Thinking of buying at at an auction? Read this first

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

For the uninitiated, auctions can seem an impenetrable mystery. In the business for nearly three decades, Morgan O’Driscoll guides you through.

I’ve got this marvellous art work. I’m sure it’s a long-lost, probably priceless Paul Henry

You are not the only one. Much imitated, Paul Henry is a stalwart of the Irish auction scene. Some are worth more than others. Morgan O’Driscoll has an online form that allows you to upload images, including any signature on a painting. Or you make an appointment to bring work to their offices. They will do preliminary research, and if they think it is suitable they will give you an estimate, which is your guide price for the sale.

What if I think it is worth much more?

They are the experts, so you are better off being guided. Most auction houses have the same general approach, though the nitty-gritty varies. At Whyte’s, for example, you can specify a higher reserve, but in that case you will be charged if your item does not sell.

Ah, yes. Let’s talk fees

Fees vary, with Morgan O’Driscoll quoting between 10 and 18 per cent and Whyte’s quoting between 5 and 20 per cent, depending on value. Entry fees may also apply, so have this discussion up front. VAT is charged on fees. At Adam’s the seller’s commission varies, and their website quotes a flat fee of €25 per lot on unsold work. If your work is insanely valuable, you may be able to negotiate. In the untold-millions bracket, with the likes of Sotheby’s and Christie’s vying to sell, it is said people have talked fees down to zero.


How long does it all take?

The initial appraisal can take up to three weeks. Once accepted, it is another six to eight weeks. The auction house does due diligence to check everything is above board. They will create a catalogue, which may also be printed, and do some PR. This includes viewings. Some, such as DeVeres, show at their offices, or it could be at a venue. All the auction houses have comprehensive online guides, which are worth a read before deciding who to approach.

Now I’m thinking of buying. That Paul Henry is going to leave a blank space on my wall when it goes

With more and more auction houses moving online, the heady, and apocryphal, days of a wave to a friend accidentally costing thousands are going out of fashion. Online auctions are not quite as exciting, but they are convenient. If it is in person, you will register to bid, and get a paddle number. It is pretty fast paced, with DeVeres estimating they sell about a lot a minute.

And online?

Morgan O’Driscoll was the first Irish house to move to online auctions, in 2011, and it is very simple. You register with your name, address, phone and email. Add a credit card to bid, and off you go. You can, of course, also leave an online bid for an in-person auction, following the same process.

I’m still confused about bidding

Simple again: you will see either a “reserve” or a “starting bid” on the item’s listing. Decide what you are prepared to pay, and the bidding goes up in increments. “For example,” says O’Driscoll, “if you set a maximum bid of €400, and bidding reaches €340, then your next automatic bid is €360.” If no one else bids, it is yours for €360. Increments increase as the price goes up. You cannot be cheeky and try €341.26; it goes up in whole numbers – and bids are binding. Once your maximum is locked in, there is no withdrawing. Buyer’s premium, which at Morgan O’Driscoll is 25 per cent, is charged on top.

How about bidding at the final moment?

They have thought of that. A bid within the last five minutes extends the time by five minutes for that lot. Fair is fair.

The next Morgan O’Driscoll fine-arts auction takes place on Tuesday, October 24th, with viewings at the RDS, in Dublin, from Friday, October 20th, to Monday, October 23rd

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture