How to Auctions Work?

High-end art is one of the most elusive and glamorous scenes in the world. Think Saatchi and Saatchi, Sotheby’s, mingling with the elite, h’ordeuvres that cost more than a small car. The abundant money and capricious markets make art speculation an exciting endeavour. Take, for example, Vincent Van Gogh’s “Irises” which sold for almost $54 million before it transpired that the buyer couldn’t honour the loan that won him the bid. Or even more cloak-and-dagger, the murky world of imitation pieces. It’s like something out of a spy movie.

The art world is a high-flying, fast-moving and secretive community that can seem exclusive and impossible for regular people to get a grasp on. Well, in this run-down of the 101 of high-end art, we plan on putting a few things straight for you. From key names to how to get involved, think of this guide as a paint-by-numbers for people who want to learn more about this intriguing scene.

The Who’s Who of Auctions

Let’s look at some of the roles you’ll hear in conversation.


This will be the person or institution listing the item for auction. The term ‘the three Ds’ is often humorously attached to this as the pieces are sometimes being listed as the result of ‘death, divorce or debt’. Ouch.


Specialists are the type of people who crop up in antiques shows on TV giving their expert advice to confused buyers. They train for years to become connoisseurs in their chosen field, be it Chinese pottery, postmodern art or bespoke furniture. Jetsetting and knowledgeable, specialists exemplify all the panache of the art world.

Bidder/Successful Bidder/Under Bidder

Before you’re a buyer, you’re a bidder. As beautiful pieces are auctioned off, buyers in the audience vie against each other as bidders to secure their purchase. If a person makes the highest bid and the hammer falls, they become the successful bidder. The runner-up is known as the under bidder.

Bid caller/Auctioneer

Pretty self-explanatory, the bid caller is the person at the front of the room who actually auctions the pieces. They acknowledge the bidders and pace the action of the auction. The ability to remain calm but also speak quickly and clearly is very important.

The Big Names


Originally founded in Britain, this New York-based auction house is one of the most famous names in art as well as being the world’s largest art business. Class, pedigree and wealth all spring to mind when this illustrious names is mentioned.


An equal of Sotheby’s in tradition and renown, Christie’s is Britain’s key player on the art market. This auction house is situated on King’s Street, London and once facilitated the sale of James Bond author, Ian Fleming’s typewriter for £55,750. How fitting with all that British class and heritage!

Beijing Poly / China Guardian

It will come as little surprise to art-enthusiasts that China has a booming market for high-end art. Beijing Poly and China Guardian are the third and fourth largest auction houses in the world respectively. As China’s economy and middle classes blossom, more buyers are interested in purchasing back prized pieces from the west, so watch this space!

How to Become a Buyer

Given how exclusive and well-established the high-end art world is, it’s understandable that entering it is a challenge. Let’s look at some tips if you’re trying to get established on the scene.

Do Your Homework

It’s important to do as much research as possible before diving into this complex world. Who are your favourite artists? Check out their previous sales and familiarise yourself with how they are priced and who else is interested in their work. Databases such as Artnet (link: have information about past sales from all over the globe.

The Red Dot of Doom

See a red dot on a piece you really like? Too bad: the piece has already been sold. Take the opportunity to look at works you normally wouldn’t consider and at least familiarise yourself with the names and pricing.

No Hard Feelings

Given that the high-end art world spans the whole globe, it can also be surprisingly cliquey. So if you find that dealers only wish to sell to well-established buyers, don’t take it personally; they do this to protect the work’s branding. Start with smaller galleries and dealerships and establish your reputation.

Hire Help

Remember those specialists above? Well, as it happens you can hire your own connoisseur who will advise you on everything from quality, to history, to price. These experts can be found online, through fellow enthusiasts, or in newspapers and magazines.

Don’t Rush

Auctions are by their nature confusing. That’s why the bid caller has to be such a fast-mouthed, eagle-eyed authority on proceedings. While you’re learning, keep an open ear and watchful eye on how the auction unfolds. Take notes, ask questions from forums and anyone who’s willing to help you. Don’t jump in with both feet, but take things slowly and learn as much as you can.

Be a Super Fan

Go to as many galleries, auctions and art fairs as you can. Educate your eye by immersing yourself in the art world as much as possible. There are hundreds of resources out there to help you: magazines, television programmes, podcasts and web communities. The more you learn, the more you’ll understand your tastes and the art world as a whole. As an added bonus, you’ll boost your confidence when you enter galleries and auction houses.

Conclusion - Artful Choices

We’ve looked at some of the ins and outs of the high-end art world, the big players, and ways you can establish yourself. With so much advice available, it’s important to remember one key factor: stick to what you love. Even the best deal won’t be enough to satisfy you if it’s a painting or piece of pottery you’re secretly horrified by. Keep to pieces and artists that inspire you and make you feel like you’re making a great investment that’s right for you. With that, happy bidding and make sure to keep those elbows by your side at showings!

If you aspire to join the old masters or want to get into the world of high end art trading then you'll want to know more about these organisations, people and resources.

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About the author

John Thatch

John Thatcher is a computer science educated artist. He uses technology to solve artist problems. His friends don't like it when he speaks of himself in the third person. But John does it anyway, because he's a rebel.

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