A Bibliography of Art Auction Terminology

It is a blood sport in the art world: affluent collectors and art speculators vie for the best pieces that come to market in posh salerooms, giving entertainment for the rows of observers. Successful auctions are seen as a sign of further growth for the art market itself, with art auctions online and offline being great hits. It’s a lot of fun to watch, with record prices creating gasps and cheers and famous bidders causing a stir for knowledgeable ones. Art auctions can appear incomprehensible riddles to those unfamiliar with its baroque logic. The following is a dictionary of auction phrases to help people understand how these glitzy events work.

  • Bidder – Contemporary-art travellers’ younger generation tends to veer toward the aggressive and in-your-face bidders (sometimes in the manner of Guy Fieri). Bidders are people who bid at the auction with the intention of buying the art pieces at the best price.
  • As the auctioneer’s Excalibur, the hammer is used like that of a conductor’s baton or a judge’s gavel, and when it hits the ground, it signals the conclusion of the sale.
  • The auctioneer uses an auction block, the podium behind which he stands to whack something with a hammer. A work of art is claimed to “go on the block” when it is up for auction, but white-gloved handlers strut out in front of the auctioneer or on a screen to display the work.
  • Bidding can also be done using a numbered paddle, the snobbish cousin of the ping-pong paddle; however, many high-flying purchasers prefer to notify the auctioneer discreetly with a prepared system of signs. Bidding expressions can be as basic as a nod or as complex as an entire language.
  • The work that is up for grabs in a specific round of bidding is referred to as a “lot.” A lot might be a single work, but it can also be a collection of multiple pieces.
  • One of the “three Ds” (death, divorce, or debt) is often cited as the reason for a consignor to put artwork up for auction.
  • The specialists at the art auctions online estimate the fair market value of a particular piece.
  • Connoisseurs who work for the auction house are known as “specialists”. They are responsible for everything from collecting the artwork to determining its market worth and providing historical context for the auction catalogue. For example, specialists are highly qualified individuals who travel the world to survey private collections in modern art or Chinese ceramics and paintings.
  • The auction house’s estimate of what a piece of art would sell for is published in the auction catalogues as a “bracket” around the appraisal. It is written in the manner of “$14,000,000 – $18,000,000” or a permutation thereof and contains a low estimate and a high estimate. Estimates are provided for each work, and an overall sale estimate is also given. A piece “sputtered and perished short of its low estimate,” etc., can be described in auction reports with great writerly joy.
  • Auction houses send out glossy, gorgeous brochures to collectors and other interested parties to pique their interest in the sale, provide estimates, and amplify the artworks on offer to get them excited. To compile a million-dollar catalogue for a large auction, expert art historians and photographers are hired to justify why a piece is worthy of a price tag that can reach astronomical levels.