How to bid at an art auction: everything budding collectors need to know

Art auctions usually make the headlines because a famous work has sold for an eye watering amount.

Bidding at auction can be daunting enough when you’re doing it for the first time, and the fear that prices may spiral beyond your control is common to those just starting to build an art collection.

But auctions don’t have to be intimidating. They can be an exhilarating experience, as long as you’re bidding on art you love, and you know your limits.

The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists believes art is for everyone. And that’s why the Society has decided to hold a charity auction on November 2. We need to raise funds in an increasingly challenging climate. More than that, we want to introduce our artists to would-be collectors, people who may not feel like they know everything about art, but who at least know what they like.

Coming to love art can be as simple as a single visit to a gallery. And once you’re hooked, art becomes an enriching part of your life.

There are so many artists waiting to be discovered, and they are artists with a more realistic price tag than those who make the headlines.

John Scott Martin is a Past President of the RBSA and a respected and sought-after artist, recently elected to the Royal Society of Marine Artists. His seascapes are extremely popular, and he has kindly donated one of his works to our auction, along with many other acclaimed artists with art in collections around the world.

John Scott Martin, 'Altair & Cambria at the Regatta Royales, Cannes'

John Scott Martin ‘Altair and Cambria at the Regatta Royals, Cannes’

John built a career in auction houses; as director of catalogue production for a famous auctioneers he dealt with every department in offices around the globe, and so he knows a thing or two about how an art auction works.

‘There is an excitement to auctions, and it’s why there’s currently such a trend for antiques shows set in salesrooms; they capture the attention of viewers and generate speculation about how much a lot is going to go for.

‘It’s actually very close to a race meeting in terms of the atmosphere, in that there’s the excitement of the unknown, and that moment when you know the art work you want, the one you’ve backed, if you like, is within your reach.

‘Naturally, you choose to bid on something you are particularly drawn to, whether it be a painting, say a figurative work, or a 3D piece.

George F Jackson, 'Raku Lidded Vase'

George Jackson, ‘Raku Lidded Vase’

‘It’s all about thinking, ‘Yes, that’s what I like… that’s what I can imagine in my house.’ You can see the right space for it at home, and you’ve worked out you can afford to bid a certain amount.’

John is keen to point out that the RBSA auction is not one where bids are likely to spiral, as works are at the more affordable end of the market. Starting out as an art collector can be done with a budget of less than £500.

In fact, most collectors start their collections in a conservative way. It’s new territory, something to be learned, and more importantly enjoyed.

‘We’re not in the high value bracket where people are buying for investment purposes only. That’s a completely different market. This auction is about buying the art you love.

‘With that in mind, it’s important if you’re new to bidding that you don’t go on what everyone else in the room is bidding on. You’ve got to like it first. Cost becomes a pure matter of economising.

‘Initially it has got to be your choice because that’s the excitement of bidding.’

John believes there’s huge joy to be had in owning an original work of art, and is keen to point out that every work at the RBSA auction is just that.

David White, 'Padstow Harbour'

There’s a host of affordable art at our Charity Auction. Browse our categories and book your ticket soon at

‘Again, this is different to bidding for investment purposes. These are original pieces of work and your judgement is very important because this will be art owned by you alone. Nobody else will have one. It’s yours.’

Of course, what’s yours is relative to what you can afford, but John has some sound advice for those new to bidding.

‘It may be that you’ll go one bid higher because you sense you are getting close and a work is within your grasp. If you like it enough, and you know your limit, you can judge what to do.

‘Equally, at the start of bidding, the auctioneer will be experienced enough to know how to get things going. Nobody needs to worry about being the first to bid. Those who run auctions know how to get things started.

‘It can be a bit nerve-racking if you haven’t been before, but if you like art and are interested in owning it, an auction is the perfect opportunity to get started.’

Galleries need collectors. Artists need people to buy their work, and they understand that people often don’t want to take a giant leap when they are buying art for the first time.

That’s why the estimates at our charity auction have been kept very reasonable. The RBSA believes in affordable art, and art for everyone. Every collector starts somewhere, and buying art should be about falling in love.

  1. A fully illustrated catalogue is available online as a downloadable pdf

  2. Bidders are invited to browse the catalogue and shortlist works of interest

  3. All donated works can be viewed on arrival at the venue

  4. After registering, guests will be given a numbered paddle to hold up when bidding

  5. The event starts with welcome drinks at 6.30pm

  6. The auction itself runs from 7.30pm to approximately 8.30pm

  7. Bidding will take place at the auction and is open to ticket holders only

  8. Payment can be taken at the end of the evening

  9. A 50% deposit can be placed if works are to be collected from the RBSA Gallery

About our Charity Auction

Our first ever charity auction takes place on November 2, and will be run by Bonhams and hosted by Deutsche Bank at their prestigious Brindleyplace offices.

Tickets are £10 with income from ticket sales going to Autistica, Deutsche Bank’s Charity of the Year. All auction proceeds will go to the RBSA: artists have generously donated works to raise funds for the visual arts charity which is one of the oldest Royal Societies in the UK.

Autistica, which both funds and campaigns for medical research to understand the causes of autism, develop new treatments and to ensure that everyone with autism has the chance of a longer, healthier and happier life and include a link to Autistica’s website.

To purchase a ticket:

  1. Call us on 0121 236 4353 to pay by card over the phone

  2. Send a cheque in the post (payable to ‘RBSA’) to RBSA, 4 Brook St, Birmingham B3 1SA

  3. Pay by cash in person at the Gallery

  4. Pay via our website

To keep up with all the latest news from the RBSA, join our mailing list.

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