Art Demystified: What’s the Point of Auction Estimates?

Estimates, explained.

Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen of Christie's. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

What is the purpose of estimates at art auctions? And how do auction houses use estimates to entice potential buyers into making bids?

Auction houses assign estimates to artworks in order to give potential buyers a ballpark range of the value of each work.

“Auction estimates serve to create a context for clients that helps them understand what the current market is,” Shawna Brickley, senior specialist for prints and multiples at Bonham’s New York told artnet News in a telephone interview. “All of out estimates are based on auction records for comparable items that have come up for sale in the last couple of years. So we take those sales records and create a median range in which we feel the current market exists for that particular piece.”

Estimates help give context for bidders at auction. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Estimates help give context for bidders at auction. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

In some cases auction houses have been known to alter estimates by publishing a lower figure to encourage collectors with the prospect of a bargain; or conversely to raise the estimate to entice bidders with the perception of high quality. Brickley insists, however, that in an age of price transparency aided by online databases such as artnet’s proprietary Price Database, such practices are outdated.

“I find that if my estimates are too high it immediately scares people away from participating,” she said. “We will always hope that an item will reach its potential, but we don’t do anything other than provide the most honest information that we can.” She added, “Our clients in many instances have the same information we do, so they’re very well aware of the market themselves. They know when something seems unusual.”

Brickley also stressed that value is just one bit of information that interests buyers at auction. “People collect artwork for a number of reasons, one of course is for investment […] but a lot of our clients collect for more academic reasons […] Value is certainly very important, but we’re also dealing with this on an emotional level, it’s not just entirely about the money.”

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