59. Art Auctions
You will, sooner or later, be invited to donate something to a charity art auction. You may even ask to be able to donate to a particular auction. This may be to support that particular cause, or perhaps you’re just hoping to improve your visibility among a certain group of people. Be warned, the art auction can be a very abusive experience, especially for a fledgling artist.
I see several possible benefits for the artist in participating in an art auction. I say, “possible” because you have to be paying attention to derive any of these benefits.
First, financially, your donation is tax deductible. As I understand the law, you get to deduct the cost of the materials and that’s all. Market value has nothing to do with it. If a tax deduction is what you’re after sell the work of art and donate the cash to the charity. Be sure to get a receipt, label it well and put it where you can find it when you prepare your taxes. If you still want the other benefits associated with having your work in the auction, sell it to a friend and have them donate it to the auction. The friend will deduct the full value of the piece (as documented by the detailed sales receipt you provide) and you can still donate the cash you received and for which you get a receipt from the charity. I’ve never done this, check with a qualified tax advisor first.
Financially too, my favorite art auction will give me one third of the final sales price if I request it. Other, less generous charities will look at you with some disdain if you even ask about this sort of arrangement. The one third serves mostly to repay artists for the out-of-pocket expense of having something professionally framed and is the mark of an auction that is trying to take care of its artists. It is added paperwork for the auction though, and some charities have trouble handling the details of even a basic auction.
Whenever possible research a particular art auction before you agree to participate in it. Observe their treatment of the art and the artists. Pay close attention to the crowd and the bids. And note carefully the sorts of objects that do well and the ones that do poorly.
Part of the value of any work of art is the value associated with the name and personality of the artist. If you are a new artist or unknown in the area of the auction your work will be at a disadvantage. Further, to do well in the context of an auction, your artwork must have at least two financially capable bidders. I once had a major piece sell for less than it should have simply because the second bidder reached her upper limit too soon. The couple with the winning bid expected the bidding to go higher and would have still bought the piece if it had. Of course I only learned this by talking to them later. Without that conversation I might have been quite depressed about the final price and considered the donation a mistake. Tying your ego to the results of an auction can be very dangerous particularly when no one in the audience knows to bid on your work.
Given a large enough (and empowered enough) audience an art auction can be a very good way to study public response to your work. In addition to the information you’ll get from the bidding the comments you overhear as an anonymous member of the audience may help you to understand and improve your work. One year I entered a piece of a type I liked but was having trouble selling to my regular clientele. At the auction, for charity I admit, but to a crowd of people unlike my usual customers, the piece sold for three times my expected price. Further, the bidding involved more that the minimum two bidders needed to advance the price. That particular auction showed me a lot about presenting work to its appropriate audience. This applies just as strongly to galleries and fairs. Sometimes your price is wrong, sometimes your presentation is wrong, sometimes your audience is wrong.
I’ve participated in various auctions because I liked how I was asked, because I liked the cause, because I thought it would be good publicity, and because I was just curious about the process. I’ve continued to donate work only to the one auction that truly works to treat its artists well. The work is on display for a month before the auction date. I am invited to several catered receptions during that month. I get two tickets to the auction evening. And I can choose to receive one third of the sale price back. Even if I don’t, I receive a nice thank you letter that identifies the buyer and the final sales price.
Auctions which do not provide these elements have a strong likelihood of leaving you feeling used, abused, and unimproved. Why agree to any of that?
One final point. Every such auction receives a certain number of “white elephants,” typically large unsuccessful pieces that the artist is dumping on the auction in the hope that some charitable fool will buy it. Now, the uncertainties of the auction format may lead to any object going unloved and unwanted but give yourself a chance! This is in part about your reputation and a piece that no one wants is a source of pain to everyone at the auction, not least the artist. That process of the auctioneer going lower and lower in search for an opening bid is excruciating. Do not use an art auction as a dumping ground for your mistakes or you may well do harm to your reputation as well as to that of the auction and the charity.
You may even use this concern to turn down an invitation simply by saying, “Yes, I’d love to be able to donate something to your auction but this year I just don’t have anything available that’s good enough. Will you be holding a similar auction next year at this time?” Then you can attend this year’s and judge for yourself about contributing to next year’s.
Expect to be treated with respect and make every effort to be worthy of that respect.
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