What is an Art Auction?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An art auction is an auction at which art is offered for sale. Art is often auctioned separately from other types of valuables because it is unique, and it appeals to a specific demographic. Art auctions can include paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture. Items like antique books, jewelry, and garments may be offered at some art auctions, depending on the nature of the auction. Auctioning art at an art auction can allow people to fetch a higher price than they might at a general auction.

Art auctions may include antique books.
Art auctions may include antique books.

When art is offered for auction, the first step is finding an appropriate auction house or auctioneer. The auction house will investigate the provenance of the piece, confirming that it has legal paperwork documenting ownership and conducting tests to determine whether or not it is genuine. The process can also include research into the history of the piece. The piece is also valued, so that people have an idea of how much the art is worth, and the value may be used as a basis for a minimum sales price.

The auction house advertises the piece in an appropriate art auction, providing a writeup describing the artwork, and on the day of the auction, people can bid for the work. Auction houses often allow people to bid by phone or online in addition to in person, making it easier to participate in auctions around the world. For high end auctions, people may be required to present proof of funds for purchase. At the conclusion of the auction, the piece is sold to the highest bidder, who must present payment promptly.

Art auctions can be tricky to manage. Each work of art is unique, making it difficult to estimate value or to determine how people will respond. Works by famous artists can fetch extraordinarily high prices, especially if they have an interesting history; a work owned by a famous person, for example, may sell for a price higher than expected at an art auction. Trends in art are also constantly changing, which means that a craze for one artist or style can be quickly succeeded by interest in something totally different. Auction houses must organize the contents of auctions carefully, and time their auctions with equal care to fetch the best prices.

When art is sold at auction, the auction house collects a percentage of the price as a fee. This fee covers the work of the auction house, including securing the artwork, investigating this history of the art, and managing the art auction itself.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@cmsmith10: I live in Pelham and I also collect art. There is a great art auction that is held once a year called the Annual Hope Chest Party and Art Auction. It is located in Homewood. It is usually around March every year.

This particular auction is the primary fundraising event to benefit Children’s Aid Society. It is a public auction. There are live and silent auctions featured. They serve refreshments and it is really a good time and a great opportunity to snag some new art. Some of the artists help to decorate miniature hope chests to showcase for the event. I think the tickets are usually around $30-$40.


My family and I just recently moved to Birmingham, Alabama. My husband is an avid art collector. Does anyone know of any art auctions in the Birmingham area?

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