Art at Charity and Fundraising Auctions
Can be Uneven in Quality
Q: I've bought several pieces of art at charity auctions and am thinking about buying more. Selling prices are usually less than at regular auctions and substantially less than at galleries. Do you have any tips or strategies for buying art at charity events?
A: Don't get too excited about these bargains you think you're getting. Charity and fundraiser auction art can be uneven in quality and sometimes just plain inferior. Galleries, dealers, artists and collectors who donate to these sales often do so to support particular organizations rather than garner attention for their art. They may even use the opportunity to consign art that they're tired of looking at, have had trouble selling, is minor or unimportant, is not in perfect condition, or has been lying around for years because it's not what collectors want. Think about it-- would you be more inclined to donate an item that's readily salable for a good cash price or one that few people want and no one will pay any decent money for?
If you're bidding on art that's problematic or not desirable in some way to begin with, it's naturally going to sell for less than comparable quality examples and, in the end, may not be a bargain at all. Given the potential for this scenario, your goal of getting a so-called bargain-- paying less simply to pay less-- should be secondary to figuring out whether the art is worth bidding on in the first place. If you pay a low price for something few people want or care about, do you call that a good buy? Not really.
On the flip side, you can find plenty of worthy artworks at charity and fundraiser auctions and events. Quality pieces regularly get donated and these are the ones you should keep an eye out for. But you've got to do your research first; just because it's got you're favorite artist's name on it does not automatically make it worth owning.
Especially keep an eye out for fundraisers where museums or other institutions that own large amounts of art deaccess from their collections in order to raise money. They sometimes get rid of great art simply because it does not fit their collecting interests or long term goals. What's minor or irrelevant to them may be highly desirable to collectors. The tendency is for institutional deaccessions to be better bidding risks than art that comes from private donations, artists or for-profit galleries. Make sure, though, that art you want to bid on has actually been in the institution's collection and is now being deaccessed, as opposed to art that was donated to the institution purely for purposes of being sold to raise funds and was never in their collection to begin with.
In order to maximize your effectiveness at any charity art auctions, always do your research ahead of time. Never assume that a work of art is automatically worth owning. Find out where everything comes from; most auctions publicize donors' names in exchange for their donations. Pay particular attention to pieces that come from established galleries, collectible artists, institutions, museums and respected collectors. These are often the most worthwhile items to chase after. Inspect all items carefully before the auctions and confine your bidding to quality, collectible examples. Staying sober is also a good idea-- many charity auctions serve copious amounts of food and drink before the bidding begins and while bidding is in progress in order to lubricate those who may otherwise be careful about spending.
Lastly, you artists who donate to charity and fundraiser events should think twice about donating inferior art. If it's a bad example, better to retire it permanently than have it floating around out there where everyone can see it.
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