The Complete Glossary of Auction Terms You Should Know

For those who are unfamiliar with the world of auctions, navigating the process for both online and in-person sales can be tricky to master without knowledge of the accompanying lingo. If you’re looking for a place to start learning or simply need a quick vocabulary recap, we’ve created an Invaluable auction house glossary to have on hand as you carry out your quest to bid and win.

Absentee Bid: A bid that has been placed by someone, or some party, who is unable or does not wish to attend an auction. An absentee bid may be placed by submitting a form in person or online, which usually grants an auction staff member or the auctioneer to bid on their behalf, no higher than the top amount of the absentee bid. These are also called “commission,” “order,” “written,” or “proxy” bids.

After Sale Offers: Bids placed after an auction has closed on items that did not sell.

Appraisal: A formal evaluation of an item’s fair market and/or insurance value, typically completed by an appraiser. Appraisals are conducted primarily by, but not limited to, comparing the item with recent sale prices for similar objects and analyzing the item’s condition. While appraisals are not fixed, they represent the appraiser’s best judgment.

Artist Resale Right: A royalty entitled to the original artist or the artist’s estate for a work sold. Royalties are determined by a sliding scale based on percentages of the sale price. Many countries have local laws to enforce resale rights. Rates, eligibility, and the person liable for paying the royalty vary from country to country. In France, “Droit de Suite” is a royalty that is paid to the original artist or the artist’s entitled heirs each time a work is sold in the secondary market during the artist’s lifetime and up to a period of 70 years following the artist’s death.

As Is: Refers to a work that’s being offered for sale as it exists in its present condition. Prospective buyers are responsible for examining and judging property and it is important to do so prior to placing a bid.

Auction: The sale of property that takes place in a public forum, involving open and competitive bidding.

Auction Block: The raised platform or podium where the auctioneer stands when conducting an auction. The phrase “placing an item on the auction block” is another way referencing the sale of something at auction.

Auctioneer: The person responsible for conducting a sale by auction.

Bid: The signal to the auctioneer by a prospective buyer, indicating the specific amount he/she is willing to pay for the lot if he/she wins the bidding. Most bids are legally binding and require pre-registration.

Bid Increment: The interval pace by which an auctioneer increases the bidding price. The auctioneer decides the price of the first bid, which generally starts below the low estimate, and will incrementally increase each bid after by up to 10%.

Block Bidder: The action of preventing a specific bidder from participating in single or future auctions, often by the seller’s request.

Bought-In: Appears when no bids are placed on a particular lot, or if bids do not reach the reserve price. As a result, the lot remains unsold and in the property of the owner, a third party guarantor or the auction house itself.

Buyer’s Premium: The amount added to the hammer price to determine the total purchase price. Typically, results posted online following an auction only reflect the total price realized for each lot (Hammer + Buyer’s Premium).

Buy-In Rate: The percentage of the total lots that were offered in a sale, but failed to sell.

Catalogue Raisonné: A comprehensive, annotated catalogue of all known works created by an artist. Catalogue Raisonnés may focus on a particular medium or all media and are organized in a way that makes them accessible to third parties.

Catalogue Raisonné Number: The specific number assigned to a work in order to record it within the artist’s Catalogue Raisonné.

Cataloguing: The factual information about a lot, which typically includes the artist’s name, title of the work, medium of the work, dimensions, execution year, whether the work has any markings, is unique or part of an edition, its provenance, literature and exhibition history.

Certificate of Authenticity (COA): An additional document created by an artist or artist’s estate to be sold with their works. It typically includes the artist’s information and/or signature and identifies the materials, processes and techniques used to create an object.

Chandelier Bid: A fake bid logged by an auctioneer as a way of encouraging unenthused bidders. The auctioneer pretends to see a bidder and announcing a bid, looking off into the distance and may even point to an indistinct spot. This practice is also known as a “rafter bid,” and though it is not illegal, it is generally frowned upon in the industry.

Collusion: The illegal practice among two or more buyers who collectively agree not to bid against each other so that they can win works at extremely low prices. This unethical practice, which allows a small group of individuals to dominate a certain market, is often difficult to prevent. Collusion can also take place when an auctioneer accepts fake bids on behalf of the seller, who is motivated to inflate the price of their property.

Commission: An amount paid by the consignor to an auction house or gallery, which is deducted from the price of a work sold. Auction houses usually deduct commissions from the hammer price.

Condition Report: A detailed description that notes any damage, restoration and/or unusual characteristics of a particular item and where those areas are located. Condition reports are important standardized guides of information, which closely examine the item and aim at eliminating any oversights on behalf of the seller.

Conditions of Sale: The legal written agreement between the consignor and an auction house or gallery that describes the terms under which a property will be sold, including acceptable methods of payment, buyer’s premiums, reserves and other regulations. Prospective buyers should carefully read and understand these conditions before bidding.

Conservation: A science-based discipline and technique that aims at preserving a work of art by repairing damage or deterioration. Contemporary conservation methods are premised on the notion that every change must be reversible.

Consignor: The owner of property who transfers the rights to an auction house or gallery to act as an agent to sell the work on his/her behalf.

Cover Lot: The work displayed on the cover of the sale catalogue and is usually the work that the auction house expects will create the most excitement and buzz.

Curator: A term, originally meaning “keeper,” which describes a person who takes on the responsibility of selecting and often interpreting works of art. For an exhibition, the curator may also assist in writing content, such as catalogue essays and press releases.

Day Sale: An auction that typically takes place during the day, following the Evening Sales. Day auctions tend to offer works at lower price points and sometimes consist of two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Designation or Property Title: A line in the catalogue entry that identifies a consignor. The designation can appear as the name of the current owner or as a description, such as “Property from an Important American Collection.”

Estate Sale: The sale of property that has been left by an individual after his/her death.

Estimate: The price range (from low to high) given to a lot by auction house experts, which reflects what the lot might sell for at auction. Estimates are based on various factors, such as the condition, provenance, literature and exhibition history of a particular item. Estimates are important guides for prospective buyers and are typically used to establish a lot’s reserve price.

Evening Sale: A night auction, which typically offers the most coveted lots at higher price points. Evening Sales are generally characterized by a high drama atmosphere and formal attire.

Exhibition History: Included in the cataloguing of an item and lists museum and/or gallery exhibitions in which a lot (or work from the same edition) has been included. Exhibition history is an important factor that can influence the value of an object.

Expert: A general term used to refer to professionals that have extensive or authoritative knowledge and/or skills in a particular field.

Fair Market Value: The price based on an appraiser’s opinion about what an object might sell for if offered by a willing seller to a willing buyer. Auctions are recognized as a measure of Fair Market Value since the sale operates in a competitive market and are open to all bidders.

Fair Warning: A warning given by an auctioneer to signal that he/she is about to bring down the hammer, closing all bids on a lot. The fair warning is important as it offers one final opportunity to increase the bidding before the sale is completed.

Gavel: Another name for the auctioneer’s hammer, which is used to close bidding.

Guarantee: A term that refers to cases in which an auction house has guaranteed to pay a specific amount to a consignor for a lot, regardless of the outcome at auction. Guarantees provide consignors with some measure of certainty and are negotiated individually between the consignor and auction house. You can identify whether a lot is guaranteed by a specific symbol, usually marked next to the estimates in the cataloguing (a key for this and other symbols are generally listed in the front or back of the catalogue as well as online).

Hammer Price: The winning bid for a lot and reflects the highest amount acknowledged by the auctioneer before his/her hammer comes down. Hammer prices do not include the buyer’s premium.

Insurance Value: The cost to replace an item, which depends on the current worth of the item.

Knocked Down: A term that is sometimes used by auction houses to describe when the hammer came down and ended the bidding. For example, “The lot knocked down just below the high estimate.”

Lot: The term used to describe an individual item or group of items that are being offered at auction for sale as a single unit.

Lot Number: The specific number assigned to a lot in an auction. Auctions, and their corresponding catalogues, typically proceed in numerical sequence by lot number.

Lot Symbols: Small emblems included in a lot’s cataloguing, which may indicate whether the auction house has a direct financial interest in a particular lot, if a lot is owned in part or in full by the auction house, whether a lot is guaranteed either by the auction house and/or a third party, among other notes. A key for lot symbols can generally be found in the back or front of the sale catalogue as well as online.

Markings: Any kind of annotation created by the artist on an object, including signatures, dates, titles, which may appear on the surface, front (verso) or back (recto) of a work of art.

Medium: A general term used to describe the material used to create an object, such as oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel, bronze, steel, etc.

No Reserve: When there is no reserve on a lot, it will be sold to the highest bid with no limitations on the amount reached. An auction that has no reserves on any lots being offered for sale is commonly called an “Absolute Auction.”

Oeuvre: A term that describes an artist’s “body of work” and is commonly used by many art professionals.

Opening Bid: The first bid placed by a registered bidder at an auction.

Opening Night or Opening Reception: The preview of an exhibition that is either open to the public or an invitation-only event.

Paddle: An object that displays the number assigned to registered bidders at an auction. You can place a bid by raising the paddle and waiting for the auctioneer to accept (usually by some kind of gesture or verbal acknowledgement). When a bid wins the auction, the paddle number is recorded alongside the hammer price. It is important to keep your paddle as it is sometimes needed to complete the purchase.

Pass: A common term used by the auctioneer to close the sale of an item and indicate that a lot has failed to reach its reserve price.

Presale Exhibitions and Views: Opportunities for prospective buyers and interested public to view works being offered in an upcoming auction. During these times, specialists are usually available to answer questions and inquiries. Exhibitions are free and generally take place the week before the auction. Location, dates and times are usually announced online and in promotional materials, though you can always call to check.

Price Fixing: A violation of the federal antitrust law and occurs when two or more auction houses conspire to eliminate competition by setting rates.

Primary Market: A market created when an object is sold for the first time. The first sale typically happens directly from the artist’s studio or through an agent or gallery.

Protecting a Market: When a dealer places a bid on a lot, which is by an artist that he/she represents or that he/she has financial interest in order to keep the bidding above a certain price. This is common practice of many dealers since auction results can impact the artist’s overall market.

Provenance: Refers to the record or records of previous ownership of an object, which serve as proof of its authenticity. Provenance is especially significant to secondary market works and can greatly impact the value of an object.

Reserve or Reserve Price: A confidential minimum price that the consignor is willing to accept and is an amount agreed upon between the consignor and the auction house. Reserves are typically set at or below the low estimate of a lot. If bidding does not reach the reserve, the property will not be sold.

Sale Catalogue: The polished print brochure that an auction house sends to collectors and prospective buyers, which lists lots being offered in numerical order, along with detailed information about each lot as well as the terms of the sale, contributors, etc.

Sale Number: A unique number assigned to every auction to distinguish the sale from past and upcoming auctions. The sale number generally appears in every catalogue, both online and print.

Secondary Market: A market that deals in objects that have been previously sold, at least once. Auction houses and some fairs focus primarily on secondary market works.

Seller: A person who has legal ownership of an object, including any interests, benefits or rights to the property.

Sell-Through Rate: An assessment of an auction’s performance after bidding has closed, which calculates the rate by lot (lots that sold/total lots offered) and by value (total value achieved/overall estimated value of sale). Rates above 80% are considered to be successful and vice versa.

Specialist: Generally refers to a person who is an expert in a specific subject and/or field of collecting.

Starting Price: The lowest price a seller will accept for the sale of his/her item (unless a Reserve Price exists). Auction bidding generally starts at this price.

Telephone Bid: A bid placed over the phone with an auction house staff member who is present at the auction and can bid on the buyer’s behalf. Many buyers prefer this method for its convenience and anonymity.

Third-Party Guarantee: A guarantee that is provided by a third party and potentially benefits the third party if such a lot is successfully sold. However, it can incur a loss if the sale is unsuccessful.

Tie Bid: Occurs when two or more individuals bid on a lot for exactly the same amount at the same time. The resolution is often up to the auctioneer’s discretion or outlined in the auction’s Terms & Conditions.

Total Price: Not an official term, but represents the actual amount payable for a winning bid, which includes the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium and, in some cases, any state, local sales or value added taxes and resale rights.

Under Bidder: A term sometimes used to describe someone who bid the second highest amount, just below the winning bid, at auction.

Valuation: A description prepared by an auction house or gallery, detailing the current value of an item. Valuations differ from auction estimates and are used for many purposes, such as collateral loans, estate taxes, planning and insurance.

Withdrawn Lot: A lot that has been removed from a sale prior to an auction. The auctioneer will announce Withdrawn Lots before the sale begins.

White Glove Sale: An auction in which each lot is sold, creating a 100 percent sell-through rate.