The dilemma of the ‘steal’ at art auctions

Rose-Colored Glasses.” Courtesy photo from Barrick Museum.

The applause portion of the Barrick Museum auction was still underway. Some of us were lined by the payment table, credit cards in hand, when a young reporter for the college newspaper was soliciting information on the benefits of benefit auctions, particularly this one.

She asked if it was true that auctions are great for buying good art inexpensively. Being the backwoods country bumpkin that I am, I blurted “Hell, yeah. I just got a Wendy Kveck for $180!” not knowing at the moment that the artist was standing right behind me.

No shame at the Neanderthalic tone in my response to put aside. I was, however, feeling that twinge of guilt over the meat of benefit auction deals, primarily the silent auctions: The good deal. The great deal. The greatest deal ever. The steal.

Should I feel bad knowing an artist labored over this only to have someone pay the value of the frame?

As a big fan of Kveck’s works, particularly her more figurative paintings that I’ve spotted at a couple of recent fundraisers, I was outta my mind with joy that I was taking this home with me, but feeling my face flush every time this sentence repeated in my head: I practically stole this.

I knew I had been lucky. Had more people known about the auction or been able to attend, I would likely have been outbid several times for the painterly work, titled “Rose-Colored Glasses.” After all, its $600 value seemed low in the first place. But that’s how things go at these benefit auctions. Most everyone knows that it’s an affordable way to buy art. They may not have $1,000 (or even $500) to shill out for a painting or sculpture, especially in these times, but they know that an auction might provide an opportunity for a 50 percent or more discount. In other words, stealing.

Some people are insanely fortunate. A friend of mine purchased a Mary Warner painting for about $250 at a benefit auction. Warner, who teaches at UNLV, is a sought-after artist whose works usually sell quickly. For whatever reason, the piece that my friend bought hadn’t sold at an exhibit where, she says, it was priced at around $2,000. My friend happened to be at the right place at the right time. It’s a great painting and others were dropping their jaws when told of the deal, standing at a cocktail party in her living room.

So what do the artists think? I asked a few different people and got this similar response:

“Artists know they’re doing this for a cause and they know people come to them to get good deals,” says artist Jen Kleven, who was busy watching her bid on a painting at the UNLV BFA MFA Students auction the following night at MCQ Fine Art. “Also, artists want their work to go to somebody’s home or collection.”

Another artist friend said that sometimes artists donate a piece that isn’t their personal favorite or one that didn’t sell in an exhibit. At the auction at MCQ, some of the artists made the works specifically for the benefit – Erin Stellmon, Danielle Kelly and David Sanchez Burr, to name a few – and so they knew at the get-go what they were in for.

There’s also a publicity factor. Jerry Misko is a well-known Las Vegas artist who donates his work to several auctions a year. He’s a one-man PR machine, but certainly his name hitting the walls at various and diverse events likely gives the artist even more exposure. And the auction at MCQ had the names “Erin Stellmon” and “Jessica Starky” on many a bidder’s lips as folks lined up to outbid one another on their pieces and talked about wanting to see more work by them and other artists.

Misko says that he can't think of any other profession that gets hit up more for charity auctions than artists and that artists tend to donate because they are tied pretty closely with the communities in which they live and work.

He says that donating art is often more feasible than donating cash: “I don't often say no when approached. But I've learned over the course of time to be very selective in my donation of large high dollar work, choosing charities and events I deeply care about and know will generate a buying crowd equal to the worth of the work. Donating a $5,000 piece and have it sell at auction for a few hundred bucks makes no sense for me, or the charity. That being said if a piece sells at auction for 50 percent or more of what would be considered a retail value, that's what I would get from a gallery sale with the gallery's commission factored in so that's one way to look at it.”

Mostly, he says, “I donate framed edition prints and have found that with these, the value of the piece is usually met, and often exceeds, the value.”

But what of care for high value original works when they go for little to nothing at benefit auctions? When you collect art, you become a steward of the work and are obligated to care for it. Does getting a good deal mean that the winning bidder might care less for the work?

In my case, no. Most of my small collection hangs in a darkened hallway. The Kveck hangs on an an east-facing wall that is in no danger of heat or direct sunlight, and I've already studied every texture, stroke and color configuration so chances are, I’ll likely know if it’s being harmed in anyway. The Thomas Holder screen print that I bought that night is safely awaiting a frame. I’ve also been to many a collector’s home where they boast of their silent auction steals and the care of the works is of the utmost. Besides, silent auctions where art isn’t a sidebar to the bounty up for bid tend to draw collectors – hoarders, even—who also pay full price at galleries.

Additionally both auctions were held in support of art: The Barrick auction, titled We Will Survive, raised funds for the museum that lost its state funding due to budget cuts. Proceeds from the UNLV BFA and MFA Students auction sends students to museums and galleries around the country, which is partly why more than 100 aggressive bidders turned out for it and were willingly held captive until the closing bid at 8:30 p.m., swilled beer and wine, eyeing the bid sheets and their competitors. It’s unlikely that anyone who bid at either of these auctions went home afterward and chucked the works aside. After all, they know they got lucky.

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Kristen Peterson

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