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 all these bargains you think you're getting. Charity and fundraiser auction art can be uneven in quality and sometimes just plain bad. Galleries, dealers, artists and collectors often donate to these sales to call attention to their art, but for many, it's less about the art and more about supporting the organizations themselves. In other words, they may use the opportunities 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 exactly what collectors want. Think about it-- would you be more inclined to donate an item that's among your best artworks and 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 that you like the most is worth bidding on in the first place. If you pay a low price for a minor or inferior example by a well-known artist, 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. Look at the art first and the signature last. Then do your legwork in terms of determining how significant that work of art is with respect to the artist's overall output.

Especially keep an eye out for fundraisers where museums or other institutions that own large amounts of art deaccess lesser or irrelevant works from their inventories in order to make space or raise funds. The pieces may still be superior quality examples, but simply don't 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 in advance, though, that you know whether art you want to bid on has actually been in the institution's collection and is now being deaccessed, or was donated to the institution purely for purposes of being sold to raise funds and was never in the collection at all. Being in the collection is a distinction worth paying somewhat extra for.

In order to maximize your effectiveness at any charity art auctions, always do your homework 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, established well-known artists, promising younger artists, institutions, museums and respected collectors. These are often the most worthwhile items to chase after (though not always). 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 also while bidding is in progress in order to lubricate those who may otherwise be more 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 for the rest of your life and beyond.

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