Maria Kornienko
January 2017.

Who decides the starting price of artworks sold at auction?

1 answer

Handing a work over for sale at auction is always a discussion that is held between the person owning the work and the auction house. Our specialists advise the owner of the work as to whether the timing is right, what the value might be and the best strategy to achieve the highest possible result, whilst respecting the artwork itself. Part of the expertise of a specialist is to understand a market that often moves quickly, particularly in Post-War & Contemporary Art. 

Anyone can bring an item to be assessed and valued by an auction house. The main requirement is that either the work belongs to you or you have written permission to offer it on behalf of someone else. This is called having ‘clear title’. Also, any piece that is offered at auction has to be considered auction appropriate: sufficiently valuable, interesting, representative of an artist’s best practice, authentic and in acceptable condition.

In some cases the price of an artwork can depend on who was its owner before. Take our sale of Lauren Bacall’s possessions in 2014. That sale was a ‘white glove’ sale which means that every single one of the 740 items – called ‘lots’ by auction houses – were bought during the sale. Many of the lots went for far more than expected because they belonged to such a famous film star. The same goes for works that have been in major private collections; just last year a painting by Frank Auerbach that was owned by David Bowie sold for £3.8m against an estimate of £300,000 – 500,000.

The death of an artist can cause a price to rise if the artist in question has a major gallery looking after their estate. Also, if a work has been exhibited in a major show of an artist’s work by a major museum, that could also affect the price of an artwork. BUT the key factor at an auction is that there is no hard and fast rule.

Time needed for setting a price depends on whether the work has to be sent to an outside expert for further authentication or whether restorers have to evaluate the condition of the work. So to answer the question: the owner makes the decision on the starting price of a work offered for sale, but it is the task of the auction house to recommend the correct estimate for the work.