Posted on: May 18, 2020

Beginner’s Guide: Buying Art at Auction

Buying art at auction can be a cost effective, rewarding and exciting way of acquiring works you love.  But it can also be intimidating and confusing for the beginner. In this guide we’ll try to de-mystify some of the more esoteric aspects of buying art at auction so that you can start buying with confidence. 

The Catalogue

The first sticking point for people new to buying art at auction can be the auction catalogue itself.  Art descriptions are often written in a kind of shorthand, so let’s start by explaining how works are described in our catalogue line by line, beginning with what you’ll see on the first line:

Often this will just be the artist’s name, followed by their birth year and (if applicable) their death year.  If that’s the case, it means that we believe the work to be an original piece by the artist named, which is nice and easy.  We might add the artist’s nationality to their dates, and if an artist is still working, we might also add ‘Contemporary’ to the first line to show this. We’ll also include the initials of any relevant body the artist is a member of. “R.A.” for example, means the artist is a member of the Royal Academy Of Arts.

So far, so straightforward, but there are several key words and phrases which could appear before the artist’s name that you need to be aware of too:

  • “Attributed to” means that we (and usually other sources too) believe the work is probably by the artist named, based on the evidence we have.  For example, we might use ‘attributed to’ if a work does not appear to be signed, but has a gallery label attached giving the artist’s name.
  • “Studio of” means that we believe the work to have been created in the studio of the artist, probably under their supervision, but not necessarily with their direct involvement.  This term is usually used to describe works created in the Renaissance, when many pieces were painted by assistants or pupils under the supervision of old masters like Titian.  But it could be equally accurately applied to some modern works by artists like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst.
  • “Circle of” means that we believe the work was created at the time the named artist was working, by someone working in the artist’s style, and possibly directly associated with them in some way (often, but not always, a pupil of the named artist).
  • “Follower of” means we believe the work was created by someone working at the time of or shortly after the named artist, who was familiar with the named artist’s style, but probably not directly associated with them.
  • “In the manner of” means we believe the work to be by a later artist working in the style of the named artist.
  • “After” is the word we use to describe a copy of a known work by the named artist.  This could be a painted copy of a painting, but it’s particularly used in relation to prints (although not Artist’s Prints – see our Beginner’s Guide To Fine Art Prints for more details).

If we can’t identify an artist, or describe a work by reference to a known artist using the key words above, we might instead refer to schools and periods, for example “English School (19th century)” or “Continental School (18th century)”.  These phrases are used to indicate the period and style of the work based on other pieces produced around the same time in the same area.

The next line in the description will give the medium the work was created in and the material it was created on, for example “oil on canvas” or “water colour on paper”. Although many works are on canvas or paper, you’ll also see works described as being“…on board” (meaning rigid artist’s board or hardboard), or “…on panel” (meaning a solid piece of wood).  If a work is described as being “mixed media”, it was created using several different materials, for example acrylic paint and fabric, or sand, tissue paper and magic marker.

The next line gives the official title of the work or, if it doesn’t have a title, a brief description of what it depicts using a broad category.  Descriptions like “Portrait of a lady in bonnet”, “Landscape with cows” or “Still life with fruit” are typical examples.

The next line is one of the most important!  It describes some of the features we have used to identify and catalogue the work.  Here we will refer to the location and legibility of any signature on the work, any date we can find on it, and any labels or titles attached to it.  Anything described as “verso” will be on the back of the work.  If we can’t identify an artist, and have therefore used “circle of”, “follower of” or “in the manner of” in the first line of the description, or just referred to a school and period, you’ll probably find that this line says “indistinctly signed”, meaning there is a signature but we can’t decipher it, or “unsigned”, meaning we can’t find a signature on the work; if we refer to a signature by name in inverted commas, for example “signed ‘Andy Warhol’”, this indicates that although the signature is present, we don’t believe it relates to the creator of the work.

On the next line come the dimensions.  Always remember that, unless otherwise stated, the dimensions given are for the visible image only, NOT the frame!  We always give dimensions height first, then width, and always in centimeters.

Finally we’ll state whether the work is framed, and if the frame is glazed.

Below the description you may also find a section called “Provenance”.  Here we’ll mention any other details we know about the work and where it came from.  This might be details of where it was bought (perhaps based on a gallery receipt or previous auction catalogue), details of the collection it came from, or biographical details of the career of the artist at the time the work was created.  Any documents referred to won’t be supplied with the work unless the owner agrees, but you can request copies (which will have any personal information blocked out).

Condition and Restoration

The best way to assess the condition of a work of art is to come and view it yourself on one of our pre-sale viewing days.  During viewing, you can look closely at the piece and ask a member of staff for it to be removed from the wall for closer inspection.  If you have any questions you can also ask to speak to the person who catalogued it.  If viewing isn’t possible (and given the current corona virus situation it may not be for a while) you can request a condition report on your chosen work.  If you request a condition report on a painting in one of our sales, in addition to a general description of the condition of the paint surface and any damage to the canvas or frame, you might find some other key phrases:

“May have been subject to restoration” or “Evidence of restoration” usually means that on close inspection under UV light there are areas of paint which fluoresce differently to the rest of the picture, suggesting they were added at a later date.  This is often the case when the back of the canvas has been repaired following damage, and the front has been re-touched (lightly overpainted) to hide the damage.

“Re-lined” describes the process of reinforcing the original canvas by attaching it to a new canvas lining.  This is complex work which should only be carried out by a professional restorer.  Re-lining is usually obvious from examining the back of the canvas.

“Frame may not be original” means what it says and in a lot of cases won’t be an issue (unless the new frame really doesn’t suit the picture!), but in some cases it may suggest that the picture has been cut down from its original size to fit the new frame.

 Artist’s Resale Rights

Whenever you buy something at auction, your winning bid will be subject to the auction house’s buyer’s premium.  When you buy art at auction, you should be aware that, in addition to buyer’s premium, your winning bid may also be subject to Artist’s Resale Rights (ARR).  This is an amount collected by the auction house and paid on to the artist who created the work or their estate, so that the artist can benefit from the sale of their work.  ARR is applied on a sliding scale to any work of art sold for over 1000 Euros whose creator is a member of the scheme.  Currently works sold for between 1000 Euro and 50,000 Euro are subject to ARR of 4%.  If Artist’s Resale Rights might apply to the sale of a work you’re interested in, this will be indicated in the catalogue.

Finally, always remember that our experts are here to help, and will be happy to answer any questions you may have.  If you need more information about a work you’re interested in, or about the process of buying at auction, just ask, and we’ll do our best to help you.

Now that you know a bit about how artworks are described in our catalogues, and some areas to look out for when assessing the condition of a work, you will hopefully feel confident to start looking for that perfect work to hang on your wall!  If you still have questions though, don’t forget that our team are on hand to help you every step of the way.

For valuations and advice on selling at auction, email your pictures to Our saleroom will re-open on 1st June 2020 for in house valuations by appointment only. To book your appointment call 01948 800 202.