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Why it pays to brush up on auction etiquette

It's not necessarily best to sit at the front and, generally, it's advisable to put your paddle away until you need it


Christie's employees take calls at an auction in New York in May 2000. Within the already rarefied subculture of the art world, auction houses are a preserve all of their own, with distinct practices, jargons and rights.


The fall auctions in New York, which start this week, will be especially high-pressure: between Sotheby's and Christie's, an unprecedented 19 artworks will carry eight-figure estimates, among them major works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Klimt, Monet and Picasso.

Before setting foot in any of those hallowed halls, then, potential auctiongoers -- whether seasoned collectors, urban anthropologists or eager newcomers -- would be wise to make a careful study of auction etiquette. To that end, a few tips on how to maximize one's chances while minimizing social blunders, and how to avoid common faux pas, including the most egregious one of all: overpaying.

"Let me put it this way," said Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby's. "If I were in the luxurious position of spending a large sum of money on art, I would like to have as much information as possible."

That means building a rapport with the auction house's specialists, who can provide crucial details about a work's condition, its unpublished reserve price (the lowest price a seller will accept) and what Meyer called "the level of interest in a work": who else is bidding and what they might pay.

"You need to do a lot of homework," said Adam Lindemann, whose book, Collecting Contemporary, includes interviews with many of his fellow collectors.

That homework includes studying an artist's previous sales. In recent years online auction databases like Artnet.com and Artprice.com have vastly increased the amount of available information.

But the art dealer Josh Baer, whose subscription-only newsletter, Baer Faxt, reports on the inner dealings of the art world, is skeptical of this data-driven "illusion of transparency." Database users focus too much on precedent, he says, and ignore other factors, like the condition of that particular piece.

"They think they have so much more information, when in fact they're over-informed but undereducated," he said.

Get a good seat

Auction houses fine-tune their seating charts up to the last minute to accommodate what Joanne Heyler, the chief curator of the Broad Art Foundation, calls the "layering of competition in the room." Some people may want to be seated next to their friends; others -- perhaps a dealer who, as Heyler said, wants "to bid aggressively on an artist they don't represent" -- might request the visibility of the center aisle.

As for the ideal location, "It's not necessarily what someone might think -- `the front row is best, the rear is a disaster,"' Heyler said. "Everyone has a purpose for wanting one part of the room or another."

Some dealers prefer to stand along the wall, for example, to better survey the action; others want to be near an exit so they can duck out for a quick consultation.

Except for the highest-profile evening sales, which require advance registration, auctions are open to the public. But even registering is simple, requiring only an official ID and some basic financial information. (You do know the name and number of your personal banker, don't you?)

When you register, you're given a paddle with a number on it, your only official identification. If you are an instantly recognizable scion of a fourth-generation art-dealing dynasty, you can probably go without; after Guy Wildenstein, the president of Wildenstein & Co, bought a US$4.4 million Bonnard landscape at Sotheby's last November, auction staff members tried in vain to place a paddle in his hands.

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