So, You Want to Start Bidding at Auction. Here’s How You Do It

From registration to invoicing, here is your guide to bidding for artworks.

A bidder holds up his paddle at Sotheby's in New York City. Photo: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images.

From New York to London and Hong Kong, art collectors (or their advisors) are bidding at auction, raising their paddles and showing the world the top price anyone is willing to pay for an artwork on offer. It may be a multimillion-dollar sculpture by contemporary titans like Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama, or a humbler period room from a museum collection.

To a novice, the process behind bidding at auction might seem opaque. How does one register to buy? What is the best way to bid? Can you really buy an artwork accidentally by scratching your nose at the wrong moment? Whether a collector is buying at the big three houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, or Phillips—or via smaller competitors, there is a time-tested procedure to follow; and, yes, if you’ve got the itch, you could be bidding before you know it.

Why Buy at Auction in the First Place?

First of all, collectors might wonder why they would want to purchase an artwork at auction when they can buy at art galleries, through private dealers, or via other channels. What is an auction’s value proposition? It’s apparently a convincing one; according to the latest Art Basel/UBS Art Market Report, the auction sector accounted for some 45 percent of the global art market in 2023. 

For one thing, especially for beginners, galleries can seem forbidding and exclusive, with their high front desks and their waiting lists for coveted artists. Dealers even sometimes require collectors seeking works by in-demand artists to buy two and pledge to give one to a museum, in a practice called BOGO, for “buy one, give one.”

the exterior of sotheby's in new york. the building is tall and made of glass with multiple flags outside

An exterior view of Sotheby’s in New York City. Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images.

By contrast, says Andrew Huber, head of 20th and 21st century art for Bonhams New York, “At auction, it’s more democratized, and the painting or the sculpture is sold to the highest bidder.” There are no politics. What’s more, he says, auction houses sell in numerous categories, so they offer “a plethora of choice.” While galleries may specialize narrowly, an auction house contemporary art specialist, say, might be able to introduce a collector to a colleague who is an expert in those 16th-century Spanish manuscripts they never knew they needed.

How Do I Get Started?

Once a collector has decided to buy at auction, or even gotten their heart set on a particular lot, what comes next? 

First, they register for an account. They can do this via an auctioneer’s website, on the house’s app, by phone, or email with a client services department, or even, in some cases, when they show up at the sale. They’ll supply a government-issued identification and provide addresses, phone numbers, and all such basic information they give when signing up for an account with any business.

When it comes to attending individual sales, while Huber rests easier at night knowing how many bidders he should expect, people can be found at the entry to a sale, three or four deep, signing up to bid: registration, he says, “can be pretty instantaneous.” 

Auctioneer Veronica Scarpati at Christie's Art of the Surreal Evening Sale in London.

Auctioneer Veronica Scarpati at Christie’s Art of the Surreal Evening Sale in London. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s.

Especially for sales with higher-value lots, a collector might need to register for a particular auction to have their account connected to a paddle number. It’s recommended to get in touch 24 hours before a sale to ensure the account is up to date, but auctioneers will try to accommodate last-minute registrations.

For the biggest properties, like that multimillion-dollar Koons sculpture, of course, there’s no signing up at a folding table on the way in the door. By way of vetting and to avoid fraud, the house will require verification of assets or financial references. Aspiring buyers may also have to put down a deposit. 

It’s Go Time

When it comes to sale day, there are various ways to bid. There are old-fashioned ones: physically raising a paddle or absentee bidding, in which the auctioneer keeps the collector’s maximum bid in her “book” and executes it on the bidder’s behalf.

Regarding in-person bidding, there is a long-lived wisecrack for those attending a live auction: don’t so much as raise your eyebrows or discreetly cough, or you might accidentally buy something expensive. Experts say that’s nothing more than a joke, especially with high-value lots. Bidders do like to be discreet when in the room, registering a bid with just a nod of the head or a slight flick of their paddle—but there’s really no such confusion.

By 2024, we have reached an age where all-online bidding, whether in a sale that occurs over several days or during a live auction, has become a new industry standard, whether via website or app. Even valuable items can be bid on via phone: Huber says that one collector recently bid $650,000 via the app from a beach in Aruba, and in a live online auction, no less. 

One man kisses the head of another man who holds a phone in his hand

Christie’s rainmakers Alex Rotter and Loïc Gouzer celebrate after the gavel goes down. Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images.

Collectors can also bid by phone. In fact, the phalanxes of nattily clad auction house specialists, conveying bids from unseen buyers, have become as recognizable an icon of public sales as the auctioneer wielding the hammer; Loïc Gouzer took the winning bid on Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s New York in 2017 via land line. 

Who bids via telephone? Are those slots reserved for titans of industry who seek maximum discretion, like the Leonardo bidders?

Not necessarily. “At Bonhams you can sign up to phone bid on something with no reserve [a minimum price beneath which the consignor will not let go of an item] that might sell for $50,” says Huber. Some houses might set a minimum for phone bids, he said, but at Bonhams you can bid $100 or $1 million via that channel. 

In fact, bidding this way can be helpful for those who are unfamiliar with the process, since the specialist can walk the bidder through the sale in real time and offer a personalized experience.

The facade of Bonhams auction house in New York

Courtesy Bonhams.

After the Hammer Comes Down

What happens after you place the winning bid? 

It’s important that buyers be aware of the difference between the hammer price, which the auctioneer calls out as the hammer comes down, and the final price including the so-called “buyer’s premium,” or the house’s fees. Sotheby’s, for example, recently reset its fees at 20 percent of the hammer price up to and including $6 million and 10 percent for items that hammer above that threshold. 

Then it comes down to paperwork and logistics. The house invoices the winner for the final amount plus applicable taxes, custom duties, or clearance fees. The house can arrange shipping of the artwork, or buyers can arrange it by their preferred provider. Storage charges may accrue if the item remains at the house over a certain length of time. 

Once it’s delivered, it’s time for the buyer to set the work up in their home and enjoy it (or, increasingly, send it to storage at a high-tech freeport facility that helps them avoid customs, duties and taxes—but that’s a whole other story).

While it might seem like an elaborate arrangement, auction houses say they offer a frictionless and transparent experience. 

“People are sometimes a little worried about auctions,” Huber acknowledges. “It seems opaque or not the easiest thing to break into, but to dispel that feeling, just come in and speak to us. Those of us who have been doing this for a long time love auctions. We love to show people how easy it is to bid.” 

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.
Article topics