Monday, 10 March 2014

How to bid at an art auction: My day at Cheffins Auction House, Cambridge


On Sunday, I visited Cheffins Auction House in Cambridge.

It was the first day of the 'viewing'.  This is when people who want to bid for something at auction go to inspect the objects.  Of course, you can also go if you want to buy nothing and just have a look around.

The room was full of paintings, prints, drawings, pieces of furniture and fittings, stuffed animals, jewellery and other objects.


The art is not labelled, as it is in a museum or gallery.  Instead, each item has a number attached to it.  This is the 'lot' number, and in an auction house, each individual item is called a 'lot'.


For example, this charming leaf from the Persian poems of Hafiz is Lot 570.

photo 1

The place was crowded.  People milled about, peering at the art, bent over the jewellery cases.  They were mostly middle-aged and well-dressed.  One had a dog in tow.  I didn't want to take photographs of strangers so this snapshot of legs must suffice to give an impression.


There was a little tea room, too.  I had no time to sip a tea but it looked very inviting.  The viewing was only for 2 hours.


The sales catalogue was on sale for £10 but a few sale room copies were lying around for consultation.

photo 5

When you open up the catalogue, this is what you see:  every item illustrated, with its lot number and a brief description.

photo 3

Below, for example, is the catalogue entry for a lovely landscape painting by an artist called Clarence Henry Roe.  It's Lot 458.  The catalogue tells me the name, dates and nationality of the artist, the painting's title, medium and dimensions, and lists any inscriptions, such as a signature.

The catalogue also gives the work's provenance, that is, where the work comes from.  This painting was in a private collection in Scotland before it arrived in Cheffins sales room.

Right at the bottom is the price.  This is the 'reserve' price; if several people bid for an item, the price could well end up higher than this.

photo 4

Here is the landscape painting by Clarence Henry Roe as it was displayed in the sales room.

photo 2b

Bid forms were lying around the viewing room.

What you fill in:  auction date and title, your name, your company name (if you have one), your address, your phone number and your email.

Then you write down the lot number that you'd like to bid for, copy down the description from the sales catalogue, and write down your maximum bid.  (This is the highest amount that you are prepared to pay.  If bidding goes up any higher, you don't want to buy the item.)

Once you've handed this in, you'll be given a client number.

photo 1a

I was nervous about submitting a bid there and then.  I wanted to think about it some more so I went home, thought about it for two days, and then went on-line to submit my bid via the web.

Here is the auction's web page:

cheffins online cat page

Everyone can look at the sales catalogue.  But before you can enter a bid, you have to register with to the auction house website, with your name and contact details. You then sign in with a password.

Here's a screen shot of the bidding page for the landscape painting by Clarence Henry Roe I looked at earlier.

There are fields that you would complete if you wanted to bid for this painting:  the amount of money that is your maximum bid, your email and phone number.

The estimate for this painting is £200 - £300.

cheffins your bid

I didn't attend the auction itself as I had to work.  But I did check how it turned out afterwards.  The screenshot below shows that the Clarence Henry Roe landscape (Lot 458) sold for £360.


By the way, I didn't get the work I'd bid for...  Better luck next time!  I'll definitely try this again.  It was super fun!

I used to think auctions meant women in fur coats, Van Gogh paintings sold for millions of dollars and James-Bond villains lurking behind the pot plants.  But no!  It can be something much more accessible!

Have you ever bought anything at an auction?  I'd love to hear from you in comments.  Click on the little pencil icon below.

Visit Cheffins Auctions.

Follow Cheffins on twitter: @CheffinsFineArt

Art bidding for beginners (a 2011 article by journalist Jonathan Gornall)

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