Thursday, December 19, 2013

That time I went to an auction and bought 30 pieces of art

I'm starting a mini, one-off art-buying series on The Stroke. I had two blog posts about art auctions sitting in draft and, after reading Brittany's post on The House That Lars Built today, I've been inspired to unleash 'em (and add a few more). Grainy iPhone photos and all.

On the twelfth day of Christmas I took my husband to an art auction (his first). And I accidentally-on-purpose bought 30 pieces of art.

(We're counting it as my twelfth advent gift.)

Art auctions in Malta are fascinating. You arrive at a street level store front and walk into a large, open space jammed full of stuff. Antique furniture piled high with ceramic sculptures and clocks. Stacks of artwork: everything from 15th century manuscript pages to Baroque paintings in huge gilded frames to abstract art by contemporary, local artists. There are rows of simple chairs, and the seats at the back fill up first (better to watch your competing bidders). There are no paddles or numbers. The auctioneer knows you by sight, and has your details on file. (If you're a newbie you fill out some paperwork only if you buy something). You grab a catalogue and find a seat.

At this, my second art auction, the action started right on time: A minor miracle in Malta. The first few pieces were worth little and the auctioneer flowed through them quickly, setting the pace for what was to come.

As the auctioneer announced the number and starting price of the lots (generally 25-50% less than the estimated value) two assistants walked up and down the aisles of chairs holding the artworks, bringing them up close to your face so you could closely inspect the pieces.

The chanting of the auctioneer and the continuous circuit of the artwork being whisked past me was hypnotic.

People wandered in and out of the auction house during the process, many leaving after the lot they had their eye on sold, many (dressed in impeccably tailored suits) coming in just in time to bid on a few things and head back to work. Some people talked on phones during the auction, taking bids or simply chatting to a friend to pass the time until the auction was over and they could pay for their spoils. The room was filled with a constant buzz. It made for a strangely relaxed atmosphere, given the amount of Euros being spent.

The woman in front of me followed the auction's progress, marking the actual selling prices next to the estimated value in the catalogue in a bright red pen.

The first time I attended an auction in Malta I was terrified I would accidentally scratch my nose and buy an expensive piece of art.

It turns out most people bid by beckoning to the auctioneer with the same gesture you would use to politely call a waiter to your table. Seasoned buyers bid with nods or other signals, but if you're a newbie your chin scratch likely won't be mistaken for a bid.

I didn't tell my husband any of this in advance, and chuckled to myself as he sat as still as he could through the auction.

Three quarters of the way through the auction, when the cheaper lots come up on the block, Mike got a phone call and had to leave the auction for a meeting.

I am a bad auction attendee and I didn't go to the auction house in advance to inspect the lots (you normally do this a week in advance).

I arrived 15 minutes before the show started to quickly walk through the auction and get an idea of certain lots that might interest me. Then I read through the catalogue, noting the lower priced lots, and waited through the auction with anticipation to see if those items in my price range were worth bidding on.

There were a few lots I had my eye on that day. I was too scared to bid, and some of them sold for really low prices. I had instant regret.

If there's one emotion I have no tolerance for it's regret.

My heart started hammering.

A framed page from a fifteenth century German manuscript came up on the block. It was valued at €100. Bidding started at €50. I raised my hand. Someone bid €55. I raised my hand.

Sixty Euros once. Sixty Euros twice. Sixty Euros three times. Selling for sixty Euros...


I bought my first piece of art at auction. It was such a rush! I was giddy.

And once I bid I couldn't stop bidding. Like that Pringles commercial.

A round drawing on silk in an ancient gilded frame came up on the block. I bid three times and



Three prints of old maps of Malta came up on the block. I had always wanted some. And this lot was for three!

I bid. I bid again. I bid again. I started bidding so much I began bidding against myself and the auctioneer had to tell me to stop (how embarrassing).



Then, as the auction was wrapping up, chairs scraping against the floor as people started heading home empty-handed, things started to speed up. The auctioneer wanted to go home. There were two lots at the end that had 7 and 18 pieces of art in them, respectively, with cryptic descriptions like "7 maritime prints" and "18 small pieces". The auctioneer shouted:

Five Euros for lot 748!

No one bid.

The auctioneer shouted Five Euros for lots 748 AND 749!

There was a pause.

I did some quick mental math.

I raised my hand.



And that's how I bought 30 pieces of art at an auction. For less than €130.

Best advent gift ever.


WHERE: Belgravia Auction Gallery, Sliema, Malta
WHEN: Auctions are held quarterly. 
WHAT: The auction house is open the week prior to the auction for lot viewings. The auction takes place over 7 days. On each day different categories of lots are offered: Day 1 - Furniture, Day 2 - Art, etc. You can bid online, by phone, or in person. The full auction catalogue is posted online prior to each auction, and selected images of lots are also available to view online. Payments can be made in cash. A 10% deposit is required on purchased lots. You collect your purchased items the week after the auction. In this case, since my artworks were small, I was able to take them home the same day.


  1. Replies
    1. Haha! I actually had to call him to help me carry it all home. He was surprised, initially, but I was so giddy about it that he came around fairly quickly.


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