Bidding at auction requires a certain amount of risk, but also a fair amount of luck. However, bidding at weekly auctions in low-end auction houses is relatively low-risk, rewarding and it's also an incredibly fun, social activity. Bidding at auction for newbies can be scary, and in the beginning I guarantee you will make mistakes. But given time and experience, you will understand quality, your personal tastes and establish your limits. This doesn’t just apply for fine art, but anything at auction from furniture, decorative arts, cars, sundries, etc.
However, for someone who bids regularly and has worked in auction houses, even knowledge doesn’t always help. Sometimes taking a gamble when bidding will be a Russian roulette of success or, more likely, failure. It is even more difficult with online sales where you cannot view the product before you bid, and you must judge from a low resolution photo on the internet. I will give you an example:
Last week, I was interested in a group of pictures and prints in an online sale at a local auction house. As it was an online sale, the only way to see the item was a group photo on their website.
The group was valued at $20-40, pretty common for these types of estate auctions where items need to sell without reserve. Viewing the image I noted an Oriental-style painting in the lower right (1). From my knowledge of the style, I could tell it could possibly be by prolific Belgian artist, Jules Pierre (Jan) De Leener, who immigrated to Australia in the late 19th century. His artworks appear frequently on the secondary market and can make a few hundred dollars. Regardless if it was De Leener or not, it looked like a nice, saleable picture. So if i'm sensible with my bidding, I know I could cover my costs. There also seemed to be a sketch, professionally framed with gilt trim (2) and an unidentified landscape oil in the back (3). Perhaps I would strike it lucky.
I bid and won the lot for $15 + buyers commission of 20% (commission is how auction houses make money). And yes, my bid was below estimate, which is also common; “You gotta be in it, to win it”. Once I picked up the pictures the next day I was able to see what I won, fingers crossed. Sure enough, the picture I spotted was a painting from Jan De Leener, painted in Jerusalem around 1890, before he moved to Australia.
However, on closer inspection, I noted the nicely framed sketch was actually a map of Egypt, framed in Cairo. The unidentified landscape oil was a interesting painting, but like the map, not worth much. One item I had not noticed in the group of pictures was a very old, double-sided painting with annotations that looked like Arabic script (4).
With very little knowledge of this style of painting, I spent about 30 minutes researching online (in most cases all you need). I discovered that this double-sided painting was an original Persian miniature of a man & his pet falcon, and on the other side, a wise man, painted in Iran around 1600AD. It is an amazing, rare find, completely by accident.
This is just one example of what can happen, and does happen quite regularly when buying at auction. How these artworks end up all the way down here in Australia is a complete mystery, but it happens. Taking a chance and building your knowledge and experience is truly rewarding. Instead of going to a fashionable print shop or a furniture outlet to buy an expensive reproduction, go to a local auction house and I guarantee, owning an original, hand-made artifact is cheaper and infinitely more fulfilling!! The trick is; buy what you like, because art is subjective, and you need to enjoy it regardless of it's worth. L