If you’re new to auctions and don’t know where to begin, or if you’re simply on the hunt for affordable art, Sotheby’s upcoming Made in America online sales are a great place to start. With bidding beginning at just $50, striking works of American art will be offered in two separate online auctions: Made in America: American Realism 1960–2000 and Made in America: 19th Century Paintings, which will both open 15 July and close 30 July. Ahead of the sales, art historian Elizabeth Pergam, who teaches at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art MA programs in Art Business and Fine and Decorative Art and Design, shares her tips for buying at auction and building a collection.


I always ask established collectors two questions: what was the first thing they bought, and do they still have it. Most of them do. Art is an investment, and for new collectors, it’s important to love and want to live with the art. So, listen to your instinct. Once you’ve identified a piece you are interested in, try to see it in person and compare it to something similar. Ask yourself, what differentiates this work? If you’re drawn to a landscape, for example, is that because it’s a snowy setting or because it features figures? When you have an instinctive response, deconstruct it further to illuminate why you’re attracted to that work. 


WALTER KOENIGER, WINTER WOODS AND STREAM. ESTIMATE $1,000–1,500. TO BE OFFERED
IN MADE IN AMERICA: 19TH CENTURY PAINTINGS

Next, do thorough research from reputable sources– learn as much as you can about the artist, including auction history. Does the artist’s work come up regularly at auction? What is the artist’s typical value? Look at result databases, such as Artnet and Artprice, or visit art-centric libraries, such as the Frick Art Reference Library.

For more accessibly priced auctions, like Made in America, which often feature lesser known or less common artists, it may be difficult to learn a lot about them. Try researching similar subject matter in order to learn what those kinds of topics achieve at auction. If we stick with the theme of landscapes, for example, find out what a similar scene would fetch. You can also try searching for art that’s comparative in scale, period and medium. 


MICHEL LAPENSEE, TERRASSE DU VIEUX MONTREAL (ONE OF TWO WORKS INCLUDED IN THIS LOT). ESTIMATE $600–900. TO BE OFFERED IN MADE IN AMERICA: 19TH CENTURY PAINTINGS.    

If you’re working with a smaller budget, it’s important to consider lesser known and emerging artists rather than blue-chip ones. In French, this is referred to as the petit-maître, literally meaning “small master.” I know a number of dealers who particularly love buying such anonymous drawings or paintings and doing the research themselves. While determining the perfect attribution may be challenging, this could beget intellectual and potentially financial benefits. 

Be sure to not overlook the frame. Sometimes frames are used just for the exhibition, but generally, they are included with the art. Some frames are particularly valuable and can add to the overall value. You should consider that purchasing an unframed work could result in an additional cost later. Also, if you can’t see the art in person, make sure to check the measurements in the catalogue to ensure it will fit the space where you would like to display it. 


OLLEEN BROWNING, PANOMA. ESTIMATE $500–700. TO BE OFFERED IN MADE IN AMERICA: AMERICAN REALISM 1960–2000.  

As you collect, it's important to note that market trends are cyclical, so opportunities may arise to purchase something during a lull in popularity. Be open to letting your tastes develop and change. The beauty of acquiring art is the freedom to evolve and tailor your collection.

Elizabeth Pergam is an art historian with an expertise in the fields of 18th- and 19th-century art and the history of museums, exhibitions, and collecting, with a curatorial focus on works on paper. Her major publications include, The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857: Entrepreneurs, Connoisseurs and the Public (2011) and Drawing in the 21st Century: The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary Practice (2015). She has held curatorial and research positions and fellowships at the Huntington Library Art Collection, the National Gallery of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute .


Lead Image: Colleen Browning, Poinciana Pulcherrima (Detail). Estimate $500–700. To be offered in Made in America: American Realism 1960–2000.