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Investing in artwork can be accomplished in a few ways.
With a platform such as Masterworks or Public, you can purchase shares of a famous piece.
Rather than purchase a piece of art outright, you can own a fractional portion of a major work.
Or with Yieldstreet, you can gain exposure to artwork via a professionally managed fund.
With Yieldstreet, you are not able to pick and choose individual pieces like with Masterworks, but you do get greater diversification with their fund.
But what if you do want to purchase a piece of artwork outright? Where are the best places to buy art?
In this article, we cover the top 3 art auction houses and how to buy your first piece of artwork!
What Is An Art Auction House?
An auction house is actually a company that facilitates the buying and selling of assets. These assets are commonly works of art and collectibles. The actual auction for a particular asset can be done online or in person.
Auctions were originally created to help people dispose of assets or collect on a debt. The first auction house was opened by Baron Claes Ralamb in 1674 in Stockholm, Sweden.
Most often, the company facilitating the auction will have the assets being sold appraised. This helps them determine potential worth and often influences the opening bid.
There are most commonly 3 types of auctions.
- English Auction. This is the most common. It functions as an open bid where participants actively bid against each other. This bidding generally takes place by the participants verbally stating their bid or entering it in an electronic device. The bidding ends when no one is willing to outbid the latest bid.
- Dutch Auction. A Dutch auction differs from an English auction as the starting price is very high. The auctioneer will come down incrementally until a participant agrees on the price.
- Sealed Price Auctions. In this format, participants submit their bid independent of other participants and without knowledge of what the other participants are bidding. The participant with the highest bid will take the asset.
These auctions are becoming increasingly popular online, though in-person auction are still quite common.
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Top Art Auction Houses
There are thousands of auction houses around the world, though there are 3 that are well-known.
- These 3 includes Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips
- These auction houses alone command a dominating 70% market share for contemporary art auction sales
Artprice.com, “The World Leader In Art Market Information,” is an online database tracking art prices, artists, and auction houses. Over the last 12 months, the company has actually tracked over 15 million auction prices from 6,400 auction houses worldwide.
Despite a vast number of auction houses, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips are by far the leading three.
Let’s review them in a bit more detail!
Sotheby’s is the leading art auction house with with a whopping 32% market share.
The company was actually founded in 1744 and currently operates over 80 locations across 40 countries. They host over 600 auctions each year and drive roughly $7 billion annually in transactions.
In addition to artwork, they also facilitate sales of jewelry, handbags, cars, wine, watches and more.
Of course they host a number of auctions each year, and you can see upcoming auctions on their site, though they also facilitate private sales and allow investors to purchase a wide array of products directly from the site through their “Buy Now” platform.
Artists also love Sotheby’s for the simple process to sell their own products on the site. An artist is able to submit photos and information about their work. Sotheby’s then reviews the information and has their appraisers look at the piece.
After review, an artist is able to sell their work through one of 4 options – auction, private sale, buy now or retail.
Christie’s is one of the oldest auction houses being founded in 1766.
The company has a 25.4% market share, though they also drove $7 billion in top line revenue in 2021.
They are currently spread across 44 countries. With prices ranging from $200 to over $100 million, all investors can get started.
Though mostly known for their art sales, they also participate is 80 other categories like jewelry, watches, and handbags. Additionally, they also participate in retail sales, private sales and auctions.
Like Sotheby’s, Christie’s offers artists a way to have their work appraised and sell directly on the site.
Phillips got its start in 1796 in London. The company sells a wide array of fine art, though it focuses on 20th century and contemporary art.
Like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, Phillips too participates in a number of categories. However, Phillips is much smaller and has a more narrow focus. While they do facilitate the sale of watches, photography, and a few other categories, the focus is truly contemporary art.
Phillips is a worldwide auction house with 14 locations scattered around the globe. It is much smaller than the top 2 auction houses, though it has gained attention as of late. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are both nearly 7 times larger than Phillips.
Phillips total sales in 2021 reached $1.2 billion, which was up 32% vs 2019.
Art auction houses are a great place to get started when thinking about art investments. Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips are all great picks.
With prices as low as $100 and as high as a $100 million, all investors can find something in their price range.
The distinction between these three auction houses is a bit blurred. Each of them specialize in luxury – that is fine art and collectibles.
As they all list their upcoming auctions, you can see which is closest and which makes the most sense to you. Or perhaps there is a cetain piece of artwork that calls your attention.
Browsing each of their websites will give you a feel for what to expect.
Check out our guide on artwork investing for beginners to learn about other methods for gaining exposure to this asset class!