But for a Picasso print, a Tiffany tea service or vintage Navajo rug, you'll probably have more success by going through a traditional auction house.
According to Michael Mendelsohn, founder and president of Briddge Art Strategies, an art succession planning firm, your first challenge is to determine the right venue to sell your item.
Some auction houses specialize in certain types of property, some only take items of a certain quality, and others attract a particular type of buyer.
So enlist the aid of an expert art counselor who is knowledgeable about the most relevant marketplace to sell your specific item, what collections are coming on the market, and the timing and seasonality of the auction business.
Choosing a Venue
The big three traditional auction houses are
Sotheby's, which was founded in 1744, and Christie's, established in 1766, both hold hundreds of auctions each year of fine art, antiques and collectibles. Bonhams, doing business in the U.S. as Bonhams & Butterfields, was established in 1793 and holds auctions in 70 categories.
All three conduct live sales in their galleries with buyers bidding in the showroom and over the phone, but a new twist is their use of the Internet. This lets potential buyers check out photographs and written descriptions of the items, as well as bid.
Larry Canale, the editor-in-chief of
Antiques Roadshow Insider
, reports that the big auction houses are never going to discontinue their live sales, which have been so successful over the years, but they will also use the Internet as a selling tool.
You might want to choose a specialty auction house for a specialty item, as you could get a higher price than at one of the big three.
Specialty auction houses know the players in their markets, what it is you're selling and who is going to bid on it, according to a longtime antiques dealer and
appraiser J. Michael Flannigan.
Some specialty auction houses include
H.R. Hammer for stamps;
Greg Martin Auctions for armor, historical memorabilia and firearms;
Swann Auction Galleries for rare books and photographs;
Bertoia Auctions for vintage toys; and
Heritage Auction Galleries, the world's largest collectibles auctioneer, for coins and currency, Americana, comics and comic art and entertainment memorabilia.
Keep in mind, however, that certain specialty auctions are held once or twice a year. If you need to sell your property more quickly, it may be best to look elsewhere.
Dealing With an Auction House
You, as the seller or consignor, need to negotiate a selling agreement with the auction house.
This agreement clearly states all the terms of the sale, including fees. The consignment agreement gives the auction house the exclusive right to sell your item, from which the auction house charges you a fee (commission).
This commission, which varies by auction house, is usually 10% to 15% of the hammer price, which is the price when the auctioneer's hammer falls on the winning bid on a lot being auctioned. You may have some leverage in negotiating the amount of commission, especially if the item you're selling is highly desirable.
The auction house will set a presale estimate and, with your approval, a reserve price (the minimum amount that must be met before the item will be sold).
According to Mendelsohn, setting the reserve is an area in which an art adviser can play a role in making sure a collector is preserving the value of his or her collection.
The amount of the reserve should be stated in the consignment agreement, and estimates are based on the item's quality and condition, track records for similar pieces, recent market trends and inside information concerning specific buyers.
There are also situations in which an auction house must determine the value of a unique piece. Ideally, it should set the estimate range just right, for when the estimate is too high the item can be "bought in" (the item doesn't sell, and you, the consignor, buy the item back).
Your consignment agreement should also state what will happen if your item is bought in, doesn't sell or fails to make the reserve price -- and note that about 20% of items at auction are bought in or don't sell. Typically, you will pay a buyback fee to the auction house that is usually a percentage of the reserve price.
In addition to the commission, the seller pays additional costs, such as insurance, handling, photography and storage. These fees may also be negotiable.
For example, if your item is illustrated in the auction catalog, you will be charged a fee to cover the photographic costs. Since it is possible that your item may get damaged or lost on the auction house premises, it needs to be insured. Auction houses charge 1% to 2% of the presale estimate for this insurance, but often it's cheaper to obtain your own coverage.
There are many variables that need to be considered when consigning an item for auction, so be sure to understand that decisions you make will affect whether the item is sold and at what price.
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Malcolm Katt is the owner of Millwood Gallery in Millwood, N.Y., which specializes in militaria collectibles. He also co-authored the second edition of
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting an eBay Business