Not Your Father's Art Auction

The complexion of auctions changes with the times

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If you love to watch professional tennis players executing nail-biting volleys sailing back and forth over the net, you might just love an art auction. The auctioneer unscrambles ricocheting bids surfacing from the floor: “You’re in, ma’m. Now you’re out,” the auctioneer says, pointing his gavel at a casually dressed woman in the front row. Rapid-fire, staccato words burst from his mouth as the bid increases. White-gloved art handlers hold a watercolor by Albuquerque-based artist Steve Hanks. Bid spotters stationed around the hotel ballroom scrutinize the floor for raised bid paddles. A spotter in the back of the room mines the faces of gallery staff on a bank of phones and computers, looking for a thumbs-up signalling another bid.

“The bid is at $4,000. Will someone give me $4,500? $4,500? Now $5,000. Now $6,000. Nothing’s happening on the floor. It’s all on the phones right now. You have a bunch of bids coming off the phones, E.C. I’ll take one,” the auctioneer jokes from
the podium.

“It’s all eBay,” E.C. counters from the back of the room before howling yeah as though he rustles cattle rather than auction bids. Bids fly over the heads of audience members until the hammer finally comes down at $6,700. The winner of the piece, entitled Shining in the Sun, is an eBay live auction bidder.
Welcome to the Altermann Gallery Last Call Art Auction. The days of your father’s art auction when an accidental gesture like scratching your nose might have landed you with an expensive piece of art are long gone. These days, not all the frenetic activity occurs on the auction floor. At each auction, as many as twelve phones may be buzzing in the room, with gallery staff fielding bids from seasoned collectors contacted as specific lots come under the hammer. In less than a minute, a piece of art can be bought by a collector over the phone, via the Internet, or from the auction room floor. Sixty to seventy paintings, sculptures, drawings or etchings may be sold in an hour.

The age of the Internet follows a history of telephone and absentee bidding by serious collectors. “Over the years, our established clients unable to attend an auction have been able to get on the phone and trust that we are accurately relaying what is going on in the room,” says Richard Altermann of Altermann Galleries. “The introduction of eBay Live Auctions has been good news because we find potential new clients. Our last call auctions offer works with lower reserves (minimum prices), and eBay is a market for bargain hunters. Twenty percent of the lots at our 2007 Last Call Auction were sold to eBay buyers. That’s a record,” he continued.
To participate in eBay Live Auctions, potential buyers must be registered eBay users. Before the auction, galleries and auctioneers list all items available for purchase in the eBay Live Auctions system. All approved participants can browse the lots, place absentee bids, compete against other Internet bidders, and follow the competition live on the auction floor.

While the Internet has changed the complexion of art auctions around the world, serious collectors still flock to the most prestigious art auctions staged in Santa Fe each year. Altermann Galleries & Auctioneers, established in 1978, specializes in significant collections of fine American art and sponsors five auctions annually. The Santa Fe Art Auction, now entering its fifteenth year, is the largest annual auction of classic western American art in
the southwest.

Santa Fe’s major art auctions are highly choreographed affairs. Often staged in a ballroom of a major hotel, an auction may only last three and a half to five hours, but preparation begins at least six months earlier. Each auction offers approximately 250 pieces of western and American Indian art that are carefully selected or consigned to the gallery for sale. Glossy catalogs with an image of each piece, a thorough description of its provenance, or history of sale, and its estimated value are mailed to thousands of patrons and posted on gallery websites. Prior to the auction, patrons have the option to complete an absentee or telephone bid form indicating the lot number, a description of the artwork, and a maximum bid for each piece on which they would like to place a bid. Previews for the collectors, scheduled the day before or the day of the auction, allow an opportunity for viewing and inspection.

On the day of the auction, the artworks are mounted on free-standing walls called baffles in a collage format. Rows of track lighting accentuate each piece. Security officers are on duty for the duration of the auction. Patrons and visitors interested in bidding complete a form at the registration table. A copy of the person’s driver’s license and major credit card is logged. A bidding paddle is given to each registrant, which allows the individual to come and go from the auction showroom.

Hours before the start of the auction, some viewers simply browse while others intently study their catalogs and talk on their mobile phones. Established collectors are recognized and greeted by gallery staff. Auctions start promptly. Terms and conditions and changes to the catalog are reviewed by the auctioneer. As each piece comes up for auction, art handlers remove the artwork from the baffle and carry it to the front of the room. Above the auctioneer’s podium, a screen displays the image of each piece as it comes under the hammer.

Auctions allow a person to see a broad selection of art at one time. If you are new to western art auctions, start by educating yourself about the market. Over the years, the depth of scholarship and the guidance of experienced gallery staff have empowered both established and new collectors to make intelligent purchases. Most auction houses have people on staff with whom you can consult well in advance of the auction. Websites including and not only list artwork available for sale around the world, the type of art desired by dealers, and the details of upcoming auctions, but also outline market trends and track values of the works.

“The auction arena is where the collectors decide what the market is for a piece of artwork. Remember, you are making a decision for the marketplace as well as yourself,” advises Altermann.

Considering your budget as well as your interests is critical. The “hammer price” or the purchase price is only part of the amount a buyer pays. A buyer’s premium is a flat fee added to the winning bid and goes to the auction house or gallery. Generally, a buyer’s premium of twenty percent is added to lots that sell for under $100,000, with a ten percent premium thereafter.

Western and American Indian art is no longer a regional taste. Many collectors are internationally based. Contemporary western artists are still inspired by the pageantry and beauty of the American west. Collectors interested in western art are enthralled by the west and often see their purchases as buying a piece of
America’s heritage.

According to Peter Riess, vice president and executive director of the Santa Fe Art Auction, “the western art market is very broad, but we, the dealers and collectors, are aware that there is a diminishing supply of great works. As a result, when a decent painting comes up for sale it can do surprisingly well, but when a great work becomes available, the results can be

Art auctions are a competitive, powerful business, but newcomers can enjoy a leisurely afternoon browsing prized fine western and Indian art, soaking up the energy when bidding wars ensue, and learning the value of turn-of-the-century and contemporary art. Remember, if the auction room is warm, don’t fan yourself with your paddle or you may be taking home more than your first art auction experience.

Top Ten Tips For Newcomers

1 Educate yourself about artists by using and

2 Discover what inspires you artistically

3 Consider your budget as well as your interests

4 Learn the rules and regulations of an auction

5 Review art auction house catalogs

6 Consult with a gallery representative

7 Research the market and know what a piece of artwork may be worth

8 Attend the auction preview

9 Understand the buyer’s premium percentages

10 Enjoy yourself!

Thanks to Anna Irena Sochocky, a writer living in Santa Fe with her photographer husband, Steven M. Williams
Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 22

Collector’s Resources


Cowboys & Indians Antiques | 505-255-4054

Santa Fe

Aaron Payne Fine Art 213 East Marcy Street | 505-995-9779
Addison Rowe Gallery | 505-982-1533
Gerald Peters Gallery + Peters Projects | 505.954.5700
Nedra Matteucci Galleries | 505-982-4631
The Owings Gallery | 505-982-6244
Zaplin Lampert Gallery | 505.982.6100


Mission Gallery | 575-758-2861


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