Going once, going twice…

Fast Lane

Prague Auction Houses Offer Bargains + Entertainment

Going to an auction isn’t usually the first place we think of when looking to furnish our homes. Confusion over how the process works, how much the items will cost and other unknowns lead most of us to go the safe route of galleries, antique stores or IKEA. But skipping an auction may mean you are missing some incredible items at often unbelievable prices.

An auction house is simply the middleman between a buyer and seller. Most don’t buy art, just act as a mediator or broker. The auctioned items come from a variety of places. “Some items are being auctioned at the request of owners, some we have bought and some are from other antique stores,” says Zdena Bulakova, owner of Belle Ile Art & Antique store. Belle Ile will be starting an online only auction this month, with plans to start live auctions in the spring. Simona Sustkova, President of the Association of Antique Dealers and with Valentinum Auction House gathers their items from different places as well. “Most come from owners who are selling for economic reasons, or because of a death in the family,” she says. “We do some European market buying, but most of our items are from the Czech Republic.” “We are constantly looking for art,” says Maria Galova from Dorotheum, the 3rd largest auction house in the Czech Republic. “We run advertisements, and our experts travel the country 10 times a year, looking for pieces.”

So how exactly does an auction work? “Auctions aren’t too much like you see in the movies,” says Galova. “It’s a normal way to but art, and many bids come in by telephone.” Dorotheum has a variety of ways for you to participate in one of their auctions: in person, via telephone, or with an on-site representative. “We have an online catalogue,” says Galova. “If you see something you like, contact us and we will send you an application form. On the day of the auction we will have a person in the room acting as your bidder. They will call you and relay your bids.” There’s an alternative if you already know you only want to spend so much on an item. “Let us know you will pay up to a certain amount and you can participate that way,” says Galova. Valentinum’s auctions happen much the same way. “Depending on the number of items, an auction can last four to seven hours,” says Sustkova. “We have breaks between item categories so people can purchase and take away the items they’ve bought.” Valentinum also has a schedule in place. “If you know you are only interested in paintings, you can find out about what time the session will be and come then,” says Sustkova.

If you are lucky enough to be in the area when the auction is occurring, you do have the opportunity to see the items before the auction date. “One week before the auction is an exhibition so people can come and look at what’s for sale in person,” says Galova. “Most people do come to the exhibition, if they are in the area.” There are usually about 200 people bidding at each of Dorotheum’s auctions, but as many as 400 people may be in the room. “They are usually the owners of the art being auctioned, and people who just came to watch,” says Galova. “But bidders always get priority and seats.” It’s very easy to become a bidder: simply register beforehand, show identification and pay a deposit of between 500kc and 1000kc for your number. “That’s for security purposes, to make sure the numbers come back,” says Galova.

Belle Ile’s online auction will be a bit different. “Bidders will register, get a number and can monitor bidding online,” says Bulakova. “The bidding will last 14 days, and at the end of those 14 days, the highest bidder receives the item.” New items will go up every 14 days, with items that did not sell being taken off the site.

What’s the difference between buying art at an auction and from a gallery? “Buying art at an auction is the best way to purchase,” says Galova. “You will find the best prices, and you could get a bargain if you get something at its introductory price.” Galleries have set prices, while at an auction you are getting the item at the optimal price at that moment. “If there’s a lot of interest in an item, the price will go up and it doesn’t matter what an expert says,” says Galova. “The real price is based on demand and popularity.” You also know exactly what you are getting at an auction. “The auction catalogue describes each item so you know exactly what you are buying,” says Sustkova. Although a gallery does offer a benefit not seen at an auction: time. “Time is short at the auction,” says Sustkova. “You must decide immediately if you want an item, while in a shop you have time to think about it.” But price is a big factor at an auction. “Prices in the beginning can be 60% lower than market value,” says Sustkova. “We compare prices not only in the Czech Republic, but throughout Europe, and prices at auction are lower.” There is also the entertainment value at an auction. “The atmosphere is more interesting,” says Sustkova.

Some items do well at auction, some don’t. Dorotheum’s art experts decide which pieces will go in their gallery and which will be auctioned. “The number one item in auctions are paintings,” says Galova. “And the best item for the gallery are the jewels, they don’t do well at auction at all.” Sustkova agrees. “Paintings are popular and people like original, decorative items for their home,” she says. Belle Ile plans to offer modern art pieces as well, including some well-known Czech artists like Zrzavy, Toyen and Trnka. “Our experts will be choosing the items for the auctions,” says Bulakova. “We want to make sure it’s the best and the buyer has a good experience.”

Dorotheum’s auctions specialize in paintings, photographs, furniture, porcelain and sculptures, while Belle Ile’s online auctions will consist of items like drawings, paintings, silver, porcelain and furniture as well. Valentinum also offer prints, jewelry, sculptures and glass. Although those are the typical items we think of when it comes to auctions, that’s not the only thing you can bid on here. Aukcni sin Naxos specializes in auctioning real estate. Libor Nevsimal, Board Director for Aukcni sin Naxos says auctioning property has a number of benefits. “It’s advantageous for the seller as they can set their own conditions and have more control over the sale,” says Nevsimal. “It’s good for the buyer as the transfer or property is easier, it’s more transparent and there’s less paperwork. Also, we pre-negotiate beginning conditions, especially the price, so the buyer could get a good deal.”

As with art, many people are forced to auction their property for economic reasons. “About half our properties are a result of bankruptcies,” says Nevsimal. “Either owners or banks put them up for auction.” Most of the properties are residential and office buildings, and most need reconstruction. “Different buyers reconstruct in different ways,” says Nevsimal. “Some may become a hotel, flats or an office building.”

Aukcni sin Naxos holds auctions several times a month. Properties being auctioned, as well as the attendees varies. “The number of properties varies depending on their size,” says Nevsimal. “Some auctions may only have one big expensive property, while some may have as many as 100.” And what is being auctioned will effect who attends. “If it’s a piece of property from a small town, you will get people from that town and sometimes investors,” says Nevsimal. “If it’s a big piece in Prague, you will get a lot of international companies and investors.”

Auction houses have only had a 15 year history in the Czech Republic, so it’s hard to predict what their future will be. Customer behavior is still unknown and the concept is still fairly new on the market. “In countries with a long history of auction houses, they have what I like to call secondary and primary cycles,” says Galova. “The Czech Republic is in the primary cycle, where most people are forced to sell their things for economic reasons. In the secondary cycle, people are looking at art as an investment. We are in the very beginning of the secondary cycle, but probably won’t see it in the Czech Republic for another 15 to 20 years.” Nevsimal sees some of the same trends in property auctions. “About two to three years ago, people began to auction their own property just as a way to sell it,” he says. “I think more and more properties will be auctioned for that reason instead of because of bankruptcy.” Sustkova is optimistic about auction houses’ future. “The system is popular,” she says. “People like that they can do it by phone, but others like the atmosphere. The market isn’t huge, but the main auction halls will grow,” she predicts. Belle Ile is starting something new. “We aren’t sure if the market is ready for this type of auction,” says Bulakova. “We anticipate it being slow in the beginning and then gaining in popularity as the word spreads.”

So what’s the final result when it comes to auctions? “Everyone can be involved in an auction,” says Nevsimal from Aukcni sin Naxos. “Anyone can buy, anyone can sell.” Galova from Dorotheum has some additional advice. “Don’t be afraid to go to an auction, it’s not complicated,” she says. “Go to an exhibition, maybe just watch the first auction and buy something the next time.” Sustkova from Valentinum has a small warning. “If you think you want to buy something, think ahead of time what you are willing to pay,” she cautions. “Bidding can get crazy and you want to know your limit.”