The majority of art sales happen in two environments: the Primary Market, direct artist-to-gallery sales, and the Secondary Market, the auction house. These two venues offer distinctly different atmospheres and elements to selling and buying art. The proximity to the artist, sales tactics, and price transparency changes whether at a gallery or auction house. When beginning to collect art, it is important to understand both types of business settings. This way you can be comfortable utilizing both when building your art collection.

Advantages of Galleries

Primary art sales, direct from artists to gallery to collector, are an advantageous choice for many reasons. Galleries offer an intimate and personal setting for purchasing art, as well as a more mindful, and possibly a less anxiety induced buying process.

Galleries have set prices on artworks and may allow for discounts on the set price. There are no surprises. Whereas auction houses will have presale estimates. This is the price range within or around which an auction house believes a work of art will sell for. Therefore, there is no guarantee the artwork will be bought at the price the seller wants the artwork to go for at auction.

Galleries create atmosphere. As such, art advisors choose a repertoire of artists who they believe to be the best, most talented and accomplished for their exhibitions. Usually art advisors will select both established and emerging artists, to provide a wide variety of styles and price points. Galleries also mentor their artists by visiting their studios, fostering relationships with collectors and helping plot their careers. Furthermore, emerging artists’ works are generally priced lower at galleries, giving them the potential to increase in value and eventually be sold at auction.  

Buying art through galleries presents the opportunity for resale later on if necessary, where a collector can either sell the artwork back to the gallery or to an auction house. Reputable galleries produce a condition report on all artworks that end up for sale at an auction, allowing the buyer to know if any wear and tear has occurred.

 Advantages of Auction Houses

Auction houses are an exciting and interactive way to purchase art on the secondary market. They have a large repertoire of artists from all art genres and a large inventory database. Auction house salesrooms are open to the public, and will have a public previewing of the artworks up for auction. They are also becoming increasingly accessible to all people thanks to new avenues of marketing such as online auction platforms (Example Paddle8).

Most often, artworks seen at auction have already been offered on the primary market, and thus were once owned by somebody else. Auction houses provide detailed information via catalogues and online sources of the artworks for sale. This includes exhibition history, condition report, provenance and price. Galleries on the other hand, tend to keep this information more private, not giving out information on their clients or their collections.

Prices tend to also be more transparent at auction houses than at galleries. Auction houses will release a published sale estimate prior to the auction sale. Whereas galleries do not give out prices prior to exhibition openings. However, the auction prices are estimates that can fluctuate and be much lower or higher than the actual sale value. For example, if the artwork has an interesting heritage, or previously was in a celebrity collection it could sell for much higher than the sales estimate.

Heffel Auction House is one of Canada’s national fine arts auction houses, and is a good choice if one is looking to utilize the auction house system in Canada. Not only do they have locations in Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, but they also have an online platform. Other reputable international auction houses include Sothebys, Bonhams, Christies, and Poly Auction.

Working Together

Galleries and auction houses are both great places to purchase art, discuss art, artists, and art world events and, most importantly, learn about the art. It is a good idea to utilize both galleries and auction houses when building an art collection. We at Artlink Canada sell artworks from established artists that have been sold on the auction market, as well as artworks from emerging artists who’s art we believe will one day become historic and valuable enough to be re-sold on the auction market. We value both galleries and auction houses as they present diversity in the art market for our art collectors.