Art Auctions through the eyes of an intern.- Summer 2018

Through the eyes of an intern.

Heritage Auction


Price realized so far $1,099,498

12% failed to sell


Sold. Sold. Sold to Bidder 104. Next item. Again, and again hours on end. My first experience with an auction was not for someone’s personal gain but a community fundraiser. The current economy was good and everyone was there to give money and reach a common goal. Every item caused a bidding war even for insignificant items. Watching something with no historical value sell for as much as it did developed my opinion that antique art auctions would be even more exciting.  What I expected was watching hands shoot up into the air as the auctioneer spoke a million miles a minute. Every historic and rare item cataloged would be excitedly handed to its new owner. Within the first couple of minutes and a few pieces later my idea was rectified by the lack of eagerness shown by bidders, lack of money reaching the estimated value of the pieces and the fact that some did not even make the sale was shocking.

Walking into the auction room that morning, the first thing that I notice is the lack of people present for the live auction. Granted this is my first art auction and new technology gives people the opportunity to bid online or call in a bid, but I was expecting something with more bustle. Art auctions have been happening for centuries and the excitement in the room was less than what I expected. Lining the front of the podium are about 12 phones which are common but what caught my eye were the lack of people manning the phones once the auction had started.

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This sale offered 573 lots that included American Indian, pre-Columbian and tribal art. About 12% of the lots did not sell during the live auction and many of the lots sold below the estimated price of the piece. Many of the pre-Columbian pieces did not sell or did sell for way below estimated price. The Olmec Jade Figure estimated for $100,000-150,000 did not sell nor did the Olmec jade maskette est $30,000-60,000.  This makes me wonder, as I sat in the room with my catalog and highlighted pieces, did these people know something about these “rare” artworks that I did not. As customers, we are trusting that every auction house is making the ethical decision of only putting items that are authentic, to their best knowledge, up for auction. Was something wrong with the piece? Does this dramatic pass on a rare piece reflect the auction house or the changing opinion of beauty and importance in art at this specific point in time?  Further, as I flipped through the results and compared them with the prices I thought everything would sell for, I was shocked to see the results. In my own opinion as an intern, when over 700 bidders participate in an auction and only 30 lots go significantly beyond the estimated price, it does seem disappointing.

Looking back on past ethnographic art auctions at the Heritage auction house I noticed that over the past few years the total priced realized has been between $100,000 and $600,000. That is a huge difference when comparing the sale this summer which reached above $1,000,000. The main thing that caused this significant jump was  the Kiowa ledger book drawings that were estimated at $60,000 to $80,000 but sold for well over $300,000.Without that sale, the entire sale would have been average.

Being involved in the auction as a potential buyer was a fascinating experience. The complex process of an art auction combined with this particular sale seemed like a roller-coaster ride to me. The risks involved are far higher than I could have imagined and it all centers around knowledge. Knowledge of the market place. Knowledge the buyers have. Knowledge the sellers have. Knowledge the specialist has. Knowledge of the current demand. And the trust that each person involved is correct. Continuing, the answer I have regarding the success of this auction is complicated. They sold most of their pieces but most of them were below the estimated price. This is the best ethnographic sale they have had if you only compare the total prices. The success of the auction essentially depended on one lot containing the ledger book of drawings. So would a consignor be encouraged to consign to future auctions possibly not. However, would a prospective buyer be encouraged to check out future auctions? Absolutely!!

Emily Duffy, Intern