How To Navigate an Art Auction for First-Time Buyers

Auction Bonhams
India Phillips, UK Managing Director of Bonhams

Have you ever wanted to raise a paddle - of the auction room kind that is - and be part of a live art, jewellery or fashion sale but felt too intimidated to venture into a busy sales room alone? According to India Phillips, UK Managing Director of Bonhams, navigating a sale for the first time is easier than you think and a whole lot of fun. Here, we put our burning questions to India and gain a unique insight into how an auction at Bonhams works.

Can anyone participate in an auction?

Traditionally, people felt that auctions were unapproachable events where you would need a ticket to enter, which used to be the case with a lot of evening sales. The reality is we want as many people to come in as possible to experience a little bit of theatre. The more people who visit our sales rooms the merrier. Everyone is welcome.

How far in advance do you need to register for a sale?

People should feel really encouraged and happy to come in off the street to watch an auction, you don't even have to participate, no one in the room is expecting you to do so. In terms of coming into bid in person and raise a paddle, you can register five minutes before the start of a sale. It's an incredibly simple process. All you need is ID and proof of address to set up a new account, get your paddle and go straight into the room and start bidding.

Who would be best placed to answer any questions?

Prior to a sale, connect with a dedicated Bonhams sales specialist. We are here to impart our expertise and answer any questions so don't be afraid to reach out. If you have your eye on a particular piece, ask the Bonhams specialist about comparable works that have been sold in order to get an idea about prices because, obviously, an estimate is only a guideline, not the final price you are going to pay at the auction - it could be less it could be more. Then, ask yourself how much am I willing to pay? What's my limit? This should stop you from getting completely overexcited and biding over and over again.

How important is it to do your homework ahead of the sale?

A bit of homework is useful when bidding for a lot for the very first time. I would recommend getting in touch with the relevant specialist working on that particular sale. Start by saying that you are interested in one of the pieces in their sale and then discuss how you would like to bid - be that by phone, online or via an absentee bid. Next, ask for any information about the work that's not covered in the basic catalogue description. Since this relates more to the object's condition, ask questions such as, has it been restored? Is it in mint condition...?

How do you stop yourself from getting caught up in the moment?

It's easy to get nervous and overexcited as the sale is a time-sensitive thing and you don't want to miss your opportunity to bid. If a lot has already attracted plenty of interest there's normally a flurry of activity at the start of the sale. This is when it can be easy for your bid to get lost amongst it all and for you to lose energy. So, let the first tranche of bids happen until you see it's between maybe one or two bidders and then at the point of calm, where there is hesitation on the part of one of the bidders, then that's when I would bid as it means you will get the auctioneer's attention. Of course, if you see no one is bidding to begin with and you want to obtain an item on a low estimate, then go for it and bid first.

How do you avoid making a rookie error?

Don't worry, you're not going to end up buying anything by mistake. People say, "Don't scratch your nose or touch your glasses!" But auctioneers are real pros. They know when someone is bidding. You do get people who like to bid in an inconspicuous way but they always manage to signal to the auctioneer first. This is an open and communicative process where you can even speak to the auctioneer. For instance, if you are the one bidding and the next bid is £10k and it's at £9k, you can ask the auctioneer if they would take £9.5k for it. They may say no but you're being open, so you can't go wrong.

Are there different rules for bidding online?

If you were in the room then you would be looking at the auctioneer, raising your hand and making eye contact but as an online buyer you can't physically get the attention of the auctioneer so you need to bid a little bit earlier than you would in person. You don't want to miss that bid and have your click happen just before the hammer goes down so you'll need to react faster.

And finally, please sum up your sales room checklist

  • Come prepared with your ID and address to hand so that you can set up your account
  • Speak to a specialist and get as much background story as possible on the piece you are buying
  • When bidding for the first time in the room, make eye contact with the auctioneer, communicate with them and just enjoy the experience.

Why not put India's insider knowledge to the test at the upcoming The Craft of Luxury - Haute Couture and Handbags sale taking place at Bonhams New Bond Street (15-26 July)? Tag us on Instagram, @bondstreet, and show us your finds.