How To Buy Art At Online Auctions

How to buy art online at auction

There can be doubt, that since the reign of COVID-19 business has scrambled to increase its online presence in all respects. Hey, just look at us! To be honest though, it has been here for some time already but it is fast becoming one of the main ways to buy art. COVID was just the catalyst. It is only going to grow exponentially in the future, so it’s here to stay.

The great thing about online art auctions is that they open up an entire world market to the buyer. Long gone are the days of only having ones local gallery or auction house to buy from. However, if I can, I still prefer viewing art in person as it can sometimes be hard to gauge just what an item is like by only a photograph. Auction houses and other selling platforms though are now becoming so good at presenting their wares that the lines are blurring. Here are some ways to make the experience much simpler, less daunting and more exciting.

1. Specialise and research

With the sheer amount of art that is available online at any given time it is best to narrow things down to your specific interests. It is better for your budget, wall space and avoids being overwhelmed by all the choice. Do your homework, read as much information as possible, and view lots of images. Buy what you like, not what you think you should like. Curate your knowledge and become your own expert to avoid mistakes or regret.

Frances Hodgkins: Solva ( Fishing Village in Pembrokeshire ) watercolour & gouache on paper.

2. Set up alerts

Once you have decided what artists you’re interested in have a dig around online and see who has sold them. If an auction house or other platform has offered them, register for alerts for future auctions of your chosen artists. Even if you decide not to buy at first you can start by just tracking certain artists, keywords or genres to get a feel of things until you’re confident to buy. 

Set up alerts for online art auctions.

3. Make some friends

This is something to do in the real world, though you could obviously do a version of it online as well. Go to exhibitions, museums and viewings in your home town as often as you can. View as much as you can to develop your eye. Get to know the people who work in your local auction houses and galleries and chat to them about the market. They’ll have vital insights on what is selling, what to avoid and what to watch out for. Hopefully you’ll be able to support them as well from time to time.

Research for buying art online.

4. Visualise

Online buying platforms are now becoming so slick that they offer the buyer all sorts of interactive ways of viewing art digitally to assist them to visualise an item. Even so it can still be hard to gauge what a piece will look like in your own home. If you have a large TV bringing up the catalogue image on it can help. Or get a piece of cardboard and cut it to size and then place it where you’d like the artwork to go. If you’re serious about things you can even use a portable screen projector linked to your mobile phone or computer if you enjoy the techy route. Understand sizes such as the difference between inside frame measurement and outside frame measurement, not to mention to be aware of the different use of centimetres or inches.

How to visualise art when buying online.

5. Condition reports

Most auction houses will happily supply a condition report on any item you might be interested in purchasing. Make sure you use that service. Catalogue images and descriptions can often leave out vital information such as tears, foxing, fading, relining, repairs, etc. Knowing as much as you can prepurchase will help avoid any nasty surprises later. Also, check to see if the auction house has higher resolution images available as the ones displayed are often optimised, or decreased in size, for their website loading speeds and can thus leave out the finer details.

Condition reports for buying art online.

6. Understand the lingo

Auction websites will have a ‘how to’ or FAQs section where you can read all about how to register, a glossary of terms, bidding increments, etc. Make sure you familiarise yourself with them before you register to bid.

Understanding the jargon when buying art online.

7. The small print

If you buy a piece of art on auction, whether right down the street or on the other side of the world know that there are going to be additional costs on top of your purchase price. Buyers commission, shipping, insurance, customs duties are all costs that you should be aware of beforehand. Auction websites should have this information easily accessible, though you will probably have to research your own countries customs and excise laws.

Understanding the fine print when buying art online.

8. Online or virtual

These are two different types of online auction. Online is obviously just that. The bidder places a bid on their desired item on their computer and it is confirmed, normally via an email. If they are then outbid at a later stage they are notified and given the opportunity to place a higher bid. A virtual auction however is exactly like a real auction. In principle at least. The auctioneer should be visible on the bidders computer screen through a live feed as well as an image of the current lot. The bidder can then place a bid and duke it out with any other interested bidders in real time. Once bidding is completed the auctioneer will move onto the next lot. Virtual is more exciting and the bidder has a better chance to ‘read’ the auction progress than an absentee or static online bid.

The difference between online and virtual art auctions.

9. Provenance

If you have found a piece you are interested in make sure you ask for any known provenance or history to accompany your chosen piece. Having a strong provenance can really shore up the value of an artwork and in many cases is essential to have. If some kind of background cannot be given on a piece by a well known artist then raise your suspicions, and unless you’re very confident of attribution in some other kind way, consider walking away.

The importance of provenance when buying art online.

10. Emotions

Check them. Buying art is emotive and it can cost you dearly at auction if you set your heart too firmly on a particular piece that you must have. Decide what you are going to pay before hand, especially if you have a strict budget, and stick to it. You don’t want to get carried away, however if you think you might be able to win your lot with just one or two more bids over your line sometimes it is worth pushing it a bit. This is something that gets easier to do with experience but be careful, it is all to easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. Often the regret of not getting a chosen lot is worse than overpaying a little. I find that writing down my end or high bid on a piece of paper and having it in front of me helps, especially if buying multiple pieces at the same auction. Trying to keep it all in your head or take a ‘see what happens’ stance can be dangerous.

Emotions and overbidding when buying art on online auctions.

Buying art online at auction needn’t be daunting. It is an exciting and fun way to build your collection. Once you understand, and are confident, with the dynamics, and the mechanics, it will literally open up the whole world to you as you become an expert collector. 

Here are a few sites to get started and have a poke round:

LiveAuctioneers              Artsy              Invaluable           Artnet           The Saleroom

Online art auctions.

Here at iValuations you’ll find experts in over 50 categories of art, antiques and collectibles that are waiting to give impartial professional, affordable and in-depth valuation reports in a timeous and easy to use manner.