The fine art of bidding for antiques at auction
The fifth and final part of our series exploring the antiques market in Ireland offers advice to would-be auction-goers
James O’Halloran and Eamon O’Connor auction a Paul Henry painting, ‘The Bog Road’, which fetched €73,000 at Adams in Dublin in 2010. Photograph: Alan Betson
Buying fine art and antiques can be done through private galleries, specialist shops, via dealers, at fairs or even from car boot sales. These options generally offer customers the comfort of fixed pricing. Buying at auction is normally better value but can be nerve-wracking and requires advance research and planning.
Buying fine art and antiques was once considered elitist but has become much more democratic, mainly thanks to the internet. The web has radically transformed the business, allowing collectors, investors and even just occasional buyers an almost unlimited selection of items available to buy at anytime, anywhere, with the click of a mouse. Most of the big Irish auctioneers now publish online catalogues and many broadcast their auctions live on the internet. Online bidding is surging in popularity and, for some auctions, already accounts for around 20 per cent of bids. The internet also means that Irish auction-goers are now competing with bidders worldwide.
Picture this. It’s 6pm in Dublin and a much-admired painting by a sought-after Irish artist is about to go under the hammer in an art auction. The saleroom is buzzing with anticipation. The bidding has reached €60,000. Then a member of the auctioneers’ staff, on the telephone to a client in New York where it’s lunchtime, signals a bid of €70,000. Ten thousand miles away, an Irish emigrant is watching proceedings live on a computer screen in Sydney. It’s just after 3am. The auctioneer scans the room. The painting is going once, going twice... but, just as he’s about to bring the hammer down, he gets a signal that an online bid has come in for €80,000. No higher bid is forthcoming. And so, the painting is “gone” and sold to the web bidder in Australia.
But before bidding at all, whether online, by telephone or in the saleroom, there are some ground rules which all auction-goers need to consider. First-time buyers, especially, should get to know the market. Go to a few auctions, as an observer, not a bidder, to learn the ropes. Read the catalogues, which are usually free online, and, given the quality of research and production, often very modestly-priced for a paper copy. Go to viewings. Examine the lots on display. Ask questions. Learn the jargon. The websites of the big auction houses have oodles of useful information and there is virtually no end to the research possibilities on the internet whether your field of interest is Sèvres porcelain or 19th century art.
“How much is a painting or antique worth?” The honest answer is: “Whatever a purchaser is prepared to pay on a particular day.”
Antiques such as furniture, silver or porcelain have some intrinsic value but prices largely depend on rarity, condition, provenance and fashion. Technically, an item is regarded as “antique” if it’s 100 years old which now applies to all items made before the first World War.
But more recent “vintage items” – such as mid-20th century film posters or “designer watches” made just a decade ago – are frequently included in antiques auctions.
Seek good craftsmanship
Good quality antique items are often more likely to appreciate in value because the craftsmanship and skills of, say, an 18th-century Dublin silversmith or cabinet-maker have vanished forever. Seek out talent, good craftsmanship and authentic provenance.
A painting has no real intrinsic monetary value. Whether an oil-on-canvas or a watercolour-on-paper, the material cost is minor and the frame can often cost more than the actual picture to make. What art buyers are ultimately paying for is the creativity, inspiration, time and beauty of the artist’s output. Most art will never become valuable.
“What to buy?” is a frequently-asked question. And the best advice is: “Buy what you like at a price you can afford.” If you’re buying art or antiques with an eye for investment remember that, just like the stock market, prices can, and do, rise and fall. However, if the price seems too good to be true then beware.
Much like property, the fall in prices of fine art and antiques since the crash of 2008 is attracting bargain hunters. Auctioneers claim there is “value” in today’s market and that clients can buy items for less than half what they might have paid five years ago.
As the autumn auction season looms, prospective buyers might keep in mind this advice from Rory Guthrie of de Veres art auction rooms: “The beauty of owning a piece of art is that it is an investment that can be enjoyed. Its value may go up or down but the painting doesn’t change and it certainly won’t disappear in front of your eyes like a bank share.”