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Auction Basics

An ancient and elementary form of commerce, auctions have long been the best way to establish the value of unique and rare items. Over our 260-year history, Sotheby’s has perfected the art of the auction, and yet is continuously seeking ways of updating the process. Today, modern innovations such as broadcasting sales over the Internet and accepting bids online in real time allow you to participate in our auctions from anywhere in the world. 

>View glossary of terms to familiarise yourself with the language of auctions.

Who can attend an auction?

All of Sotheby's auctions are free and open to the public, and there is no obligation to bid. Most auctions are held during the day, except for occasional evening sales, which require tickets. You may also watch our auctions online.

Who are the auctioneers?

Sotheby’s auctioneers are trained professionals, often with decades of experience. The auctioneer initiates the sale of each lot by briefly describing the item and then starting the bidding at a price that is lower than its reserve. The auctioneer acknowledges every bidder, whether they are in the saleroom, participating via BIDnow or over the telephone. They also place bids on behalf of absentee bidders. The auctioneer, whose authority is final, determines when the highest bid has been made and declares the lot sold.

How does bidding work?

After the auctioneer starts the bidding, they will accept incrementally higher bids until a sole bidder remains. This final bidder purchases the lot. However, if the bidding fails to reach the reserve price, the lot will pass unsold.

What types of auctions does Sotheby’s hold?

Sotheby’s auctions generally comprise fine arts, antiques and decorative arts, books and manuscripts, jewellery and wine in sales dedicated to each collecting area. Occasionally, however, Sotheby’s offers unusual items of great rarity or value -- for example, the original rules of basketball or a perfectly preserved dinosaur skeleton -- or sells the entire contents of magnificent homes or the estates of great collectors and luminaries.  View Departments.

Upcoming Auctions -

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