My picture passed in at auction – what do I do now?

If you have ever tried to sell something in a specialist art auction you will know that there is a long build up and the process can be very stressful.

Once you have made a decision to sell, a failure can be very frustrating not to mention inconvenient.

My first tip is – never pre-commit the funds you are hoping to realise from the auction. This will take some pressure off your decision making.

Why might a picture pass in? Here are a few common reasons:

The estimate was too high

Although auction houses are conditioned to estimate things conservatively, sometimes they get it wrong. Or, perhaps you insisted on a higher estimate than the specialist recommended and they agreed as they needed to fill their catalogue and make their target of consignments.

  • In this case, if there are no storage charges, leave the work with the auction house and see if they get any offers after that you can negotiate with. If nothing happens after a few weeks, collect the work and seek out another opinion. Expect it to be at least 10 – 20% lower than the first offering.

The timing was wrong

Some pictures just don’t attract attention and this can be due to so many hard to assess factors. An artist’s market might be in the doldrums. The period or style might be out of fashion. The painting may have been purchased (by you) too recently so it doesn’t look ‘fresh’ to the market.

  • If you can afford to, keep the work and have it re-appraised in two to five years to see what the market is doing.

It’s a difficult piece

A painting may just be difficult to sell. This may be due to its factors such as its condition, provenance or lack of artist’s signature (if the artist typically signed their work).

  • Try the work in a generalist sale with a very enticing estimate.

The marketing was wrong

A few years ago my auction house offered some small pieces by a New Zealand artist which failed to sell. Repatriated to New Zealand and offered at auction a few months later, they did very well. Of course the seller would have incurred shipping costs, but the result would have more than compensated for this.

  • If you have a work that’s failed because it just didn’t get enough attention, don’t hesitate to re-offer it again in a different context but ensure the auction house can demonstrate that they have experience selling the artist.
  • You could also explore the option to sell the work privately (on consignment) through a reputable dealer.

Fortunately most auction houses don’t make charges (apart from copyright fees, usually) on unsold works. Take on board feedback from the failed sale and hopefully you will not have difficulty selling the second time around.

As always, if you have questions, do get in touch!

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