Buying art at auction

By | January 22, 2016

charlestonGOING ONCE…

Art auctions are an interesting experience: fast paced, sometimes unexpected, and usually exhilarating. The hours whiz past as the auctioneer rattles out non-stop numbers. The pieces are brought forward quickly and disappear as soon as the hammer (or hand?) goes down. And the busier the auction, the quicker the auctioneer pushes them through. No, you don’t have time to umm and ahhh. If you want it, bid! “You snooze – you lose” is the motto here, and that was exactly my recent experience at Charleston Fine Art Auctions in Brisbane.
Charleston is a Sydney based team established in 1997 and running fine art auctions in all major cities in Australia, specialising in paintings, sculpture and hand-woven rugs. So what sort of art might you expect to see at an auction like this?  You will find pieces that have not been sold during commercial gallery exhibitions, art from private collections, and perhaps final pieces in series of paintings or sculptures that need to go to make room for new works in an artist’s studio. The Charleston team believes that “fine” art should not equate to “elitist”, that it should be accessible to people, and fun to buy. So if you are looking for a long lost Rembrandt, you won’t find it here. But if you are smart and do your research, you can definitely score a bargain.


Among the works available at Charleston you will find Australian pop art, Indigenous art and renowned Modern Australian artists. You will also find original lithographs, engravings, etchings and limited edition prints by European artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

So who is hot? David Bromley was the name that snatched the biggest prices at the last Chaleston Auction in Brisbane. Pop art is certainly alive and well in the Brisbane markets! Personally I would not pay thousands of dollars to put Belinda Nude Series on my living room wall, as it reminds me of magazines and comic books. But if the public loves it, the public shall have it.

John Olsen – you may have seen the latest solo exhibition by this renowned Australian artist at Philip Bacon Galleries last year. Elegant, strong and always challenging, he is reportedly one of only two Australian artists to have ever achieved a price of $1,000,000 at an auction.

Gillie and Marc – always hot and very popular. This husband and wife duo produces a unique, fresh and intoxicating blend of weird and wonderful. Sculptures and paintings of a dog man and a rabbit woman are always a hit at local galleries. If you are in the market for one, this is a good opportunity to snatch a piece no longer being produced.

Charles Blackwell – an artist that grabbed my attention from the start. I find his work imaginative, elegant and intriguing. Sadly the painting I loved had a starting bid well outside my budget! Considering that Blackwell’s paintings hang in national galleries all around Australia – that is to be expected. (Better luck next time!)

Famous European names – Picasso, Dali and Renoir. Mostly etchings and engravings, these were items for art history lovers. The only reason these are not all in the museums is that their work is recent enough to still be in the hands of private collectors. The prices of these were surprisingly affordable. And it is great to see that Australian interest in surrealism is very much alive! On the day, the Spaniard of the ‘melted clocks’ was the clear winner with the bidders among the classics.

Countless sculptures ‘After Henry Moore’ (hello again, Surrealism!), and paintings by Constantine Popov, Yossi Messiah, Pro Hart, Ray Crooke, Mark Hanham, and many others might catch your eye. And if you love Aboriginal art, then Gloria Petyarre, Janet Golder, Gabriella Possum, or Polly Ngala might be your next artwork. And with a variety of hand-woven rugs from Iran, Afganistan, India and China, you can find a real eastern treasure here. The Charleston auction focuses mostly on established Australian artists, as well as imitators of International artists (‘after’ is a word regularly preceding artist names).  To a serious collector keeping up with the latest and greatest in the art scene this may seem like a bit of a garage sale. However, it is an auction, and as long as you don’t take it too seriously, and keep your eyes and mind open, you’ll enjoy the experience.


Auctions can be a fun and educational experience, and the clientele varies. There are art gallery owners, married couples filling their homes with beautiful pieces, quirky art collectors dressed in eccentric attire who very familiar with the auction processes, single buyers who occasionally wave their numbers, and, of course, “just-looking” observers.

It can be hard to know what to expect, especially if you have never attended an art auction before. So I have put together a few tips on buying art at an auction. If you have any additional advice, feel free to share it in the comments below. Here goes:

1) Come early to take advantage of the viewing time. Chances are the artworks will be displayed in a crowded hall, possibly stacked together. So you probably won’t get the luxury of seeing it uninterrupted against a white wall. The paintings are usually framed, which improves your general impression, but you will have to use your imagination for the rest. Thus giving yourself ample time to work through the many canvases and sculptures is a must if you are looking to buy art.

2) Drink coffee during the auction – but NOT during the viewing! The space is much smaller than in a museum/gallery setting, with many people making their way through the artworks stacked against each other. You will want your hands free to move around and explore. An auction can last several hours – before you know it, afternoon settles in and 4 hours have whizzed past. So if you are a coffee drinker, have one during the bidding to help you focus 😉

3) Do your research. That means not only taking advantage of the viewing time, but having your smart phone handy. If you see a work you like, run a search to get the figures on it. Better yet, if you are in the market for a particular artist, do your research before the auction, especially if you’re buying art for investment.

4) As the auction goes on, the bidders become tired (all the more reason for that coffee!), and the auctioneers will keep the pace up to get through the items. People spend their money, and eventually the crowd thins out. As a result, the average prices will also drop and more items will be passed in. If you want a particular item and it’s reserved for late in the auction, it can play to your advantage – unless another bidder requests to push it forward.

5) Possibly most importantly, don’t take it too seriously. Buying art is much like buying jewellery. If you are shopping for yourself, look for something that speaks to you – after all you’ll have to live with it!

Next Charleston Fine Art Auction in Brisbane is Tuesday 26th January 2016.


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