Advice for the Art Seller

A viewer recently emailed me with an interesting inquiry, so I will share it with you here.  This potential seller owns a sculpture which she is interested in selling as she learned that prices for this sculptor’s work have tripled over the past ten years and that the works sold very well at a recent auction.  She contacted the auction house who just recently sold the work and asked them to give her a sense of her sculpture’s value at a future auction.  The auction house suggested putting a reserve price on the work should it come up for auction at half the amount the work sold for twelve years ago despite the surge in the art market in recent years.  The confused and upset seller asked me to explain what was at play in this situation and how she might sell her work of art for the best possible price.

My response was that the auction house is telling her what they think they can get for the work currently, so it may be a reflection on their ability to sell the work more so than on the actual value of the work itself.  In times like this, where the number and depth of buyers at an auction are not as sure as they have been in recent years, auction houses will cut the estimates on works in order to increase the likelihood that they will sell the art and not deter bids by an intimidating estimate.  They will also lower reserve prices to be sure the work sells regardless if the piece achieves a record price.  A recent article on Bloomberg explains more about this practice of cutting estimates and reserve prices in down markets.  If you are not prepared to accept a low auction reserve price, then perhaps this is not the right venue or time to sell your artwork.  Again, the low estimate or reserve is usually a reflection of the auction house’s confidence in their ability to sell the piece of art rather than on their opinion of the work of art itself.

There are some things one can do as a seller to try to achieve the best price for a work of art.  First, I advised the seller to go to competing auction houses for estimates on the current auction value of your sculpture.  For example, Sotheby’s might be a good place to consider once you have spoken with Christie’s and vice versa.  If the work is sought after perhaps one might be in the position to better the offer of the other.  Next, as the particular work at issue here was done by an internationally known artist who happens not to be an American, I would try the auction houses local offices – perhaps Asia, Spain or London might be a better sales venue for your sculpture than New York.  I suggested the seller inquire regarding the auction houses’ potentially differing opinions on saleability by location. 

Next, try regional auction houses such as Dawson & Nye in New Jersey, Skinner in Boston, Leslie Hindman in Chicago or Doyle Galleries on New York’s Upper East Side.  All cities tend to have such auctioneers, and they will often give you very different answers, again depending upon what they believe to be their chances of selling the work. 

Third, approach dealers who sell the artist’s work or that genre in general.  You usually get more money in selling a work privately (with a dealer or private buyer) than you would at auction once you consider fees involved.  A quick Google search (the name of the artist + the word gallery) brought up a good gallery which I suggested the seller approach.  If that gallery is not interested (always talk to the Director if possible, not the front desk assistant who answers the phone) then I suggested that she ask who the director or dealer thinks would be interested – dealers know their competition.  (Again, that may be an international dealer as well.)  Some art consultants, private dealers and galleries will advertise artists whose work they buy, typically on their websites and in print advertisements — the Internet can be a useful tool in locating the right venue in this regard as well.