As a share of the population, the number of people who participate in fine art auctions is miniscule. To an outsider (that is to say, most human beings), the rituals of an auction—from paddle waving to forking over thousands for a work of art—are intimidating enough. And then there’s the language, a lexicon with its own nuances and auction-specific meanings. While we may not be able to get you a seat to the evening sales at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, we can help you understand what they’re talking about. Here’s a breakdown of a few terms to know and, more importantly, what they tell us about how the auction market operates, so you can understand what exactly is going on when an auctioneer bangs his or her gavel.
What does it mean?
A chandelier bid is a phantom bid, acknowledged by an auctioneer who often pretends to see someone raise a paddle in the back of the room, pushing up the price in an effort to stimulate interest in a lot.
Seems a bit shady.
Despite attempts to ban the practice, which auction houses prefer to call “consecutive bidding,” it is entirely legal so long as the bidding is below the minimum price for which a consignor would sell the work—a figure known as the “reserve.” Auction houses will disclose that such bids may occur through disclaimer text in the catalogue or an auctionneer’s announcement.
New York Assemblyperson Richard Brodsky made chandelier bidding and other art market regulation a personal passion, introducing several bills to outlaw phantom bidding over the course of his tenure in the legislature, which ended in 2010. Brodsky argued chandelier bids inflate prices by tricking buyers into thinking there is real market interest in a piece, and symbolize an overall lack of transparency in the art market. The bills faced opposition from auction houses and republican legislators, and they never became law.
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