Last week I did an introduction on bidding at auction and why you’d want to choose this competitive route for acquiring art. Today’s post is about which method to bid; whether you want to be present in the room, on the phone, on the computer or  leave an absentee bid.


Every method starts out pretty similarly. You fill out registration with your shipping information and method of payment. You’ll request or purchase an auction catalog which will include all the lots in the sale. (Seasoned and favored clients will receive catalogs for free at high end auction houses). From there start the differences. An absentee bid is perfect for you if you want a chance to win the item but not think about it again until after the auction is over. Or, you simply can’t be present in any other form to bid. For this, you’re filling in the highest amount you’re willing to pay in hopes that no other bidder tops the price via the room, phone or internet. It’s possible that another person’s absentee bid could be higher than yours, but you wouldn’t know this.

If you don’t want anyone to know that you’re bidding on an item, it’s easy to follow the activity in close to real time via the internet. It’s not quite as exciting and there’s always the risk of a delay, but for the most part, the auctioneer gives good consideration to online bidders.

Phone bidding is for those that want to be in on the action but can’t be present or want to stay somewhat anonymous. Auctions are held in many cities and will garner bids regionally, nationally and at times, internationally. Some collectors are on the phone themselves, others use a dealer or employee to bid on works for them. About three to five lots prior to yours, you’ll receive a phone call from an auction representative that will confirm the lot(s) you’re bidding on. Once they come to your lot, he/she should be telling you all the activity of the bidding including what increments the auctioneer is working the room at. (It’s solely up to the auctioneer’s discretion whether increments get larger, stay the same, or if things are dreadfully dreary, get smaller to encourage bidding). With phone  and online bidding, the anonymity also gives you the opportunity to follow the sale without having to bid.

The row of auction reps taking bids via phone.

By far the most exciting and nerve racking is the art of bidding in person. Once you’ve registered, you’ll be given a paddle with a number on it. You can simply sit with this paddle and never bid. Or, as you browse through your auction booklet you can see the lots that you’re interested in and see what order things fall into place. Consider that each lot usually takes about 1-3 minutes. Sometimes things are “bought in” or unsold or will go much longer as a battle for the item plays out.  That’s when things get really good as bidders do battle for the coveted item via phone, internet, or in the room. Many seasoned collectors will not use the paddle once they’ve shown it once. A good auctioneer will remember where bids have come from in the room and a wink, slight nod or tilt of the head will tell him/her that you’re still in the game.

As the bidding slows down, the auctioneer will say the infamous phrase, “Going once, going twice and SOLD to the lady in green, bidder paddle 323/to phone bidder/to the online bidder,” as they slam the hammer to close the lot.

An engaging auctioneer, such as Sotheby's Head of Contemporary Art Tobias Meyer, will drive sales and put on an incredible show.

If you’re lucky enough to win a piece, Congrats! It’s a great feeling to win something in competitive fashion. There will be an invoice billed to you that day or sent to you.There’s usually a couple weeks before items are crated or boxed and ready to ship if you’re out of town. You also have the option to pick things up yourself.

Although the theme of my posts has been about art, auctions are a competitive and exciting market to acquire objects at a price that you’re willing to pay. Many times you can get what you want for a steal but it can also become an expensive status-building social scene. Either way, the auction culture is one that’s exhilarating, educational and full of surprises. If you ever want to go to auction or just go to a preview, give me a call. I’d love to. Happy bidding!


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How to Bid At Auction (the fun way) – part 1

Liz Taylor’s jewelry brought a pretty penny to Christie’s, breaking records left and right earlier this week (and they continue until December 16th). Auctions are probably one of the most entertaining cultural past times I’ve ever taken part in. Not only is the excitement of seeing who’s going to outbid who, scintillating, the people-watching is phenomenal. Auctions unlike purchasing items in a gallery or retail store, are meant to be the barometer of the market, a test of what’s to come. Generally speaking, bidding is meant to be competitive and fall under prices paid in the retail market. Their are exceptions, of course. The first are items that have social and cultural importance such as Liz Taylor’s belongings. It matters what the provenance is (the lineage of who has owned the item or work) and celebrities can bring top dollar depending on who owned it and/or who purchased it for them.

This pearl, diamond and ruby necklace by Cartier ultimately sold for $11,842,500. It's estimate was for $2-$3 million.


I’ve broken down the major parts of buying at auction and highlighted key terms in bold. If you have a question, feel free to email me.

Not every city will have a Christie’s or Sotheby’s but there will some form of auction in your area whether they have a brick and mortar location or are a seasonal pop-up event. You can get just about anything at auction but I’m going to speak solely about bidding for art. First of all, I suggest bringing a friend. If for nothing more than someone one to roll eyes with and make small hand gestures, it’s a great social event and having someone to talk to about it later is priceless.

My first experience at an auction was ten years ago when I read about it in the paper. I drove to the Hilton, registered my credit card with a paddle number and foolishly won a carved, wood side table with slots for wine. It didn’t matter that I didn’t drink wine or that I hadn’t inspected it closely. I had won it and the feeling was sublime – until I had to lug it out to the car myself. (This is where bringing a friend comes in handy). Had I inspected it more closely, I would have noticed that the dovetail joints had come apart on one of the lower legs. Normally, you could take a rubber mallet and pop it back in place but this wood was so warped from moisture damage that it would have been impossible. Lesson learned.

Here are the major steps for research prior to the auction.

1. Get a condition report

2. Inspect the item firsthand and/or attend the preview

3. Understand the estimate and nail down your financial limit including fees (shipping too)

4. Decide if you’re going to bid through absentee bid, phone, online or be present in the room.

First and foremost, inspect the goods in your lot, the number assigned to your piece(s). Request a condition report. For art, this is common practice. No matter the price point, the piece should have been inspected by a specialist and a report, no matter how short, should have been produced. It will give you the current condition of the piece starting all the way from “excellent” to “good”. Very rarely do reports tell you that it’s a bad buy! If you’re in the area and can do so, go to the preview and drink the champagne! Usually this will occur a few days before the auction and all the pieces will be available to see. Specialists should be on hand to answer any questions you may have.

I wonder if Samantha remembered she had to pay the "stiff" on that ring.

The estimate that’s included with the item means that’s the fair range the house thinks it will sell for. A few words of caution, however when you’re looking at the estimate. Sometimes, a reserve, a price that the seller has been promised a minimum on, has been worked into the price. If it doesn’t hit this number, they don’t have to sell it. As the buyer, you don’t have the knowledge of a reserve but as you get more experienced at it, you might be able to gauge when a reserve has been set in place. This can account for what some may see as a high estimate from time to time. If an estimate seems low, the house may have set the number so that the seller will be tickled when it sells for many times more. This practice is not necessarily illegal but a nuanced practice that are unfair to both the seller and buyer.

Once you’ve decided which piece(s) you’re going to bid on, read the fine print carefully. Every piece will have a buyer’s fee or premium (or what my ex-employer called the “stiff” – great name). This is the amount that the auction house gets for brokering the sale. Most will have different price points at which the percentages will change. I’ve included Christie’s buyer’s premium list here as an example. As you can see, it’s quite a consideration when bidding and many forget to include the “stiff.” On top of this fee, consider the shipping fee which you should get an estimate on prior to bidding. Even if you purchase a $300 vase, the crate or Strongbox they use to ship it will most likely cost more than the item itself.

I’ve bid at auction in the room, on the phone and have even been on the other side taking bids over the phone for collectors during an art auction. It’s an exhilarating experience and if you can, I recommend going to live auction at least once. That said, not all auctioneers are compelling to watch. They can have off days too where they hold the bidding too long if the prices aren’t coming in well or the pieces aren’t selling, in which case they’ll refer to this as “bought in“.

If you decide to do an absentee bid, you’re going to fill out the form with your credit card or bank information and leave the maximum number you’re willing to shell out for the piece. If you go with a phone bid, you’ll have registered in advance and will receive a call about 4 to 5 lots before your piece. For an online bid, you’re actively on the house’s website and watching the bids in real time. And the golden experience of them all, is being in the room itself when the bidding is going on. Most will not have the excitement of an evening Contemporary sale at Sotheby’s but it’s still a great learning experience. You don’t have to have a paddle to sit in unless it’s a big sought-after ticket so go in and enjoy the people watching with a friend!

Later this week I’ll go into the intricacies of how to bid with each method. Happy bidding and good luck!


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